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From Chapter 1: Pyramid-Mountains and Plaza-Seas
Maya scholars have participated in a revolution. The past four decades have seen the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic writing system and the reading of the history of one of the great civilizations of the world. This decipherment has recovered the names of kings, their families, members of their courts, and artists, artisans, and builders who served them. Growing understanding of Maya imagery has combined with increasingly subtle decipherments of the glyphs to give us new insights into court life, religious ideas, and the politics of the time, as well as the economies and social mechanisms that allowed Maya civilization to flourish. Excavations conducted by archaeologists not only have tested the ''truth'' of these histories in the ground, but also have sought to understand better the lifeways of the ancient Maya people, from the most exalted to the lowliest members of society.
As epigraphers who have participated in this revolution, we find that our personal relationship to Maya cities has changed forever. We can't now walk among the buildings without thinking about who built them and why. We now consider them not just as objects of beauty, but also as political and religious statements aimed at an audience of nobles and commoners. Maya buildings were instruments of state that registered Maya identity, religion, and history.
How different it is to walk through a ruined city when it has become a historical place -- to ''read'' a building and to know who looks out from a sculpted portrait. The ruins cease to be anonymous places admired only for their beauty and mystery. Instead, they become the works of people who had names and motivations that we can understand, even from our distant points of view. And the buildings and images created by these once-living people become their voices, telling us something about the agendas that guided their decisions, the larger political framework that conditioned those agendas, and the understanding of the world that gave meaning to both.
We have shared our vision of Maya cities as historical places with people who have toured with us over the years and in public lectures. When we were thinking about what to do in this book, we realized that many more people who visit Maya places and who love Maya art and archaeology might be interested in seeing their architecture through the lens of history. We wanted to show people how to ''read'' Maya political and religious art and architecture.
In designing this book, we deliberately picked some of the most famous buildings in Maya archaeology, partially because, famous though they are, they remain virtually anonymous to the people who visit them. Three are in Mexico, three in Guatemala, and one in Honduras, and we selected seven different kinds of buildings to serve as archetypes. These seven are a palace and family shrine center, a pyramid-temple and tomb, a plaza with stelae (upright, carved monuments), a building designed to celebrate the end of an important Maya cycle of time, a court for playing ball, a conjuring house and war monument, and, finally, a conquest period capital from the Guatemala highlands. Although there are other types of Maya buildings, these seven constitute the elements that the ancient Maya considered necessary to charge a city with religious and political meaning. Most cities had all these types of buildings, although their styles varied widely from place to place.
We have used the nuances of these buildings to explore the way Maya architecture worked and how the Maya generated sacred space within their cities through the use of buildings and the symbolic information contained in them. We have designed the book to operate on multiple levels. On one level, it serves as a guided tour through the buildings. Much of the information necessary to understand the layout and basic contents of each building can be gleaned from the maps and illustrations alone. We have included a map of each building with its components designated by letters or numbers. We have used the same designations as headings in the descriptive sections of the text. Readers can follow our suggested path through the building or they can go to any part of it by finding the section that corresponds to the letter on the building plan.
The texts discuss each building in progressively greater detail, moving from the general to the specific, so that readers can choose the amount of information they wish to consume and skip over the more detailed discussions when they so desire. The notes provide the scholarly background to our interpretations and add more detailed information to our discussions. We have also included a glossary of gods and supernaturals at the end of the book to serve as a quick reference for those who are less familiar with the Maya world.
Maya Society in Time and Space
The Maya lived in a large cultural area that archaeologists call Mesoamerica. Encompassing the region from the deserts of northern Mexico to the eastern third of Honduras and El Salvador, Mesoamerica refers less to geography than to the societies and cultural traditions that occupied this land until the arrival of Europeans. Like the people of Europe, Mesoamericans shared definitions about how to grow and distribute food, what constituted government, and how the world worked, both on the mundane and the cosmological level.
The land of the Maya occupies the eastern third of Mesoamerica, in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras. This area is covered by ruined cities from a cultural tradition that was 2,500 years old when the Spanish conquered the inhabitants and forever changed their world. The descendants of the Maya who built those ruined cities today number in the millions and speak over two dozen related Maya languages. They communicate with the world over the Internet, yet also live in direct contact with the beliefs and understanding of the world that lay at the heart of the cities built by their ancestors millennia before.
The topography of the Maya landscape varies enormously, from the volcanic mountains that form a spine along the Pacific coast to the tropical-forest lowlands that comprise the northern two-thirds of the Yukatan peninsula. Rivers cut through the mountains, draining into the Gulf of Mexico via the Grijalva and Usumacinta Rivers and to the Caribbean by the Motagua and numerous smaller rivers. The swampy southern lowlands receive up to 120 inches of rain a year, while the northern lowlands are drier and have no rivers. There in the north, people get their water from cenotes (tz'onot in Maya), sinkholes that dot the limestone terrain of Yukatan. The high-canopy forest that covers the southern lowlands transforms into pine forest in the highlands and into low, scrub forest in the north.
Archaeologists divide the later history of Mesoamerica into three great periods -- the Preclassic (1500 B.C.-A.D. 200), the Classic (A.D. 200-910), and the Postclassic (A.D. 910-1524). The first of these periods, the Preclassic, saw the rise of the Olmec, the first great civilization that modern scholars recognize in Mesoamerica. Occupying the swampy lowlands surrounding the Tuxtla volcanos in southern Veracruz, the Olmec built the first cities in a landscape that can be described as mountains surrounded by swamps. This extraordinary people created the first kingdoms and developed the templates of worldview and political symbolism that formed the basis of all subsequent societies in Mesoamerica. In a real sense, they invented civilized life in this region of the world.
By 1000 B.C., the Maya had begun to build villages in the mountainous highlands and lowland forests of eastern Mesoamerica. These early villagers built houses that were much like those still used by their descendants today. They used pole frames and thatched roofs to construct houses with a single room. In some regions, villagers favored houses with oval floor plans, while in others they preferred rectangular forms. The center of the house was always a hearth made of three stones set in a triangle to allow wood to be fed into the fire while cooking. The hearth was the center of family life, where women prepared food and did the work of the household. Men worked in agricultural fields called kol, where they planted maize, beans, squash, and chile. They planted fruit trees of many kinds around their houses and near their cornfields.
Households consisted of several related adults, and could include couples with young children, adolescents, young adults, and grandparents. Large families provided the people required for farming, a labor-intensive activity that involved yearly cycles of preparing the fields, planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Moreover, large families could help in other activities, such as the building and refurbishing of houses, kitchens, and storerooms, the collection of firewood, the preparation of food, and the repair and maintenance of tools. More specialized crafts included weaving and decorating cloth, the manufacture of tools and household objects of all sorts, and the making of pottery. The Maya could use these products in their own households or exchange them for other goods and services within their communities. As their families grew, villagers built additional houses around courtyards to form compounds. Four houses around a courtyard became one of the characteristic forms of Maya architecture.
Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the Maya adopted Olmec innovations in symbolic imagery and social institutions. By 500 B.C., the Maya began to build cities in the lowland forests and in the highland mountains. They amplified the traditional layout of the family compound into a square plaza surfaced with plaster and surrounded on three or four sides by pyramids with temples on top. They used tamped earth to build their pyramids in the highlands, and earth and rubble in the lowlands. Some of these very early structures are the largest ever built by the Maya. People flying over them today often think they are natural hills rising above the forest canopy. In fact, the ancients did conceive of their pyramids as mountains rising out of the surrounding swamps and forest. They began to surface them with imagery modeled in plaster to give them meaning and to create sacred environments in which history, politics, and urban life unfolded.
Early kings, called ahaw, also began to portray themselves on stone monuments erected in the plazas at the feet of their pyramid-mountains. During the last third of the Preclassic period, the idea of writing developed as a way of describing who was shown on these monuments, as well as when and where the actions occurred. This was the beginning of history for the Maya.
During the Classic period (A.D. 200-910), the number of kingdoms grew rapidly, to as many as sixty at the height of lowland Maya civilization in the eighth century. Beginning in the fifth century, these kingdoms organized themselves into great alliances headed by the kingdoms known today as Tikal and Kalak'mul. Some of the great cities of the Preclassic period, such as El Mirador, had collapsed, while others, like Tikal, grew into political and economic dominance. The Maya of Tikal and other cities came into powerful contact with the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan during the early part of the Classic period. The mechanism of this exchange is still a matter of debate, but its effect is not. The Maya adopted imagery and an artistic style from the Teotihuacanos that became intimately associated with warfare and the symbolism of the ''Place of Reeds,'' one of the central elements in myths of origin that dominated Mesoamerican history.
While the Maya kingdoms enjoyed a high degree of sovereignty, their political fortunes often depended on the alliances to which they belonged. From the sixth century onward, this system of alliances and the rivalry between them dominated Maya politics and economics. The old adage ''The enemy of my enemy is my friend'' is highly applicable to this period of Maya history.
Ancient Maya kings rarely alluded explicitly to economic affairs in their public inscriptions. However, we can surmise much about ancient Maya economy through the archaeological record, the images, and the inscriptions left to us. Tribute was one of the primary means to collect goods and labor for redistribution within communities of all sizes. It was a fact of life, rather like our own taxation system. Lesser nobles and lineage heads paid tribute to their overlords in the form of raw materials, manufactured goods, and labor. Farmers might also pay tribute through goods they produced, but even more likely, they paid by providing labor on building projects in the urban centers, service on the farms of their kings and lords, or in military service. The economy of every kingdom was administered strategically by the king and his court, but even they paid tribute to their overlords within the large system of alliances. At this higher level, tribute could also be paid in the form of raw materials, such as minerals, wood, and sacred stone; manufactured goods, such as cloth and jewelry; labor for regional projects, such as the construction of causeways between sites; and military service.
Victory in battle often resulted in the loser's obligation to pay tribute to the winner. This could include goods and service, but in addition, artists and artisans, as well as laborers and captured soldiers from losing sites, could become commodities that benefited the winners. In some situations, the local elites retained their positions after defeat, but they became tribute vassals of the winners.
The Maya calendar provided dates that were used to time markets and fairs in which the Maya carried out their business transactions. Some of these dates had well-known, widely shared significance from Maya mythology and religion, so that everyone knew about them. Others had importance on a regional or local level, and could involve not only religion, but important dynastic celebrations as well. These festivals were a major part of Maya life throughout history. Nobles from allied kingdoms used them as opportunities to visit one another and to negotiate broader economic arrangements.
Merchants operating beyond the borders of their kingdoms became economic and political extensions of their kings. Their patron was God L, a powerful god who destroyed the previous Creation by flood, sat on the first throne to be set up in the present Creation, and operated as a god of warriors and merchants. Such royal business was so economically vital that the merchants involved in it were high nobles and even members of the royal household. Using the metaphor of pilgrimage and alliance, merchants traveled to the great festivals of neighbors and distant states that controlled strategic goods. Such merchants could function as state ambassadors bearing ''gifts'' to royal neighbors and allies, or they could spy out the land in preparation for conquest.
The Maya used commodities both in their raw state and as worked objects for money. These currencies included jade and other green stones; flint and obsidian, in both worked and unworked forms; other precious stones and minerals; spondylus (spiny oyster) shells; cacao beans; lengths of cotton cloth, both in plain weave and made into clothes; spices; measures of sea salt; birds and their feathers; animal pelts; forest products such as dyes, resins, incense, and rubber; wood in both worked and unworked form; and ceramics, especially beautifully painted elite wares. People at all levels of society used these currencies within their communities as well as in the markets and fairs. Farmers and villagers could use their crops and handicrafts to barter for or buy other goods for use in their daily lives or in special rituals, such as marriages, funerals, and house dedications.
People throughout Mesoamerica wore these currencies as jewelry and clothing to display the wealth and enterprise of their families. These currencies were in wide demand throughout the Mesoamerican world, so that Maya kingdoms traded the specialties of their area -- such as cotton, cacao, tropical birds and their feathers, rubber, special woods, shells, etc. -- over long distances to obtain commodities that were not available locally. This access to materials and goods from far-distant places may have been negotiated by local lords, but the alliance structures very probably facilitated these international relations with kingdoms in, for example, the southern highlands of Guatemala. We suspect that Tikal had trade agreements and perhaps a political alliance with Teotihuacan in central Mexico. These long-distance relationships were of crucial importance to the economic well-being of every state. Maya kings gathered prestige through the successful activity of obtaining goods from distant places and distributing them among their vassal lords and allies. These lesser lords in turn distributed the goods to their constituents in the form of gifts or exchanges. A portion of these commodities could filter down into the general everyday transactions of the villagers and farmers.
One result of the competition for territory, resources, and tribute was a cataclysmic series of wars between the competing alliances led by Tikal and Kalak'mul that began in the sixth century. In the archaeology, kingdoms that won wars during these conflicts show enormous growth in population, in wealth at all social levels, in access to foreign goods, and in extensive building programs. Losers usually show the reverse, but being a winner or loser was rarely permanent. Reversals of fortunes and the resulting change in economic status were commonplace.
By A.D. 700, these wars had resulted in the multiple sackings of major cities like Palenque and Tikal. One of the major effects of these wars was a series of migrations, probably consisting in large part of male nobles and soldiers displaced by the wars or seeking their fortunes elsewhere. A series of migrations from the south to the northern lowlands eventually led to the founding of Chich'en Itza. In A.D. 800, these outsiders, who were called the Itza, and the older kingdoms in the north established a confederation. These migrations may also have affected central Mexico and the establishment of kingdoms like Xochicalco and Cacaxtla in the wake of Teotihuacan's destruction in the mid-seventh century.
The Classic period ended with a general political collapse in much of the Maya region, although in some areas, such as northern Belize and Yukatan, many communities survived without a break until modern times. The final phase of precolumbian history -- the Postclassic -- lasted from A.D. 910 until the Spanish conquests of Guatemala in 1524 and Yukatan in 1542. Events during the last decades of the Classic period became the legends of origin for Postclassic kingdoms. In the north after the collapse of Chich'en Itza, the area was dominated by an alliance centered on the city of Mayapan. Although the population of the southern lowlands never again achieved the levels of the Classic period, large alliances centered on Itzamk'anak and Tayasal, the capital of the Itza, endured into the century after the conquest. In the south, the K'iche' Maya forged an empire by conquest and diplomacy that dominated most of the highlands until late in the fifteenth century. Although the capital cities of these empires and kingdoms may seem unimpressive when compared to the great Classic cities, these Postclassic kingdoms exercised political and economic dominance that was at least as effective as that of their predecessors.
Maya Hieroglyphic Writing and History
During the nineteenth century, travelers began to penetrate the forests that had regrown over the ancient ruins after the Spanish conquest. They brought back intriguing tales of lost cities and ruined temples. These travelers published drawings and photographs in books, some of which became bestsellers of their day. By the end of the century, scientific expeditions began to excavate the ancient buildings and restore them to something of their former glory. Today millions of pilgrims from all over the world come to see these restored Maya cities and to understand at least a little about the people who built them.
Palenque, one of the most beautiful of the ancient Maya cities, was a focus of these early explorers from the beginning of modern interest in the Maya. Because its buildings, sculptures, and inscriptions survived remarkably intact, Palenque has played a central role in our thinking about the Maya for the past 150 years.
Peter and Linda also fell under Palenque's spell when we first walked among its plazas and temples. Even though Palenque had been so central to European ideas about the Maya, it was still an anonymous place when we attended the First Palenque Round Table, a now-famous 1973 conference that led to critical breakthroughs in the understanding of the city's history. Before this conference, the ruins were mute, more admired for their mystery than for the greatness of the people who had built them. In less than a week all that changed.
We remember the moment it all happened. We had been working together during the conference, but on the last day we were asked to see if we could find some more history in Palenque's hieroglyphic texts. We were lucky because drawings had been published of the many inscriptions the people of Palenque had put in their buildings. In three hours, we amplified our understanding of the lives of seven kings, so that a real history of Palenque began to emerge. More important, we connected these kings to the buildings they had commissioned and the messages incorporated in them.
In many ways, this conference was a turning point in the field of Maya hieroglyphic studies. Using the work of past scholars, we had available to us knowledge of how the Maya used their glyphs to spell words. We also knew they recorded history as their main subject matter, and we knew they used the writing system to record spoken language, not just as mnemonic devices. Working with many other people, we began to paraphrase whole texts from Palenque and construct an understanding of what the rulers of that city had said to their people in their public monuments.
The rich and expressive script used by the Maya in their writing system could faithfully record every nuance of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure in their language. Scribes could spell words with single signs called logographs, with phonetic signs representing syllables, or with combinations of both. For example, witz, a Maya word for ''mountain,'' could be written with a picture of a convoluted stone or personified as a mountain monster. However, the Maya had other words meaning ''hill'' or ''mountain,'' including puuk, mul, buk'tun, and tzuk. To avoid confusion, Maya scribes attached syllabic signs to logographs in order to indicate how to pronounce them. For example, they could attach the syllabic sign wi to the front of the ''mountain'' logograph, giving the spelling wi-witz. Since no other word for ''mountain'' began with wi, people knew that here they should read witz, instead of any of the other alternatives. Since these phonetic signs represented the sounds of syllables, the Maya could spell the word using only phonetic signs, thus eliminating the logograph altogether. The system they devised used two syllable signs to spell a word composed of a consonant-vowel-consonant. For example, they spelled witz with the sign wi combined with tzi to form wi-tz(i). The final vowel in this kind of spelling was not pronounced.
The unsurpassed calligraphic elegance of this writing system derives from its origins as a painted script. No matter the medium they used -- whether limestone, jade, shell, bone, wood, or paper -- Maya scribes never lost the original painterly grace of their hieroglyphs. They played with the graphics of the system, always looking for new and innovative ways to write their words. They had many signs to record the same sounds, and each of these could be written in a plain form or personified as a human or animal. Maya scribes used this system to record the history of their leaders, the names and ownership of objects, the names and actions of gods and supernaturals, the rituals that filled their lives, divination and prophecy, and their understanding of the ancestral past and present. Most particularly for this book, they recorded the names of their buildings, as well as who owned them, and the rituals used to dedicate them.
Experiencing Maya architecture can be disconcerting for people who grew up with the European tradition all around them. European architecture focuses for the most part on interior space. In Maya public architecture, the operational spaces are the plazas and courtyards that are surrounded by buildings. The small, dark interiors, especially of the temples, were places where the gods, ancestors, and a few authorized lords visited. Even in the palaces, the public stayed in the courtyards, where they were the audience for the dances and processions that were at the heart of Maya rituals and festivals. Maya architects designed their buildings to encompass motion and performance so that they operated like stage sets in which drama and ritual unfolded.
Maya kingdoms consisted of forests, farmlands, hamlets, and towns, all ruled from capital cities. Using settlement surveys, archaeologists have shown that the Maya lived in and around their cities and towns in dense and permanent settlements. Adding the population living in the hinterlands and smaller towns to that of the capitals gives population numbers ranging from twenty thousand up to a hundred thousand, and perhaps more for the largest kingdoms.
Decipherments of the Maya hieroglyphic texts and archaeological investigations at places like Tikal, Copan, Caracol, and Dos Pilas have given us a much better understanding of how Maya political geography worked. In the inscriptions, ''emblem'' glyphs named the kingdoms that dotted the political landscape, and within these kingdoms there were locations identified by place names. Kingdoms were also subdivided into ''provinces,'' or tzuk. For example, Tikal had thirteen tzuk, while Naranjo had seven. The geographic size of a kingdom did not necessarily correspond to its importance. Younger kingdoms on the periphery, like Palenque and Copan, were geographically larger than the older central kingdoms, but they certainly were not more powerful.
The towns and hamlets surrounding the capital cities could have different names and were often ruled by secondary nobles obligated to the high kings. For example, the texts call the kingdom of Palenque Bak, or ''Bone,'' while the capital city was known as Lakam Ha, ''Big Water.'' Tortuguero, a large town to the west of Lakam Ha, also used the Bak kingdom name, although it had its own rulers who conducted their own wars, probably under the authority of the Palenque king.
All Maya cities, including the towns, had sacred precincts near the center. Sometimes walls surrounded these areas to separate them from adjacent residential zones. Often a causeway, called a sak beh, or ''white road,'' led from outlying areas into these centers. At Copan, the Maya erected a special stela to mark the entrance into their sacred precinct. This monument presents a text arranged in the pattern of a mat (pop in Maya) to people arriving on the sak beh. Popol, or ''mat,'' was one of the words used for ''a place of assembly,'' ''community,'' and ''governance.'' To people leaving, this same monument presents a tzuk, ''province,'' face to remind them they were reentering a partition or neighborhood.
The sacred centers contain pyramid-mountains with temples on top; groups of buildings arranged on top of platforms to serve as administrative, religious, or residential complexes; ancestral shrines; sculpted monuments to document the history of the ruling dynasty; ballcourts; plazas; and other types of buildings that included space for schools and markets. Some of these building types were duplicated in outlying areas to serve as the sacred centers for nonroyal lineages. However, the capitals functioned for the entire kingdom, not just a single lineage.
The areas around these sacred precincts included compounds of varying size and complexity that housed nonroyal, but often wealthy, lineages. Where these outlying compounds have been excavated, the quality and amount of art varies with the prestige and rank of the lineage. And in the largest of these compounds, the sculptures and monuments bear the same imagery and symbolism as royal art, and are equal in terms of aesthetics and craftsmanship.
Towns within the larger kingdoms had their own rulers who erected historical imagery and ornate public architecture for themselves. Often their art proudly acknowledged their subordination to their ruling lords and the preeminence of the capital, but we cannot always distinguish lords from kings by imagery alone. We have to have written titles and statements of affiliation to be able to distinguish between the various ranks. However, location is often a clue, because these secondary lords mounted their inscriptions in spaces that were accessible only to lineage members. The audience for their art was not the public at large, as it was for royal messages. Archaeologists at Copan have detected at least four different categories of size and complexity among these lineage compounds, while work at Caracol and Tikal has shown that the secondary nobles, even those of very low rank, had access to wealth and exotic goods in times of prosperity.
The buildings that housed the common people are much harder to detect and count for population estimates because archaeologists often cannot find them without excavation. They often have only low surface mounds to mark their position and a good proportion of them are ''invisible'' until excavated. Nevertheless, such humble dwellings, the nonroyal compounds, and hamlets and small towns have received concentrated attention from archaeologists over the last thirty years. Their work shows us that in many ways this kind of housing has not changed during the last four thousand years.
Xanil nah, ''thatched house,'' is the name that modern Yukatek Maya call the houses used by ordinary villagers and farmers. The Maya built these houses on platforms raised only slightly above ground level. Four posts carried the roof beams, while stick walls enclosed a single room. Sometimes the Maya used mud and plaster to finish the walls, but they could also leave the walls open for ventilation. The high-pitched roof consisted of palm thatch tied to a framework lashed to the main beams.
The xanil nah very probably provided the template from which specialized architecture for political and religious ritual developed, as the Maya evolved more complex social and political organization. The Maya made their royal houses out of stone, but they replicated this basic pattern. Corbeled vaults and interior beams reproduced the triangular interior space of the house frame and thatched roof. People slept and worked on benches built into the sides or backs of rooms, and the interiors remained small and dark. With both royal and commoner houses, the working space with the best light was in the courtyards.
In modern Maya communities, all parts of the house have special terms associated with them, usually likening them to parts of the human body. Houses were and are living beings to the Maya. We do not have the ancient names for house parts, but in their dedication rituals, the Maya of olden times placed offerings under the floors of the houses and temples. These offerings contained materials identified with k'ulel, the living soul-force that imbues the universe. Thus, in dedicating a building, the Maya gave it a soul.
Baskets and net bags suspended from the roof beams kept food safe from pests and left most of the interior space free for daily use. While the modern Maya of Yukatan sleep in hammocks, their ancestors appear to have used mats on benches of various sorts. Women prepared maize and other foods for the family at the three-stone hearth and they dug into its center to bury the umbilicuses of their children. Even today, many Maya ask where you are from with the question, ''Where is your umbilicus buried?''
The Maya added other thatched structures, xanil nah, to form compounds around courtyards in order to accommodate growing families. Throughout postconquest times, family compounds usually had an ancestral shrine or an altar of some kind, although the way these things were arranged varied from town to town. There is good reason to suppose that these shrines and family altars have always been a part of Maya residential architecture from earliest times.
Early villagers used xanil nah for public buildings also, but they often made them larger and raised them on higher platforms. In time, this raised building became the terraced, pyramidal platform with a temple on top. The terraces served as a place for dancing and ritual performances of all sorts for audiences located in the courtyards below. Both temple-pyramids and temple groups on top of individual pyramids could be clustered to form groups. The most sacred and ancient of these arrangements was the triangular form that echoed the three stones of the Cosmic Hearth constructed by the gods to center the world. Four-sided arrangements generated the square, the other form that the Maya tied to Creation. The square, in fact, resulted when the creator gods arranged the kan tzuk, kan xuk, ''the four sides, the four corners,'' to give shape and order to the cosmos. The gods then raised the great center tree called the Wakah-Kan, the ''Raised-up Sky.'' Maya repeated these world-making activities by placing an altar or a tree in the center of the four-cornered, four-sided plaza. The resulting form with its four corners and a center is called a ''quincunx'' by modern researchers. This quincunx symbol of the cosmos also appeared in inscriptions as the sign for beh, ''road.''
Several of these courts could be joined together on top of platforms to create residential palaces, administrative compounds, and acropolises of various sorts. The North Acropolis at Tikal consisted of religious buildings and royal shrines, while the Central Acropolis was residential and administrative. Usually religious buildings had between one and three rooms and emphasized the vertical axis with towering roofcombs. Residential and administrative buildings often had multiple courts, many rooms opening onto the courts, and a horizontal axis.
The more important architecture was larger than domestic buildings, built from stone, finished with plaster, and decorated with passages of sculpture and paintings that signaled their function to the people using them or coming into the spaces they addressed. Buildings and spaces also reproduced sacred places that played a role in Creation, so that rituals conducted in them remade the space and time of Creation in elaborate public dramas. The Maya signaled these identities of sacred place and function through sculptural compositions. They controlled access, funneled movement, used architecture as backdrops, and placed close attention to vistas in order to integrate architectural space and to enhance the effect of drama.
Site and Building Planning
If the Maya had ''professional'' architects, we have not been able to identify their names or titles in the inscriptions. Maya structures were more likely to have been made by master builders, rather than by architects who separated the task of designing a structure from actually building it. Vernacular buildings and perhaps the stone houses of the lower ranks could be designed and supervised by older men who had experience in building, but the construction of more elaborate buildings in the sacred centers and in elite compounds was overseen by specialists in the arts of building construction and decoration. Since building orientation, shape, and proportion reflected the geometry and time of the sacred world, religious and craft specialists were also involved, not only in designing and laying out the building, but also in dedicating it. Some of these specialists were called ah uxul, ''sculptor,'' ah tz'ib, ''scribe,'' and ah yul, ''polisher''. The most accomplished of them carried the title itz'at, ''learned one'' or ''sage.'' As in other Maya arts, builders valued subtle and refined execution of these sacred activities more than they did individual creativity and novel results. Traditional and conventional definitions of space and form were powerful elements in Maya aesthetics. They provided a language of meaning that oriented the Maya to everything in their world.
No tax or labor records have survived to identify the workmen who labored on the great public buildings. However, we have other hints about how construction projects worked. Archaeologists consistently find thin walls creating ''construction pens'' inside pyramids, and often neighboring pens have different fill materials. These pens have been found under courts and plazas, so that they may have served as much to organize labor as to provide containing walls inside a construction. A likely system would have been to assign a certain number of pens to different lineages, who would then be responsible for finding the fill and bringing it to the pens. Each lineage would have fed its own people and perhaps contributed additional food and materials to the main construction project. People in these lineages owed labor to their own lords, just as their lords owed labor to their overlords. Presumably every lineage in a kingdom contributed to great public projects in this way.
These public building projects also required specialized labor. Laying out a new building required knowledge of construction techniques and materials, but also of sacred lore needed to orient the building correctly and tie it to its predecessors. Much of the physical labor of construction, like quarrying and shaping the stone, mixing mortar, leveling courses and floors, setting lintels, etc., did not require special training. Knowledgeable supervision would have been enough. But specialists were needed to incorporate decorations and sculptures into buildings. By looking at ancient Maya buildings, we can surmise other kinds of specializations, such as artists to plan the composition and apply the guide drawings; stone carvers to prepare armatures and relief sculptures; wall plasterers and sculptors specialized in plaster modeling; wood sculptors for carved lintels; and finally, painters for the complex polychrome painting of reliefs and for murals of various kinds.
These specialists, including the master builders, must have had other people working for them to help in preparing materials and in executing less critical parts of a work. However, we do not know if these skilled laborers operated within a lineage system or were organized in groups like guilds. We do know that the best of the craftsmen and artists traveled around their kingdoms to work on different projects, because we have their names on artworks from the towns as well as in the capitals. In addition, the Maya gave artworks by master artists as gifts and received them in tribute.
Access to finished buildings was controlled according to the function and meaning of the architecture. People of all ranks and affiliations visited the public plazas to participate in the great festivals, dances, dramas, and public rituals. If those rituals were anything like Maya festivals today, they would have gone on for days, with people coming in, leaving, and rejoining the ritual as their status and roles demanded. Markets would have been associated with these festivals, as well as pilgrimages and visits between both friendly and enemy states.
The courtyards within religious and administrative compounds would have been more restricted, but not by signs saying ''no entry.'' Instead, the Maya controlled access and channeled movement by the use of stairways, constricted or blind entrances, causeways, and other devices that were part of the spatial design of their buildings. People learned from their earliest days where they were allowed to go and where they were not.
A full range of activities took place in residential compounds, including lineage festivals, administrative overseeing, manufacture, gathering of tribute, adjudications, child rearing, food preparation, and a hundred other enterprises. Residential compounds would have been noisy places. At Copan these stone constructions lie side by side, sometimes with only narrow alleyways between. With children, turkeys, many adults, and activities of all kinds, the noise levels must have rivaled those at the modern town of Copan, with its buses and boom boxes. Rooms were small and dark with stone benches for sleeping and working. Weaving and other kinds of activities took place outside in the courtyards, perhaps using awnings to keep off the sun.
The temples would have been the most restricted space of all. The gods and ancestors resided there in special locations called pib nah, ''underground house,'' kunul, ''conjuring place,'' kun, ''seat,'' and waybil, ''resting place.'' Only kings, lords, and specialists responsible for the care and feeding of the gods would have mounted the pyramid-mountains to enter these inner sanctums. These places of the gods and ancestors were too dangerous to be entered casually by people who were unprepared.
Architecture and Its Elements
As the Maya developed hierarchical social structures, they, like other societies around the world, developed myths and metaphors to explain how the world came to be what it is, and why stratification was the natural order of things. In the process, they began constructing large public buildings that transmitted these myths and legends through sculptural programs and the rituals associated with them. Their symbolism publicly confirmed the divine sanction of their social order and declared the origins of their institutions. This transformation began around 600 B.C., and by 400 B.C. the Maya regularly decorated their great public buildings with programs of sculptural and painted imagery. Very early platforms at sites like Copan and Kahal Pech were built of clay or adobe painted red and with thatched-roofed structures on top. At most sites, buildings with earth and rubble cores replaced these clay platforms by the Early Classic period, but Copan continued to use them in sacred and residential architecture until at least A.D. 550.
Rubble-core buildings became the rule in lowland architecture because clay platforms were difficult to maintain in areas with heavy tropical rainfall. The ratio between earth and stone in the rubble cores varied from site to site and from building to building. However, the stability of these cores depended less on the amount of stone than on the way they were laid. Wet fill made for a compressed and very stable matrix, while dry fill tended to be unstable even in precolumbian times. Today, dry fill poses severe excavation problems for archaeologists.
Masonry walls differed from site to site depending on the local material available to the builders. For example, Palenque's masons used a limestone that came out of the quarries in large natural slabs that required little shaping. They laid these rough stones in courses using a lime mortar, and then smoothed the final wall surfaces by applying thick plaster. Maya buildings also had sculpture modeled in plaster over stone armatures. Builders used this technique throughout most of Chiapas, Peten, and Belize, and in southern Quintana Roo and Kampeche, although the quality of the limestone differed from region to region.
In the early history of Copan, builders also employed these plaster techniques, but they used volcanic tuff and river cobbles instead of limestone inside their rubble cores. Some of the best preserved plaster sculptures from Classic- period architecture lie under the acropolis of Copan. However, sometime during the seventh century, builders in Copan changed to a new technique using well-dressed blocks to lay a smooth wall that required only a thin finishing layer of plaster. They also converted from modeled-plaster sculpture on terraces and entablatures to stone-mosaic sculpture of great refinement. Their problem may have lain in the use of mud without lime for mortar in buildings throughout the valley. This technique and the use of beam and mortar roofs required very thick layers of plaster (up to seven inches) to seal horizontal surfaces against the rain. Copan's buildings required continuous maintenance of these seals, because as water penetrated bearing walls, it dissolved the mud mortar, and the buildings collapsed. Since plaster was the most expensive material used in Maya architecture, Copan's builders apparently developed techniques to conserve as much of it as possible for the sealing layers.
The cost of plaster may or may not have influenced architectural technique in the northern lowlands, including much of the modern states of Kampeche, Quintana Roo, and Yukatan. The limestone there is inferior to the stone found farther south. As in the south, builders used modeled plaster in Preclassic and Early Classic buildings, but changed to rubble core-veneer techniques during the Late Classic period. However, these northern builders surfaced their cores with thin, finely cut veneer stones. In the Ch'enes area in Kampeche, builders developed mosaic-stone sculptures much in the tradition of the Copan style to create gigantic images of mountain and sky monsters that wrapped around the doors of buildings. In the Puuk region and at Chich'en Itza, the Maya brought this mosaic technique to its most refined expression.
Maya builders used several types of plans, including a single room or gallery, double galleries entered either from a single side or from both sides of the center wall, and multiple galleries. Long galleries could be subdivided into rooms by nonbearing curtain walls, although at Palenque they sometimes left these long galleries open. In palace or administrative structures, the Maya created complex patterns of space not by constructing buildings with a great many rooms, but by assembling discrete buildings around open spaces. At Palenque, artists decorated each facade to carry messages to the court space in front of it. The internal coherence of a building was less important than the effectiveness of each facade as a dispenser of political and religious information. Over time, various sites and regions developed their own strategies for presenting this kind of information, as well as conventions of style and preferences for materials for individual and group buildings, so that architectural style became a recognizable ethnic and community marker.
The Maya spanned interior rooms of their buildings in four ways:
1. The corbeled vault was the most elaborate and prestigious way to create interior space. To make it, the masons built vertical bearing walls to a height where they intended to construct the vault. Then they brought successive courses closer together until the gap at the top could be closed with a capstone. It is a simple technique that did not result in a self-supporting structural system. This construction method first appeared in tombs and then expanded to public architecture.
Corbeled vaults can achieve great height, but each wall is independently balanced. If the angle of the corbel becomes too oblique, the vault will fall. As a result, Maya buildings have high but very narrow rooms characterized by the triangular space of the corbeled vault span. Normally each side of the corbeled vault balanced independently, but Palenque's masons learned to angle the outer walls of a double gallery so that they leaned against the central wall. The resulting roof contour looks a little like a mansard roof. At other Maya sites, any of the corbeled walls could be left standing when a building collapsed, but at Palenque, only the center walls survived the collapse of a building.
The ratio between vault span and wall thickness varied considerably in the different traditions that developed. In central Peten, the span-to-wall ratio was very low, and in temples it was often negative. In other words, the walls were thicker than the width of the rooms they created. This dominance of wall mass is most extreme in the temples of Tikal, where the doorways provided the largest interior space in the temple buildings.
The builders of Palenque used their leaning corbels and cross-vaulting to achieve one of the highest span-to-wall ratios in Maya architecture. By reducing the outer bearing walls to piers standing between large doors, they let in more light and created airier buildings than any other Maya site. Uxmal's buildings are also famous for their wide spans and thin walls, but they used only one door per room, thus creating dark chambers like the ones in Peten architecture.
2. Beam-and-mortar roofs were made by using wooden beams to span the bearing walls. Thin poles were laid across them, and the entire construction was then filled with a thick layer of plaster. At Copan, we have seen remnants of this kind of beam-and-mortar roof over a foot thick. They were heavy, and if water got inside they could be very dangerous. This kind of roof was used primarily in the Copan Valley and in northern Yukatan.
3. Columns and beams were used as part of roofing and wall systems in the northern lowlands, although one example is known from Tikal. In the past, this system has been taken as a Toltec (central Mexican) trait, but builders in southern Quintana Roo and Kampeche had started using columns to support doorways during the Early Classic period. The builders of Chich'en Itza took the technology far beyond its limited use of earlier times to create huge colonnaded halls covered by thatched roofs or corbeled vaults.
4. Thatched roofs were the preferred form for commoner houses, although thatch was also used to roof many public buildings throughout the Classic period. At first glance, thatch would seem to be the cheapest of all roofing systems, but this may not always have been true. Today dense populations and deforestation make palm thatching an extremely expensive commodity. The same was probably true in the Late Classic period. Burning the towns of enemies may have had far more devastating consequences than we might first imagine.
Builders extended the heights of public buildings, especially temples, by adding parapets and extensions called roofcombs. These differed in structure and style from region to region. At Tikal and other central Peten sites, the roofcombs were massive and often larger than the buildings that supported them. They were vaulted to reduce their enormous weight, and they were built over the thick rear and center bearing walls of the temple. Their backs were usually plain, but the fronts carried deep relief images signaling the meaning of the building. The roofcomb of Tikal Temple 1 displayed a huge image of a seated lord, probably the king Hasaw-Kan-K'awil, who built it. Temple 6 had a long inscription discussing Tikal's history and its patron gods all the way back to Olmec times.
The builders of most of the kingdoms along the Usumacinta River and in Chiapas preferred a style using lighter roofcombs. At Palenque, they almost became lattice frameworks of stone that supported larger-than-life-size figures modeled fully in the round using plaster over stone armatures. Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras used more solid forms, and they also centered the roofcomb.
Copan's builders chose yet another alternative. They used silhouetted forms cut from stone and mounted along the edge of the building like a parapet. In addition to edging stones, Temple 22A also had a large stone sculpture representing the king seated on a jaguar throne mounted on top of the roof. Once again, Copan seems to prefigure Puuk-style architecture of northern Yukatan. In that style, builders mounted parapets above the outer edges of the roof to extend the space of the frieze. Roofcombs could also sit along the central axis of the building in some of the Yukatek traditions.
These regional and local styles of architecture developed in part because of the kinds of materials available to builders. But perhaps they were more the result of a Maya worldview that included powerful veneration of ancestors so that builders strove to reproduce the character of ancestral buildings as they physically incorporated them inside their own constructions. Particularly effective, and usually long-lived, rulers often left legacies of art and architecture that were emulated by subsequent generations. Thus, individual rulers could have powerful effects on style through their patronage of the arts. Moreover, Maya builders evoked prestigious styles of neighbors or distant places as statements of origin or affiliation. In Maya art, style could be political.
Maintenance was a problem in all these roofing styles. Thatched roofs last for only ten to fifteen years and they host a lot of pests. All of the stone roofs had to be kept waterproof with plaster seals. The large public buildings, especially those with plaster sculpture, presented constant maintenance problems, as modern archaeologists have found. The plaster surfaces had to be patched, renewed, and repainted regularly. The building called Rosalila at Copan has taught us that maintaining plaster sculptures reached a point of diminishing returns that eventually made it easier or even necessary to start all over again. Apparently in the case of that building, the Maya thought it a better solution to encase the old building and rebuild on top of it.
In our own careers, we learned about the subtleties of Maya architecture by focusing on Palenque. In measuring the buildings we realized that the parts were proportional to one another, but we could not find a consistent pattern to the proportional system or a fundamental measure. Other people after us have observed symmetries in Maya art and tried to explain them, but it took a graduate student named Christopher Powell to figure out how the Maya designed their architecture and controlled its proportions.
The Maya artists' measuring device was a simple cord cut to a multiple of some body measure -- such as the distance from the fingertips to the shoulder or from hand to hand across outstretched arms. Today the Maya count multiples -- say, twenty or forty -- of this fundamental measure to get the overall length of their measuring cords. Using the cord, they first lay out a square of predetermined size, such as 3 x 3 or 5 x 5, depending on the size of what they want to build. Then they use the cord to square up the angles by making sure that both diagonals are equal. This measuring of the square with a cord was the first action of the gods when they created the cosmos. The square gave four sides, four corners, and the center. As Powell says, it is the fundamental shape of Maya geometry -- the module from which all Creation was generated.
Once they form a square, the builders halve the cord to find the center of a side, then stretch the cord up to a corner, swinging down to create the baseline of a rectangle. This rectangle has the famous proportion known as the ''golden mean,'' which is found in art around the world and throughout history. It permeates nature in the growth patterns of creatures like the nautilus shell. Powell told us that his Yukatek teachers told him that using the cord makes their houses like flowers because of the inherent relationship of their proportions.
Architecture from thatched-roof houses of farmers to the most exalted temples and palaces used the cord to generate a harmonious whole. Sculptors and weavers used the device to proportion their compositions, and corn farmers used it to lay out their fields. The gods used it to lay out the cosmos:
Its four sides (or sections) U kaj tzuquxiik
Its four cornerings U kaj xukuutaxiik
Its measurings Retaxiik
Its four stakings U kaj chee'xiik
Its doubling-over cord measurement U mej k'a'maxiik
Its stretching cord measurement U yuq k'a'maxiik
Its womb sky U paa kaaj
Its womb earth U paa uleew
Four sides Kaj tzuq
Four corners as it is said Kaj xukuut chuch'axiik16
As Powell says, the center four lines in this passage describe the way the Maya created a ''golden-mean'' rectangle. To us the most revealing thing about Powell's discoveries is that this way of measuring things and the proportionality it naturally generates does not require special knowledge, like abstract geometry, to use it. The cord gave a harmonious proportionality to everything the Maya did in their art and architecture, and it joined their human-made art to the symmetries that permeate the natural world. To create the harmonies of the cosmos, the gods used the same method of measure as a weaver, house builder, and cornfield maker. But cord measuring also revealed the innate symmetries of nature, so that in reality, Maya art and daily life harmonized with cosmic symmetry without the necessity of conscious design.
Copyright © 1998 by The Estate of Linda Schele, Peter Mathews, Justin Kerr, and Macduff Everton
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