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Maya Architecture

See Dr. Richard Hansen's Lecture in UFM, Preclassic Architecture, Mirador Basin, Guatemala on Feb 5 2007

Mirador 300 BC, NGS artistic representation
El Mirador Core area

There has been considerable discussion devoted to the question of the alignment of Mesoamerican sites. In general the focus has been upon the relationship of architectural features to celestial phenomena which were important for calendrical reasons, probably related to agriculture.

The Maya Architecture, as well as their Art, has been called the richest of the New World because of the great complexity of patterns and variety of media expressions. Limestone structures, faced with lime stucco, were the hallmark of ancient Maya architecture. Maya buildings were adorned with carved friezes and roof combs in stone and stucco. With large quantities of limestone and flint available, plaster and cement were easily produced. This allowed the Mayans to build impressive temples, with stepped pyramids. On the summits were thatched- roof temples, known as "Triadic Groups". During the Classic, the Pyramid contained one or two rooms with The Maya Arch and intricate Roof combs, specially in Tikal and Nakúm. They always build their cities and temples using Astronomy mostly on an East to West alignment, but there are some Early to Middle Pre Classic examples of a Pleiades alignment in the Pacific Lowlands at sites such as:  Ujuxte, Monte Alto and Tak'alik Abaj.  The Vault and Arch was used also in Tombs, such as those in Guaytán, in the eastern Highlands and Tikal or Río Azul in the Petén Lowlands Polol's Preclassic Altar 1, and the absence of similar Cycle 7 monuments in sites nearby, has generated speculation in regard to the possibility of cyclical ritual destruction of monuments in the Maya area. Whether the monument mutilation and destruction was a cyclical ritual or not, other early Petén monuments in the have been found buried in the rubble of structures at Tikal, Uaxactún and El Mirador. What sets Altar 1 apart is that it was reset with a Late Classic dedicatory cache in the context of Late Classic monuments and structures.

All the Maya cities were carefully planned in an East to West orientation and with the major Temples forming a perfect isocceles triangle, as has been documented in the Preclassic Mirador Basin as well as the  Classic cities like Tikal, Yaxhá, Nakum, etc. The Olmecs by the way oriented their cities North to South.

 The Classic pyramids at Tikal, in Guatemala are turned to face one another, and the rooms which are built at the top of the pyramid have depressions in the stone walls that serve as amplifiers of the voice which are broadcast in all directions. At the top of the pyramid the Ahaw acquired god-like qualities. The design of the Mayan architects is expressed in its fullness. Due to the stone resonators, the voice of a person at the top of one pyramid, speaking at a normal volume, can be heard by another person standing at the top of another pyramid some astonishing distance away. The finishing touches of Stucco gave the surface its full potential in the effect of reflecting and transmitting the sound waves.

Structure 34 Jaguar paw, stucco decorations, El Mirador
 An essential material was the Stucco
(Luk' or Sas), that was prepared with an organic adhesive extracted from the cortex of a local tree named Holol, mixed with burned limestone, and Sascab, a natural occurring mineral that does not need to be burned, for mural paintings, this mixture was the inner layer and  the outer layer had  a finer cooked Limestone mix with Barita, also a natural mineral that is finer that the sascab.  This mixture provided a long durability to the decorations and paintings, as has been found in San Bartolo, an important finding, that support the recent discoveries in the Mirador Basin, that the Pre Classic Maya had fully developed the Maya Culture, a millennium earlier than previously thought. Previously, this technique was thought to be developed in the Classic. The abundant use of this Stucco has been linked with the Maya Collapse, both during the Pre Classic and Classic, because you will need some 20 big trees in order to cook the limestone to obtain 1 square meter of stucco, furthermore, there is evidence that the stucco layer become thinner in the Late Pre Classic and Late Classic.  Uaxactún was the first site excavated in the Southern Maya Lowlands. Work there was instrumental in revealing the richness of Maya sites and establishing the basic chronological framework for the region. The Carnegie Institution of Washington  project of mapping and excavation at Uaxactún from 1926 to 1937 revealedUaxactún , Temple of the Masks, E-VII that the central part of the site consists of a series of discrete groups of monumental and elite residential architecture (“palaces”) built on hills that were shaped and in some cases increased in height to accommodate the buildings. They identified eight such groups, designated A–H, and in the process defined the standard form of a Maya political center. The abundance of “house mounds,” believed to represent the remains of non elite residences, This work produced the first evidence of Pre-Classic period occupation in the lowlands, the most famous of which is the platform known as Str. E-VII-Sub. A pyramid with a staircase on each of its four sides and decorated with large stucco masks, it supported a perishable building of ceremonial function. Str. E-VII-Sub is the first reported example of what is now recognized to be a well-established type of Late Pre-Classic monumental architecture: The Astronomic alignment is known as "Group E" and is a manner to classify the importance of any Maya Site, The Uaxactún materials also yield evidence of household-level involvement in craft production. Workshops of Ornaments or other objects made from Jade, (Cancuén, Guaytán) Obsidian (Kaminal Juyú, Cotzumalguapa, Holmul) and shells occur frequently since the Pre-Classic period in middens, burials, and cache deposits, also quarries of limestone as seen in Nakbé too.


Temple I Tikal

 The most famous Classic Maya building is:  Temple I or "Temple of the Great Jaguar" in Tikal. (This was built to contain the tomb of one of Tikal's best known rulers, "Hasaw Chan Kawil", who ruled from AD 682-734.  Although it is not the largest in Tikal, being the largest the Temple IV, or "Temple of the Two Headed Serpent" the tomb of his son and successor Yaxk'in Ca'an Chac, and by far, those from the El Mirador: La Danta and El Tigre, (surprisingly these are from the Pre Classic, some 1000 years earlier. In Fact The typically Pre Classic "Triadic Pyramid" of La Danta, (Several Platforms, with the highest, crowned with two small temples facing each other and the tallest in the

The size of the second largest Pyramid in El Mirador, El Tigre, can be figured by putting it on top of Tikal's Central plaza. Its Base will engulf Temple I, II, and the North Acrópolis.

 center), is the largest in the world.  In contrast to Egyptian pyramids, to which they are often erroneously compared, Maya `step pyramids` served numerous functions besides mortuary ones, and were constructed not from large, solid stone blocks but from smaller, cut stone blocks on top of a rubble-fill core. Also, new temples would often be built on top of older ones, encasing the older architecture within.

      La Danta Complex
La Danta triadic Complex in El Mirador, the largest in the world. Drawing by Rutledge.

Without metal tools, (They used Obsidian), beasts of burden, or even the wheel the Mayans were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety.
They were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces, plazas  and  observatories known as "Group E" after the Uaxactún complex.

The largest Palace in the Maya world is located in Cancuén, with more than 200 rooms, one of the oldest is the Tigrillo Group in San Bartolo dated at 600 BC, also notable is the "Acanaladuras Palace" or "Group G" in Tikal.

Evidence show that the early Maya architects were using the corbel vault principle, which is an arch like structure with sides that extend inward until they meet at the top. (The Maya Arch). 

   Another matchless feature of the Mayans was the use of
colorful murals. It is also noted that most of the Maya cities were built by being divided into quarters by two avenues which cross-cut each other at right angles. Roofs were flat and made with cedar beams overlaid with mortar. The walls were plastered and painted with great gods and other mythological features, such as the Pre-Classic San Bartolo murals.

Royal Tombs were often encased within or beneath Mayan structures and richly decorated. the most renown are those from Río Azul. the commoners buried their love ones beneath or in the back of theirs houses, with objects that represent their office. Frequently new temples were built over existing structures.

The Mayans also expressed themselves artistically. Their ceramics were made in a large variety of forms and decorated with complex scenes, as well as, delicate works of art from Jade, flint, Obsidian, bone and shell, along with making decorated cotton textiles. Even metal was used for ceremonial purposes. Items made with metal include necklaces, bracelets and headdresses. It is evident that all of the large Pyramids built by the ancient Mayans were  built with large open areas, from which all the citizens could view the religious ceremonies taking place on the platforms elevated above the city. 

 The Maya always had their
Mythology present while building temples, That is why the royal burials were placed under the temples in natural or man made caves (Ch'een)
, representing the underworld or Xibalbá, and the Pyramid represented the heavens, it is notably that in cities with nearby Hills (Witz),  resembling pyramids like in Cancuén (Karst towers), they don't built those, instead Cancuén has the largest Palace uncovered to date in the Americas.
Maya Witz
A honeycombed roof comb towered above many structures, providing a base for painted plaster that was the Maya equivalent of the billboard, The finest outside Tikal are those from
Nakúm. In addition to temples, most Maya sites had multi-roomed structures that probably served as royal palaces as well as centers for government affairs. The enormous weight of these crests forced the Maya to build them upon walls that were often thicker than the narrow inner spaces of the temples they defined, a structure known as a "corbelled vault".

Cancuén Palace


Historically significant events, such as accessions, the capture or sacrifice of royal victims were recorded on stone Stelas, (Lakam Tun) , wooden lintels (Pakab' ),
 and tablets or panels (Pakb'u Tun), such as those famous "Site Q", now known as
La Corona, and the Lintel 3 from Piedras Negras, truly Masterpieces of the Classic. 


The completion of the twenty year Katún cycle, were celebrated by building twin pyramid complex in the largest cities such as Tikal or Yaxhá. Another feature of the Maya are the Chultún a man made hole, with is walls covered with stucco, where they "hide" precious objects to them, an also to store food. (see Topoxté)

Plazas:  The Plaza (K'iwik), is present in every settlement of the Maya, most of the Stelas were placed there, maybe because  extensive gathering places were

Quiriguá, Central Plaza

a crucial concern in Maya city planning. The largest Stela is the Stela E in Quiriguá. The spaces were designed to accommodate a substantial part of the entire kingdom's population. Large-scale theatrical events gave physical reality to a community and helped to ground unstable community identities in tangible forms through the use of symbolic acts and objects, The centrality of rulers in communal events suggests that the identities of a Maya community revolved around the images of supreme political leaders.  Large gatherings also gave the elite an opportunity to impose their ideologies and cultural values on the rest of society through performances.

Mixco Viejo Ball Court

Ball Courts: (Pi'itz) Since the Preclassic this "I"  or double "T" shaped structures where present in any Major Maya Site, to play their Sacred Sport. The Truly Classic Maya ball courts had sloping walls, with flat markers in the playing area and observations areas.        

Piedras Negras  and  almost every other Maya cities in the Pre Classic, like Nakbé,  Classic, and Post Classic Periods in Guatemala, in addition to palaces, temples and ritual ball courts, archeologists have found there, eight stone buildings that served as sweat baths or “pib' nah”, for the Maya royalty, probably for sacred rituals as well as healing purposes

Piedras Negras Sweat bath, st P 7 after Tatiana Proskuriakoff.

This sweat baths have stone walls and ceilings and are located in prominent places in the city. While archeologists have found smaller sweat baths in Mesoamerica dating back to 1350 BC, Naranjo in the Highlands, the Maya sweat baths in Piedras Negras have special significance because of their locations and for the royal rituals thought to have taken place there. The royal sweat baths themselves are similar to those found in private homes. The interior rooms had low ceilings, a small doorway and a hearth for holding the heated stones.

Water was poured onto the hot stones to create steam. A small hole in the roof provided escape for the smoke and steam. An archeology team restored one of the royal baths to working condition and reported “temperatures reaching up to 200 degrees, leaving participants feeling, oddly, refreshed and clean. Some anthropologists believe that Maya rulers took the common practice of sweat bath and raised it to a higher significance by building the structures in prominent places near temples and the royal ball courts. They were undoubtedly seen going in and out of the sweat baths in a sort of “ritual politics.” Maya rulers performed ritual purification ceremonies to appease the gods and secure the well-being of their communities. There are several cities with this Royal sweat baths in Mesoamerica, notably those in El Baúl, Yaxhá, Tikal and Aguateca. Chultún in Nakbé

The Chultunob are subterranean vaults with stucco walls used to keep food and precious objects to their owners, examples of those are in every Maya City, since the Pre Classic. See Topoxté for a schematic representation.                                                                                         Chultún interior in Nakbé

The common Maya lived in perishable hay huts called Nah, , (Home, Building), typically in groups of four, facing each other and with an stucco patio in front, with tilted two sided roof, that had at least 2 rooms and the floors were  covered with thin stucco platforms that were round during the Pre Classic, and later become rectangular, they use the soil below those for familiar burials, the back side was used as dumpsters, and then reused as fertilizer. This dumpster are of great value to understand the every day life of the commoners.




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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:36 -0500
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