3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About the Moai of Easter Island

We’re commemorating Father’s Day with an exploration of moai, the mighty megalithic sculptures of Easter Island that represent high-ranking ancestors. The tradition of carving moai flourished between 900 and 1500 CE and their seemingly impossible production mystified the first Dutch explorers to reach the island in 1722. Modern experiments have cleared up some of the mystery of their mounting, but suggest that their construction ultimately took an unsustainable toll on the environment. Keep reading to find out how. 1. The Nitty-Gritty: Nearly 900 moai have been catalogued on the island, in erected, toppled, and incomplete states. The average erected moai stood 13 feet tall and weighed around 10 tons, although one particularly gargantuan one in the quarry measured 70 feet tall and 270 tons. Carved of soft volcanic tufa, the moai had inlaid white coral eyes and stood on platforms called ahu. Ahu grew out of an existing architectural tradition of Eastern Polynesia, where platforms supported temples.

2. Colossal Competition: The moai represented the forebears of the island’s chieftains, and were thought to contain their mana, or divine spiritual power. They marked the burial grounds of each chief’s clan, reflecting the island’s social division into a number of competitive groups. This competition becomes apparent in some of the later moai, which were topped with a feature called a pukao. Weighing up to 12 tons and made of red scoria, the crown-like cylinder demonstrates a desire to outdo other islanders by marking the moai as even more impressive.

3. Precarious Production: The most convincing theory for moving the moai from the quarry to the ahu involves the use of “canoe ladders,” parallel wooden rails joined by fixed wooden crosspieces over which the moai would be dragged. 40 people could move an average-sized statue, but 300-400 additional adults would be needed to provide food, cordage, and supplies. Given that the entire population of Easter Island was estimated to be around 9,000, these operations were an enormous strain. By 1600, all of the island’s timber had been felled to roll the monuments into place and to make the ropes required to drag them. It has been suggested by scholars such as Jared Diamond that making moai was a key to the collapse of society on Easter Island.

Image Source and Further Reading:



Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. London: Penguin Books, 2005

Bell, Julian. Mirror of the World: A New History of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.

3 Cool Things You Might Not Known About Chichen Itza

This week’s post features the Mayan city of Chichen Itza and was inspired by a great exhibit currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico.” It’s on view through July 1st, so check it out if you get a chance! Chichen Itza, located about halfway between Mérida and Cancún, is one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula, and definitely worth a side-trip if you’re in the area. Here are three reasons why:

1. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichen Itza is a group of ruins densely clustered over 1.9 square miles that tells the story of nearly 1,000 years of Mayan history.  The first settlement occurred as early as 413 CE; the second and more important settlement took place between 967 and 987. Numerous surviving buildings, such as the Warriors’ Temple, El Caracol (“snail” in Spanish, an observatory so named for its circular structure), and “El Castillo,” the Temple of Kukulkan (the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl) are lauded for the beauty of their proportions and for the elegance of their sculpted decorations.

2. One of the buildings is the Great Ball Court, a 551 x 230 square foot arena that is the most intact of the surviving venues for the famous Mesoamerican sport. Archaeologists and historians are still unsure of the rules of the game, but think that it was similar to racquetball. The stone ball court goals, extant at Chichen Itza, were a late addition to the game. Also late to be associated with the game was human sacrifice, which was nevertheless present at Chichen Itza and depicted in decorative stone panels. It is thought that captives were sacrificed after losing a rigged game, but also possible that the captains of losing teams too were ritually killed.

3. The second phase of Chichen Itza corresponds to the migration of the Toltec people from the Mexican plateau and the integration of their aesthetic styles and technologies into the buildings of the site. After the Toltec took Chichen Itza at the end of the 10th century, their influences became detectable in the site’s architecture.  For example, buildings from this phase, such as El Castillo and El Caracol, display the old Mayan stone-working methods combined with Toltec decorative theme such as battle scenes and plumed serpents (a representation of Quetzalcoatl/ Kukulkan).

To learn more:




Image Sources:




"Inception" Edition - 3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Nijo Castle Wall Paintings

Nijo Hall_Pines

(Image source unknown / Corresponding newsletter)

Samurai warriors meet Leonardi di Caprio in imagery that displays opulence and asserts efforts to retain unstable power.

1. VIP room: To make a long story short, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu dubiously usurped power (and eventually gave rise to a shogunal government lasting 2 centuries). Unsurprisingly, he had a pretty Draconian and paranoid way of ruling. The architecture and imagery of Nijo Castle reinforces his social control. His main audience hall (Great Hall) has different levels - he's raised up on a higher platform to show his higher status. Everyone else is on a lower platform, with people in his inner circle closest to him and betrayers relegated to the back. (Note: That isn't exactly Tokugawa in the image above, he lived from 1543 to 1616.)

2. Staying power: The shimmering gold walls and intricate lacquered ceiling shows Tokugawa's wealth. The pines show longevity - this is a clear message to any haters that Tokugawa's regime was here to stay.

3. Inception: The walls of Saito's quarters at the beginning scenes of the movie Inception bear a striking resemblance to these paintings (see for yourself below!). If you've seen the movie, I'll let you read into this : )


All images, videos, and articles are linked to their respective sources. Elements of this post were also drawn from the following:

3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal Sunset You gentlemen thought a Tiffany's necklace was enough for your lady. Upon the death of his favorite wife, Emperor Shah Jahan mobilized 20,000 workers to create a mausoleum for her that, centuries later, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Taj Mahal Double Dome1. Double dome: The dome is actually made of outer and inner domes. The outer one is really big to impress onlookers of the exterior. The inner dome has a smaller volume so that the onlookers of the interior don't get overwhelmed by all that space. St. Paul's Cathedral in London has a similar setup.  Closer look: Significant gap between the volume of the inner dome and that of the outer dome
Taj Mahal By Day2. Subtleties: The Taj Mahal is made from high-quality white Makrana marble, named for the region in India where it is mined.  Apparently, the color changes throughout the day - transitioning from a hazy white in the morning, very bright white during the day, glowing at sunset, and pearl-like at night. Closer look: The Taj Mahal on the left (taken during the day) has a different look than in the main photo above (taken at sunset).
Slumdog Millionaire3. Who wants to be a millionaire? In the Oscar-winning hit Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal and Salim act as "tour guides" at the Taj Mahal. According to IMDB, there's a goof in the movie there - it was supposed to be 2002 and but Jamal is holding a $10 bill from 2006. (Also, pet peeves aside about Disney's cultural sensitivity, and how the movie Aladdin is an amalgamation of very different cultures, the Sultan's palace bears a striking resemblance to the Taj Mahal.)

All images, videos, and articles are linked to their respective sources. Elements of this post were also drawn from the following:

3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Cambodia

(Full-size imageAerial view of complex / Corresponding newsletter)

This majestic temple complex is the commonly considered the world's largest religious monument. Angkor Wat is modeled after the Hindu conceptual framework of the universe, from its overall layout to the imagery of the many intricate carvings.

Flag of Cambodia1. Mountains beyond mountains: The 5 big towers represent Mount Meru, which in Hindu tradition is the home of the gods. Their distinct shapes appear on the Cambodian flag. Closer look: There are only 3 towers on the flag - the towers are laid out like the 5 dots on the die (formally known as a quincunx) and from the front, the back 2 towers are hidden. The big photo is taken from off-center, so you can see all 5 towers.

Angkor Wat Close Up

2. Reverse, reverse: From big factors like the physical layout to the small details of the carvings, so many aspects of Angkor Wat have significance (similar to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). For example, unlike other similar temples which face east, Angkor Wat faces west, towards the sunset. The incredible carvings, rich with imagery, tell a story. However, the Angkor Wat is unusual is that the narrative progresses counterclockwise instead of clockwise. These factors suggest to scholars that Angkor Wat is a funerary temple.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider Logo3. Action: Part of Lara Croft's (Angelina Jolie) adventure leads to Angkor Wat, which was among the filming locations for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. See for yourself, check out a video clip. Artist Binh Danh (Stanford MFA, '04) uses innovative photographic methods (such as printing photos onto the chlorophyll of leaves) to explore Angkor Wat and Cambodia's political past.

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Note: Ever wonder how art could be useful to you? Check out a new article "10 Things Art Can Do For You."

All images, videos, and articles are linked to their respective sources. Elements of this post were also drawn from the following:

3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

(Full-size image found here. Corresponding newsletter found here.)

The Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya, means "Holy Wisdom." Unlike many other houses of worship, the Hagia Sophia is associated with more than one religion. The construction of its massive dome was a major architectural feat. The Hagia Sophia's majestic form facilitates a multisensory, "out-of-this world" experience.

  1. Switch: Usually one house of worship is associated with just one religion. Not so with the Hagia Sophia. The current structure started out as an Eastern Orthodox church built by Emperor Justinian and then the Ottoman Turks switched it to a mosque. The Hagia Sophia is now a museum. Closer look: Mosaics with Christian imagery side by side with Islamic calligraphic medallions. (see below)
  2. Revolutionary: Domes are really heavy - imagine suspending tons of stone about 100 feet above you. Using geometry, the architects figured out a way to get around this, thus revolutionizing architecture forever. As a bonus, they figured out how to hide the pillars that support the huge weight, so it looks as if the dome is floating in the air. Closer look: The main structure is an enormous cube with a dome sitting on top, with pendentives joining the angles of the square to the curves of the circle. (see below)
  3. Medieval IMAX: The Hagia Sophia's form fits its function as a house of worship. It facilitates a multisensory experience, engaging the faithful's senses of sight, sound, and smell to better interact with the divine, to experience something that's "there" but not. The series of domes caused sound and music/chants to reverberate and linger. Throughout the day, the sun would illuminate certain parts and hide others. Combined with the scent of incense, this made for a totally out-of-this-world experience, the medieval equivalent of IMAX. Closer look: Light strikes the walls and floor at an angle that changes throughout the day. (see below)

Hagia Sophia

3 ways you can experience the Hagia Sophia:

  1. Next time you're at a concert or symphony: Pay extra attention to the acoustics, the shape of the concert venue, the people around you, visual aids (big plasma screens vs. seeing the orchestra), and how these all come together to create a unique experience.
  2. In the Mediterranean and Middle East: The Hagia Sophia's elaborate mosaics and domes share a design that is prevalent throughout those regions. The Basilica of San Vitale in Italy and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem have strikingly similar mosaics and architectural features, especially the mosaics of plants and flowers.
  3. Stanford's Echo Circle: If you're ever on Stanford campus, right outside of Memorial Church is a circular stone bench. On the ground is an inscription/quote  and in the middle is a small circle that kind of looks like a sewer. If you stand on top of that little sewer and start talking, you'll hear yourself echo, as if you're in the middle of a big amphitheater.

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All images, videos, and articles are linked to their respective sources. Elements of this post were also drawn from the following:

  • Book: Janson's History of Art
  • Class: Stanford's Art History 1 and seminar "Animation, Performance, and Presence in Medieval Art"