Maya architecture is renowned for being unique, dramatic, and easily recognizable. But beyond the dramatic presentation, Maya structures also have stories to tell. Architecture is a practical expression of a culture’s needs and view of life, so just a little bit of background can make your experience in the ruins much richer. Given that the Yucatán peninsula is essentially a big limestone shelf, it makes sense that Maya structures are primarily made from limestone, held together with lime mortar, and covered with lime plaster. The resulting structures are durable, but their construction absorbed a huge amount of energy — human, as well as chemical (in the form of trees burned to produce the lime).
Types of Maya structures
Let’s start with a quick rundown of the kinds of structures you’re going to see on your trip. Likely the most famous of Maya structures are their pyramids, which are stepped and generally have a rectangular footprint.
Calakmul, Structure I
Unlike Egyptian pyramids, which were made from large stone blocks, Maya pyramids were built from smaller facing blocks over a mortared rubble core (the Maya equivalent of concrete). Also unlike Egyptian pyramids, the Maya ones were almost always built with temples on their tops.
Temples are stone buildings of a religious purpose, with altars and carved or painted wall panels inside. Usually temples were built on pyramids, or occasionally on mounds.
Palenque’s Temple of the Count
Stelae are tall, slab-shaped monuments carved from a single piece of limestone. These are far more common at Classic era sites than at ones built later in Maya history, being most often the residue of kingly personality cults.
Stela at Ek’ Balam
Each Classic era stela was generally erected to commemorate a ruler, the carvings on it recording a capsule history of their important dates (birth, accession, death) and exploits while in power.
Palaces (more recently coming to be called range-type structures) are low-slung buildings, generally of one but occasionally two storeys. These buildings primarily seem to have been elite residences, with stone walls and roofs. Their low height stems from the limited strength of Maya corbelled vaults (but more on that later).
House platforms are an often-overlooked structure at Maya sites, thanks to their humble appearance. Yet these rectangular platforms, raised just a few inches above the general surface, are what’s left of the homes of the regular working population.
House platform in Tulúm
Their homes were built of perishable materials (wood frame with a thatched roof, and often mud-covered walls), and raised on these platforms to help drainage in the rainy season. At a number of sites, you’ll see modern recreations of these homes — they’re essentially the same as the structures that current farmers live in, the basic design has changed little in thousands of years.
Ball courts were built for a ritual ball game. Unfortunately, the conquistadors destroyed any written records of how the game was played, as well as any existing equipment used in the game. Since our knowledge of the game is based on verbal histories, there are mixed views on how it was actually played. In any event, the ball court takes the form of two long walls, with the ends of the court sometimes being enclosed to form the shape of an “I” as seen from above.
In the Classic era, ball courts were built with sloped walls, as at Cobá:
Cobá ball court
In the Terminal classic and Postclassic, the style had changed to vertical walls as at Chichén Itzá:
Chichén Itzá ball court
Sweat baths are eclectically shaped stone structures, in which water was poured on stones that had been heated in fires. Normally sweat baths have small spaces for the actual bathing, surrounded by or adjoining much larger spaces used for changing clothes. The baths are thought to have been used for rituals as well as cleaning, and are often (but not always) found near ball courts.
Chultúnes are underground cisterns, built by digging a large hole in the ground which is subsequently lined with plaster and roofed. The surface expression of a chultún is a circular plaster pad on the ground, generally with a cylindrical stone cap. Until the development of chultúnes, much of the northern Yucatan was unsuitable for large populations.
Chultún in Chicanná
Sacbéob are white causeways (sacbé coming from the Mayan for “white way”), generally built from limestone plaster with stone sidewalls. Note, though, that some preclassic sites have been found with sacbéob made from volcanic ash, as it was locally more available.
Sacbé in Cobá
Sacbéob were used to link related sites, and as a result have been used to decypher some of the political relationships of Maya history. At more far-flung sites (like Cobá, Tikal, and Chichén Itzá), sacbéob were used to link different parts of the city.
E-groups are clusters of structures used as solstice / equinox observatories. These consist of a single structure on the west (in most cases, a temple on a pyramid) paired with three structures to its east (generally temples on a single, long stepped structure), the eastern structures being arranged in a north / south line. From the top of the western structure, sunrise at the equinoxes would be seen over the central eastern structure. Meanwhile, sunrise at the solstices would be seen over the other two eastern structures. E-groups take their name from the first identified such structure, Group E in Uaxactún (groups of structures in newly discovered or newly surveyed sites tend to be named in order as Group A, Group B, etc.).
Throughout Maya sites, you’ll come across gateways and doorways that look somewhat like an arch, but which are structurally quite different — these are corbelled vaults. Builders of at least some Maya sites were familiar with a true arch (they were used here and there, largely in underground construction), yet corbelled vaults were used in the majority of cases, despite their drawbacks.
Kabah gateway — a Classic-style corbelled vault
From a designer’s point of view, a corbelled vault has severe limitations, due largely to it being structurally unstable, and its durability then being highly dependent on the quality of stone and mortar used in its construction. For a corbelled vault to be durable, it must be tall and narrow, which limits the width of rooms that can be built with it. As a result, Maya rooms are long, dark, and narrow. It is thought that corbelled vaults stayed popular in spite of their weaknesses because they somewhat mirror the look and feel of the interior of a traditional Maya hut.
Roof combs are an interesting feature of many Maya temples. Essentially the Maya version of billboards, what’s left of them these days is only the framework of what was once an ornate structure. In their heyday, the limestone backing you see today was covered with brightly painted stucco figures, portraying deities and political figures in a highly visible way. A few of these figures survived to be seen by the early explorers, but only tiny scraps of stucco and paint remain today.
El Mirador in Sayil — excellent example of temple with roof comb
Dimensions of Architectural style
Differences in architectural culture can be broadly described in two dimensions — time, and space. Looking at changes over time, architecture tracks the development of Maya culture. In the Classic (and possibly Preclassic) era, society was structured around the concept of divine kingship. Big pyramids were primarily built as royal tombs / temples to communicate with the dead leader(s) they were built to house. Urban design focused on public spaces (between buildings), not the space within buildings — so structures in this era tended to be monolithic, with little internal open volume.
In the Terminal Classic, kings were still important but no longer treated as divine. Lacking personality cults to drive architecture, huge structures became less common and seem to be more focused on religious or administrative needs. Few stelae were erected, at least in comparison to the Classic era. By the time of the Postclassic, architecture showed little dynastic focus, and it’s thought that political power was held in some distributed way. Structures became more mercantile, less monumental, and more temporary (somewhat like modern day commercial buildings).
In a spacial sense, architectural style displays regional cultural and political flavors, overlaid on the temporal changes. No simple explanation has yet been postulated that explains all of the visible similarities between various sites’ architectural styles, yet some general influences are well known. Architecture in Tikal, for instance, shows scattered evidence of Teotihuacan’s cultural and political influence. Palenque, courtesy of its location on the western fringes of the Maya world, has a more eclectic architectural style than many other sites. Buildings in Chichén Itzá and Mayapán dramatically show the impact of the 11th century Toltec invasion.
Cities in the southern lowlands (for instance, Calakmul, El Mirador, and Tikal) tend to be built in the Peten style of the Preclassic and Classic eras. Confounding this a bit, Teotihuacan’s influence can be seen in talud / tablero elements on the facade of Tikal’s Lost World Pyramid, as well as in other pyramids’ rounded corners.
Temple II, Tikal
The Río Bec and Chenes styles of the central lowlands are somewhat like a copy of Tikal’s style, but with elements that are just for show. Particularly typical are low-slung range-type buildings with tall towers on their ends. These towers (apparently built for show, and somewhat like cartoon versions of Tikal’s highest temples) feature non-functional stairs, fake temples with solid interiors on their summits, and non-functional doors on the tower sides. Another, more useful feature of the Río Bec and Chenes architecture is the use of open serpent mouth doors.
Becán Structure I — once a Río Bec style twin-tower building
While often discussed separately, Río Bec and Chenes styles are really just slightly different variants of a single style. At least, there are fewer differences between them (Río Bec sites have towers, Chenes sites don’t) than there are between them and other styles. These two brother-styles are seen in Chicanná, Xpujil, Hochob, and other nearby sites dating from the Mid-Classic era.
Puuc style architecture is primarily seen in the Puuc region of northern Yucatán peninsula, whose sites’ glory days date to the Terminal Classic period. Lower walls are generally plain, while the walls’ cornice is highly decorated. Often, walls’ decoration includes a strip of thin false columns. Decoration on these structures was built from mosaic pieces of limestone, rather than as large sculpture.
House of Turtles, Uxmal
One of the Puuc’s innovations in building techniques was the use of boot-shaped veneer for corbel vaults. This made the process of construction more efficient — by allowing the use of thinly cut veneer stones, the technique greatly reduced the amount of finished stone needed by a building. Note, though, that this approach to vaults is no more stable than the Classic-style corbelled vault, and relies on the strength of the concrete behind the veneer pieces to hold up the vault.
True arch, Classic-style corbelled vault, Puuc-style corbelled vault
One bit of architectural finery that you’ll find at Puuc sites is what appears to be a long-nosed face on the corners (and sometimes bodies) of building facades. Formerly felt to be masks of the rain god Chaac, these are now thought to be representations of “witz” or mountain deities. What looks like a long nose or elephant’s trunk is actually an extended upper lip on the 3-dimensional figure. These masks often appear in stacks on the corners of major Puuc buildings, and in some cases cover entire building facades.
Witz masks on Palace corner, Xlapak
The Quintana Roo Coast style of architecture is seen along the eastern coast of the Yucatán peninsula. Dating to the Postclassic era, this type of building has a strongly mercantile orientation, so the construction was practical — built fast and cheap. Large amounts of stucco was used to plaster over masonry of dramatically poorer quality than had been built before.
Northwest watchtower, Tulum
Quintana Roo Coast structures are also notable for having flat roofs made from timbers covered with plaster. This is a problematic approach to construction in a humid environment, since the timbers eventually rot out, resulting in a catastrophic collapse of the roof.
Unlike ruins in the Mexico valley, Maya sites have no rectangular grid of streets, and show no sign of site planning. Major buildings were erected on rises in the local geology, but individually tend to be oriented to the compass points (ball courts in particular are always oriented along a north / south axis).
Another type of geometry, though, shows up reliably in Maya sites — sacred geometries, based on concepts from the Maya religious worldview, are reflected in many structures and their arrangements. In a number of Maya origin myths, the first humans were cooked out of corn meal over a traditional three-stone hearth; accordingly, large pyramids are often topped by three temples surrounding a small hearth-like plaza.
Looking down through temples at the summit of Caracol’s Caana
The Maya worldview also approaches existence in three levels — the heavens (home of the gods), the Earth (home of humans), and Xibalba (the underworld). These levels often are reflected in significant architecture — for instance, at Uxmal’s Nunnery Quadrangle with four buildings on three levels, or in Caana’s temples in the above image (taken from the highest temple, always on the north).
The cardinal directions are also significant. East, where the Sun is “born” again every morning, is the direction of (re)birth in the Maya world view. West, where the Sun “dies” every night, is associated with death. North and South represent the heavens and Xibalba, respectively.
Looking south in Uxmal’s Nunnery Quadrangle
Maya Architecture (Richard Hansen, on “Authentic Maya”)