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. 

Origin of the Mayan Civilization

The Mayans were an ancient civilization which existed thousands of years ago. They populated the regions of the Yucatán Peninsula, southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and a part of El Salvador.

They dominated these regions for thousands of years, building huge cities and enormous pyramids. Experts in Math and Astronomy, they excelled in agriculture and trade, and they even developed a very unique writing and number system, not to mention their calendrical systems. 

Maya

Stone Jaguar Heads

The Mayans developed a sophisticated literary culture, and many of their monuments and religious ceremonies are of great archaeological significance.

Archaeologists are now discovering even more astonishing things about the Maya, underneath the overgrowth of the jungle. The Maya left behind quite a mystery for the future to uncover…

Timeline

There is still debate about an exact timeline for the Maya, as new discoveries keep changing the history. A general consensus is that the earliest Mayan villages in Central America and Mexico, are dated back to as early as 2500 B.C. 

Great waring city states were established, and the Maya civilization prospered for thousands of years. 

Just before the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, the Maya began to disperse. This is a big mystery in the history and understanding of the civilization. 

 

The Mayans became the dominant power in Mesoamerica in the second half of the first millennium A.D. But the Maya were not the first civilization to emerge in this ancient land.

Pre Maya 

Before the Mayans established their Civilization, The Olmec and Zapotec people made their mark. The Olmec famous for their enormous stone heads, lived in southeastern Mexico, what is now the modern state of Tabasco. 

Olmec

Olmec Stone Head

La Venta is one famous site left by the Olmec, dating to around 1100 B.C. they left behind many amazing giant sculptures, pyramids, and monuments. Archaeologists say that the Olmec date back to about 1500 B.C.

The Zapotec culture, dating to around 700 B.C, pre date the Maya. They ruled in the region that is now Oaxaca Mexico. One major site the Zapotec built, is a large pyramid complex called Monte Alban. 

Piecing together the chronology of the city through pottery, archaeologists have pieced together 2000 years of history for this ancient city. Divided into 5 parts of history, this one city in Oaxaca Mexico has a rich and deep past. 

Pre Classic

Generally the Pre Classic period for the Maya describes the civilizations beginning. From settlers to villages, the Maya began to establish their culture. They begin constructing their first ceremonial city’s and temples.

Around 750 B.C the Mayans establish their first city Nakbe in the northern Guatemalan lowlands. Nakbe is just a few kilometers south of the recently heralded El Miradaor, site and its massive pyramid La Danta.

One of the most famous Mayan archaeological sites, Tikal, was constructed in the Pre Classic period around the 4th century B.C. It is towards the end of the Pre Classic period the Maya start erecting massive cities all over southern Mexico and Central America. 

Classic Period

The Classic Period of the Maya is when the civilization flourished. 

In this period of Mayan history, many major city states battled with each other for power over certain regions.

King Pakal and his lineage start to build amazing temples at Palenque in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. Including the temple of inscriptions, the palace, and the temple of the cross group. The history of Palenque stretches from 226 B.C. to 799 A.D. 

Palenque

Palenque

Although not as big as other Mayan sites like Tikal. Palenque is known for its massive amounts of monuments, glyphs, and reliefs that were preserved so well. It’s lineages of rulers also added to the history of Palenque. Including the famous Pakal, who ruled Palenque for 68 years. 

Tikal one of the biggest Mayan sites known today, was a powerful city state in the Classic Period. Tikal reigned over a large part of the Guatemala lowlands and part of Mexico during its rule. 

Many cities all over Mesoamerica flourished in this period.

Copan in Honduras

Bonampak in southern Mexico

Chichen Itza and Uxmal in the Yucatan 

After the flowering of the Classic Period, the Maya began to gradually fall…

Post Classic Period 

Mayapan one of the last city’s of the Maya was built in the late Post Classic period around 1220 A.D. The city contains thousands of structures. Eventually abandoned in the middle of the 14th century. 

There are many theories of why the Maya abandoned their cities. Some say overpopulation, some say drought or war, but we still do not know exactly why.

Maya

Mayan Ruins

After thousands of years the Mayan civilization passed into history. The ancient settlements vanished, but traces of their existence in the form of structures are being discovered every year.

Did the ancient Mayans have a longer recorded history than previously thought? With the new discoveries, archaeologists are now claiming that the Mayans may have solidified their culture in the Pre Classic period.

New Discoveries 

Using LIDAR, a light detection and ranging technology. Archaeologists have been able to see through the jungle from above and scan the forest floor. 

This technology has changed the whole perception of the Mayan city Tikal. Archaeologists are now saying that ten to fifteen million people once lived in this region. 

LIDAR has revealed numerous previously undiscovered structures. Leading to new theories about the Maya.

The Maya People Still Live

The Ancient Mayans are gone, but the Maya people still live in modern day Central America, and Mexico. They carry on their past with oral tradition and ceremony. 

Traveling through the Yucatan and Guatemala, one can see the Maya people are still here.

Conclusion

Thankfully the Mayans were obsessed with their calendars and recording the dates of major events. They recorded astrological events, war related events, they also preserved lineages and recorded the dates kings and queens would ascend to the throne.

The history of the Mayan civilization survived on pottery locked away in secret burial chambers, hidden inside the pyramids. Survived on large carved monuments called “stela”, and the remaining codices that escaped the cultural destruction by the  Spanish.

Preserved by time and the aggressive jungle, hiding pyramids and almost the whole civilization under the trees. 

The Pre-Hispanic Mayan culture was the most advanced ancient civilization on the American continent, and existed for over 2,000 years from 800 BC to 1440 AD.

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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