In this article we will discuss how the techniques and materials that the Pre-Columbian Maya of Mesoamerica used to build their pyramids and create great cities. We will also outline a few of the reasons such monumental architecture was constructed, as well as the meaning that could have been imbued in these buildings. 

What Is a Pyramid?

Tikal

Temple of the Jaguar at Tikal

The definition of a pyramid can be summed up as a structure or monument which usually has four sides and rises to a triangular point at the summit. When discussing pyramids, the first to usually enter the minds eye are those of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. After that the grand structures of the Maya may be thought of, but in truth the only similarity those buildings have with those found in Egypt is the name. And some archaeologists don’t even want to refer to the Maya structures as pyramids!

The biggest reason for this desire to change terminology is because the main use of pyramids, at least for Egypt and the popular knowledge, is as grand royal tombs. The Maya did occasionally use their pyramids as places to bury their royals, but usually that was not the original or sole use of the structure. Instead, they were most often used as temples, with rooms or buildings on the central stairway or at the summit being the place of ceremony or ritual. When the pyramids were used for burials, they became funerary temples. In Egypt, the Great Pyramids had entirely different buildings and complexes where worship would take place. 

How did the Maya build their Pyramids?

Everyone has seen drawings, cartoons, or other witty drawings showing the Egyptians pulling large sandstone blocks which they then piled together to form the Great Pyramid. Because of the prevalence of those images, it’s easy to think that that is how all ancient pyramids were built.

However, the Maya had completely different kind of construction techniques! Maya pyramids are made of a series of square or rectangular terraces that come to a flat surface or building at the summit. The terraced construction gives these pyramids a stepped look, but the top was reached from a dedicated stairway, usually found along the center of the front face. Limestone was the main construction material, as that forms the bedrock for most of the Maya world.

To build the terraces, a construction fill made of limestone (varying in sizes from small pebbles to boulder sizes), soil, plaster, and occasionally residential garbage (such as broken pottery, bones, and other refuse) was used. This would be used to create the bulk of the building, with limestone rocks would be used to create a construction-pen wall. These walls didn’t have to be completely solid, just strong enough to hold back the earth as it was layered together.

The walls that would become that faces of the structure would be more solid and even. These walls would then be covered by precisely cut limestone blocks and held together with limestone plaster. The plaster was made by burning limestone and water, creating a paste that cooled into a hard state. Plaster would hold the blocks together, as well as be used to cover them and then be decorated with paint or carved.

Mayan Pyramid

Uxmal

Uxmal

Renovating Maya Pyramids

Once a pyramid was built, it was very rarely ever left alone. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were built for one ruler and then stayed that way, Maya pyramids, temples, and palaces were constantly undergoing renovations and/or remodeling. This was done for both practical and ideological purposes. 

If there were any rooms within the pyramid, they were built using a corbel vaulted arch, which isn’t a true arch. As such, it results in long narrow rooms with a more triangular shaped roof. Because of that, they are not very structurally sound. Once a new ruler was in power, they would often have those rooms filled, and new layers of construction built over top, with construction fill placed before a new face. As such, when archaeologists excavate pyramids, they can see these different layers. If there are pottery inclusions within the construction fill, these different layers can even be dated.

Along with more practical safety reasons, rulers would renovate or remodel pyramids as an expression of their authority and as a way to honor the rulers (often their ancestors) who came before them. It would keep the building looking new and an active place of activity. When the pyramids stopped being remodeled, it wouldn’t take long before they stopped being used at all. Often, when a new ruling dynasty took charge or a city, they would completely bury older pyramids and structures as a means to erase previous rulers. 

Maya Pyramids

Palenque Pyramids Cross Sun and Foliated Cross

Temple of the Sun

Maya pyramids vary greatly in design, sizes, and uses depending on location and the time when they were built. They can even vary within the same city! The Maya civilization is ancient, lasting from before 2000 BCE to 1542 CE, so it stands to reason that styles and fashion changed over time. For example, in the Preclassic Period (1000 BCE -  300 CE) it was common for pyramids to be massive mountain-looking structures. The sheer size was more important than the height. In the Classic Period (300 CE – 900 CE) height become more fashionable, at least in cities like Tikal. There would still be variation depending on the city and the time it was constructed. 

Maya pyramids, like any kind of monumental architecture, can mean many things. By building such massive structures, the rulers who ordered the work done are showing the power and authority they have. They would also be showing their wealth, as they could afford the time and labor involved. 

There is also a great deal of ideological meaning behind them as well. Archaeologists believe that the Maya viewed their pyramids as man-made mountains, and as such, were holy places that connected the three levels of the world – the heavens, the earth, the underworld. As such, they were important places for worship, ceremony, and ritual. 

But it wasn’t the pyramid alone that was important. Often a temple sat at the summit, where such activities took place, though there still needed to be people to act as witnesses. That is why the large open courtyard spaces surrounding the pyramids were equally as important as the building itself. It was from there that the cities population would gather to witness and participate in important ceremonies.

Conclusion

Maya pyramids are very different from Egyptian pyramids. They were built differently, used differently, and had a much different kind of life history. It could be argued that the only ways they are the same is how we call them both pyramids. Maybe it is time to change our terminology. 

Maya

Mayan Temple

Can a civilization like the Mayans exist for thousands of years without collapse? Could it be possible to exist for that long and not collapse? What killed off this long living and powerful people? Was it a great flood? Volcanic eruption? Climate change or something else? What caused them to mysteriously vanish?

What caused the Mayan civilization to collapse? So many mysteries come from the Mayan civilization. 

Decline

The Mayans started to slowly fade away in what we call the Post Classic period. The fall of major cities like Tikal in Mesoamerica began at the end of the 8th century A.D. 

Tikal

Temple of the Jaguar

The Mayans thankfully were obsessed with time and carved important dates in stone monuments called “Stelae”. This has helped give archeologists a rough timeline of their history. Stela 11, erected in 869 A.D is the last known dated monument in Tikal.

After the fall of Tikal, other mayan cities followed. The prominent city Tonina, who dominated a large region of Mesoamerica, eventually declined and was abandoned. 

This decline marks the end of the Classic Period of the Maya, and the beginning of what we call the Post Classic Period, lasting from 900 A.D to 1521 A.D.

In this period the Toltecs, Mixtecs, and Aztecs begin to carve out their corner in history, while one of the last cities of the Maya is founded. Mayapan was founded in the northern part of the Yucatan around 1200 A.D, this was the center of the Post Classic Maya. Eventually collapsing in the late 14th century A.D. 

The decline of the Mayans was spread out over the region and its timeline. Each city state may have had different reasons for collapse. The eventual arrival of the Spanish cemented the Maya civilization in the past, leaving many questions unanswered.  

Overpopulation

There were likely several problems at the start of their decline.

One of the major theories is that the Mayan civilization began to collapse in a series of events which came as a result of overpopulation and overconsumption of resources. 

The ruins of Tikal, one of the largest Mayan cities, are an indication that the Mayans were once very densely populated. New scans of the jungle surrounding the site have revealed tens of thousands of new structures, a massive amount of roadways, and irrigation systems. Now archaeologists are saying that this city at one time held around 10 million people. 

Tikal

Temple II at Tikal

This overpopulation in Tikal, and neighboring cities such as Palenque, and Copan, may have been the main cause of collapse for the classic period of Maya Civilization. 

The living conditions at the height of Tikal are unknown, but they were masters at agriculture and enjoyed plenty of luxuries for such an ancient civilization. 

The real reason for collapse may be more suitably linked to war, and political change. The Mayans ritually made war with each other, and the evidence of this is widely spread throughout Mesoamerican history. The Maya are known to have taken slaves and prisoners in warfare.

What We Know about the Maya

Their Civilization began in around 600 B.C. in what is now the Yucatan, and lowland jungles of Guatemala.

The Maya inhabited a large part of what is now Guatemala and Mexico, but they had also occupied present-day Belize, Honduras, El Salvador.They were the dominant culture in Mesoamerica.

Before the Spanish Conquest, the Mayans had a highly developed civilization. The Mayans had unique artworks, architecture, and pottery techniques.

The Mayans had a sophisticated calendar system, they tracked celestial events like the solstices and equinox. They had calendars that tracked the phases of the planets. 

It is known that the Maya had a widespread trade network, but the extent of this trade is not completely known.

The Maya were able to construct a vast city that covered massive areas, likely unsurpassed by any other ancient civilization.

The Maya were skilled stone workers who developed new techniques for carving. Mayan cities were built using pre-made bricks made from limestone.

The Mayan civilization went through an amazing amount of growth during its 3000 year span. However, there were also very important changes during this period.

The Classic Mayan period was the period in the history of this civilization which saw a dramatic rise in the size of its population.

the Mayans had mastered a complex calendar system and developed writing. They are also famously known for understanding the mathematical concept of zero. 

The Mayans are undoubtedly one of the world’s first great civilizations.

Descendants 

Maya

Mayan Market

The Mayan people are still alive today. So the civilization hasn’t completely collapsed or ended. They cary on ancient traditions inherited from their ancestors. They even speak the same language, their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists continue to unearth new discoveries, some that are now changing our whole perspective on the Maya. 

Did the Maya predict the world would end in 2012?

You have probably heard someone (or some people) saying that the world was meant to end on December 21, 2012. There was even a movie about it, though it wasn’t really a memorable movie. The date of December 21, 2012 was oddly specific, and was based on the Ancient Maya calendar, and was the day they believed the world was going to end.

Or at least, that’s how it was misinterpreted. Not entirely certain how that particular interpretation started, but once someone started saying the Maya predicted the end of the world, it was all people could talk about. Ancient prophies are almost as interesting as curses!

To make a long answer short, December 21, 2012 was not the end of the world as the Maya say it. Instead, it was the start of a new cycle of time, basically the same way that we would view a new year or, with the importance of this change, more like how we reacted to the new millennium.

Ok, so what’s the long answer?

Aztec

Aztec Calendar

 

The Maya had incredibly accurate time-keeping and calendars

The Maya were among the worlds best astronomers. They observed the movement of the heavens and understood how time changed along with the seasons. The Maya were among the few of the ancient cultures to develop the mathematical principle of the number 0, which allowed them to create an incredibly accurate understanding of time and astronomy. 

Time was incredibly important to the Maya and their astronomical observations allowed them to create an accurate calendar system. Time was so important that the monuments they carved and displayed always have the exact date they were dedicated, as well the dates of the important events/figures they are depicting.

Time wasn’t just used to chronicle important figures or events either. It was used to create astronomical calculations, understand the timing of the seasons and when to plant/harvest their crops, as well as in the practice of divination. 

Our understanding of the Maya calendar occurred in the 19th century, when Ernst Forstemann figured out how the Maya marked and understood time. Interestingly, this happened long before we figure out how to read Maya glyphs.   

The Maya calendars 

Mayan Calendar

The Maya used what archaeologists have named ‘the calendar round’ that is made of three interlocking cycles that repeat on a loop. This is opposed to how we normally think of time, as a straight line that moves forward, rather than repeats. 

The first of the cycles is made of 20 names, followed by a cycle of 13 numbers (which together make the 260-day sacred calendar), with the final cycle being the 365-day solar year. It takes roughly 52 years, or 18, 980 days, for the full cycle to run its course and new one to start. 

The Sacred Calendar (tzol’kin) runs for 260 days and is made of 20 named days associated with 13 numbers, which also had specific names. Each day is given a number, starting from 1 going through 13, until it starts again at 1. Along with the number, it was given a name from the list of 20 unique day-names. In this way, it created 260 unique named days. This calendar was used for understanding when rituals, ceremonies, and divination needed to take place.

The Solar Calendar (haab) was made of 365 days, with 19 unique months as opposed to our 12. The names of the months were recorded by Spanish Friars in after the Spanish Conquest. They are Pop, Wo, Sip, Sotz, Sek, Xul, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Sak, Keh, Mak, Kank’in, Muwan, Pax, Kayab, Kumku and Wayeb.

Most of the months held 20 days each, but the 19th month had only 5 (the wayeb). This final month of 5 days was considered a dangerous time, when the realms of the living and the dead were closest to each other.

The Maya recorded this time as a number+day+number+month (or 0.0.0.0). Used together, the sacred and solar calendars created a cycle that repeated itself every 52 years, or the full course of the Calendar Round. And while 52 years is a great way to understand one lifetime, it couldn’t be used to understand the ancient past or the far future.

The Long Count

Like the Calendar Round, the Long Count, the system the Maya used to understand long periods of history, was considered cyclical. They understood that time had always existed and always would but needed a specific date to base as the ‘start’ of their records.

Like us, the Maya used an absolute date to mark the beginning of their Long Count system. In western cultures, we use 0 CE as our marker, with history before that counting down to 0 and events since counting upwards. 

The Maya Long Count start date, or at least the start of great cycle is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar.

Each great cycle lasted 5128 years and was meant to repeat for eternity. The Long Count then counts from this start date and counts the k’in (days), winal (20 days), tun (360 days/18 winals), ka’tun (7,200 days/20 tuns), and bak’tun (144,000 days/20 ka’tuns). So, the start date mentioned above was the start of a new great cycle.

The end of the world on December 21, 2012

Illustration with a Flame maya calendar on fire.

So, what exactly happened on December 21, 2012? Since the Maya didn’t believe that time could end, would they have really predicted the end of the world? Of course they wouldn’t, and they didn’t.

Why was December 21, 2012 important then? Because it was the day that fell exactly 5128 years from August 11, 3114 BCE. It marked the day that the Long Count had completed its great cycle and a new one would start. The Maya would have celebrated this event a lot and it would have been a big deal. Similar to how we celebrated the start of a new millennium on New Years eve 1999. 

Mayan Calendar Gen 2 Graphic

First, a fire ceremony

On January 25th 2020 fires all across Central America were lit, to celebrate a sacred day in the Mayan Calendar “Wajxaqib Batz” or 8 Monkey.

Passed down through thousands of years of oral tradition, the Mayan Calendar is still used throughout Central America and Southern Mexico.

It is on this day “Wajxaqib Batz” or 8 Monkey that new Mayan day-keepers known as Aj'qij are initiated.

As a spiritual guide for the community the Aj'qij perform fire ceremonies, readings, to preserve the Mayan Calendar.

There are multiple Mayan calendars

There are actually many different “Mayan Calendars” that all have their own specific meaning and use.

All together they work like gears in a machine, like cogs on a wheel they fit together to create a system of cycles.

Tzol'Kin

Mayan Pyramids How Old

Tzol'kin Mayan Calendar

The Tzol'kin or Chol'qi is the spiritual calendar of the Maya and literally translates to “order of days”.

This 260-day calendar is made up of 20 "archetypes" (also called Nawals)...

-Monkey (B'atz')              

-Path (E')

-Transformation (Aj)

-Jaguar (I'x)

-Eagle (Tz'ikin)

-Vulture (Ajmaq)

-Knowledge (No'j)

-Flint (Tijax)

-Storm (Kawuq)

-Sun (Junajpu)

-Crocodile (Imox)

-Wind (Iq')

-Dawn (Aq'ab'al)

-Net (K'at)

-Serpent (Kan)

-Death (Kame)

-Deer (Kej)

-Rabbit/Ripening (Q'anil)

-Payment (Toj)

-Dog (Tz'i')

...and 13 numbers or intentions.

1 Initiation (Jun)

2 Duality (Keb')

3 Action/ Multiplication (Oxib')

4 Stability (Kajib')

5 Empowerment (Job')

6 Flow (Wakib')

7 Reflection (Wukub')

8 Justice/ Harmony (Wajxaquib')

9 Patience/ Transformation (Belejeb')

10 Manifestation (Lajuj)

11 Resolution (Julajuj)

12 Understanding (Kab'lajuj)

13 Ascension (Oxlajuj)

The Nawals and Numbers combine

In collaboration, these 20 archetypes and 13 numbers create 260 unique days.

This calendar is used to determine ones character or personality, life path, and destiny.

The Tzol'kin Calendar is an understanding of time as consciousness for the Maya, and with each new day comes ruling energy or spirit.

An interesting fact about the Mayan culture is that the day you are born, in the Tzol'kin Calendar would be your name.

The Haab Calendar

Mayan Calendar

The Haab Calendar

The Haab is a solar calendar of 365 days, similar to the Gregorian, is made up of 18—20 day months with a short 5 day month at the end called the “Wayeb”.

The first day of every Haab month starts at 0, which is also described as the seating of the month and ends at 19.

Each month has it's own significance and purpose in the Mayan year.

Month's of the Haab

Haab months

The Haab Months

-Pop (Mat)

-Uo' (Frog)

-Zip (Red)

-Zotz (Bat)

-Tzec (no translation)

-Xul (Dog)

-Yaxkin (Green/ First Sun)

-Mol (Water/ Jade)

-Chen (Cave)

-Yax (Green)

-Zac (White)

-Keh (Red)

-Mac (Close)

-Kankin (Yellow Sun)

-Muwan (Moaning Bird)

-Pax (Planting)

-Kayab (Turtle)

-Kumku (Ripen)

-Wayeb (5 Nameless/ Unfortunate days)

Both the Tzol'kin and the Haab are used in conjunction. Together they create an approximately 52-year cycle before repeating.

This phasing of days and calendars is a common theme with Mayan time science and lends itself to a broad philosophy that there are cycles within cycles...

Supplementary Series (Night Lords/Lunar)

The Night Lord System is a 9-day cycle, that is associated with 9 “Lords of the Night”.

Also referred to as the “G series” the names of these 9 Lords are unknown.

Also part of the supplementary series is a 29 and 30-day Lunar Calendar.

Little was known about these measurements made by the Maya. Until John E.

Teeple an American researcher, discovered a correlation between glyph's at the Mayan site of Palenque.

The Long Count

Calendar

Long Count

The Long Count Calendar is a 5,125-year cycle, that encompasses all of the calendars in a  written form. 

There is no known Mayan word for this calendar system, so the nickname “Long Count” was given based on the size of the cycle and detail used to record the date.

Usually carved into stone monuments known as “stella's” these dates are found throughout Mayan Archaeological sites.

In fact, the earliest recorded Long Count date was discovered in an Olmec site, which predates the Mayans.

The Mayans used the Long Count to record dates within this cycle of 5,125 years, using 5 numeral systems.

20 day's or K'in= 1 Uinal (20 days)

18 Uinal's= 1 Tun (360 days)

20 Tun's= 1 Katun (7,200 days)

20 Katun's= 1 Baktun (144,000 days)

13 Baktun's= The entire Long Count Cycle

The Long Count Cycle in total is 13 “Baktun's” long 1,872,000 days or 5,125 years.

Written in descending order from largest to smallest; these dates were recorded vertically, starting with the corresponding Baktun.

Following these 5 Long Count numerals, you would have the Haab, Tzol'kin, and Night Lord dates.

Creation Date and 2012

Aztec

Aztec Calendar

The Maya would record dates using this system in relevance to a “creation date”, which has been theorized to be August 11th 3114 B.C.  Or 4 Ahau 8 Kumku.

In Mayan Mythology this  date is the 4th creation of the Universe. 5,125 years later is where we get the date December 21st, 2012.

Because of the 2012 phenomena, most people think that the Mayan Calendar ended on December 21st 2012. In reality, the Mayan Calendar does not have an ending, it is a cyclical calendar, after the end of one cycle begins a new one.

The Dream-spell Calendar and Jose Arguelles

Created by Jose Arguelles in the late 1980s the Dream-spell or 13 moon calendar is based on the Mayan Tzol'kin calendar. Arguelles transformed the calendar to fit a New Age style and adopted new concepts such as the I Ching.

The Dream-spell also takes into account a “time-shift” and differs from the Tzol'kin by 52 days.

Although there is much controversy over its legitimacy, it has gathered many followers and even garnered more attention than the traditional calendar.

Use of The Mayan Calendar today

mayan

Temple of Kukulkan

Traveling to Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, one can see that the calendar is still tightly interwoven into the culture.

Thousands of Archaeological sites still remain including some of the largest pyramids in the world.

Many people are involved in the study of the Mayan culture and its calendars.

The 2012 phenomena, even though discrediting the calendar for a fictitious apocalyptic event, has ironically injected interest from all over the world.

Now post December 21st, 2012 people are practicing and using the Mayan Calendar in new and interesting ways.

Even though the Mayan Civilization is ancient history, the Mayan people are not, and still carry on their traditions today.

Civilization

The Mayan Civilization was a society that existed in Southern Mexico and Central America. Their existence has been uncovered through many archaeological discoveries.

The ruins of the Mayan Civilization still exist today, yet a large part of their knowledge, structures, and culture has been lost. This has created many questions about the origin of the Mayans, and how they became as advanced as they were.

Thousands of Years Ago

Pyramid

Mayan Pyramid

Before becoming the great Mayan civilization, the Maya people were hunter gatherers scattered throughout Mesoamerica. Evidence of this is found all over Central America and Southern Mexico.

In the beginning of the Pre Classic period the Maya were still farming settlements. Growing domesticated crops as early as 2500 B.C. such as vegetables and spices. Most famously corn or “maize”.

The Mayans believed that humans were created from corn and worshiped the maize god. This relationship with corn fueled their agricultural drive from the beginning, and played a major role in their development.

The question of when the Mayan civilization initially began remains up in the air and will probably remain that way for a long time. Some scholars estimate that the Maya formed as early as 2500 B.C. 

It is difficult to pinpoint an exact time for the emergence of the Mayan culture as an independent cultural identity. There are new discoveries every year that seem to change the perception of their timeline.

Around 600 B.C the Maya began creating larger settlements in the lowland jungles of Guatemala. The city Nakbe is one of the earliest known major sites for the Maya in this region. Its neighbor, El Mirador flourished around the same time as well. 

Before the Maya 

Monument

Mayan Monument

The Mayan culture arose through a series of cultures which developed around the region. Their predecessors, the Olmec and Zapotec, had been in southern Mexico long before the Maya. 

The Olmec established their culture around the 16th century B.C and were known for carving gigantic heads. 

The Zapotec civilization in the Oaxaca region began just before the Maya in 700 B.C. One of the largest cities in ancient Mesoamerica was built by the Zapotec.

The Pre Classic period is a time when the people of Central America are in their most rudimentary forms, and when the Maya civilization appears on the scene. The period is also one of cultural sharing and complex relationships between neighboring cultural groups.

Historic Influence

Aztec

Tenochtitlan

The Mayan Civilization had a great influence on the cultures of their time. Their influence and understanding of astronomy and agriculture has had major impacts on the world. 

The Mayan civilization had a surplus of knowledge, which was one of the reasons why they were able to flourish and become so impressive.

From pyramids to monuments, they constructed vast cities with architectural marvels. They built aqua ducts and raised roads. Archaeologists are now saying that at one point the city of Tikal held millions of people.

The Mayan civilization had a religious systems and a complex cosmology. Their understanding of astronomy and time was very important. 

Stelae

Stela

Tikal Stela 31

They recorded dates on stelae, which are large stone monuments that were erected throughout Mesoamerica. This is one of the main reasons archaeologists know so much about the Maya, because of their relentless obsession with recording time. 

These stone monuments depict dates associated with Mayan cosmology, and when rulers ascended to the throne or conquered other cities. 

Dresden Codex

codex

Dresden Codex

Still our understanding of the Mayan civilization is so limited because many texts were burned by the Spanish in the 15th century A.D.

Few written texts remain, such as the Dresden Codex. This is the  oldest written book found in the americas. The colored pamphlet style text, folds open Mayan history and astronomical charts. 

The dates found in the codex correlate to the planet Venus and phases of the lunar cycle. It also shows an assortment of gods and religious calendar dates.

Impact in the Region

The Mayan Civilization had an impact on the surrounding civilizations that came after, like the Aztec, Toltec, and the Mixtec.

These cultures adopted a lot of the knowledge from the Mayans. The Aztecs continued to keep the same calendars. Although they changed the names and glyphs, they continued to track and add to the same system of time. 

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is actually a reinvention of the previous Mayan God Kukulkan, the winged serpent. 

The Maya civilization spans over 2000 years and is the oldest civilization in the Americas.The Mayans were as mysterious as it gets. The reasons behind their downfall remains unknown…

Extra

Although the Mayans are not mentioned in the bible, there is a possibility that they were the source of the legend of the "Wandering Jew". Some dialects of mayan have distinct jewish like sounds.

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