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. 

Humble Beginning

Maya

Tikal

Arguably the most successful ancient civilization in the Mesoamerican region. The mayans had a very humble beginning.

Hunter gatherers in Mesoamerica, slowly formed farming villages thousands of years prior to the first major mayan cities. Evidence of these hunter gatherers and settlers has been dated to around 7000 B.C. 

Cultural ties to the Maya have been linked to villages in western Guatemala as far back as 2500 B.C. 

Ancient Neighbors

Olmec

Olmec Colossal Head

The Olmec people were an ancient Mesoamerican group who flourished from around 1600-1000 B.C. centered on an area of the Gulf Coast region in what is now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

They were engaged in trade and crafts with other Mesoamerican civilizations and developed sophisticated astronomical, geometric, and numerical systems.

Known as the “rubber people” The Olmec are even more mysterious than the Maya. With controversial colossal stone heads, and carvings of bearded men. 

The Maya undoubtedly inherited and carried on traditions from the Olmec, despite no evidence of being dominated by them.

Zapotec

Gran Plaza from the South platform, Edificio J in front

The Zapotec, another major civilization dominated the region in what is now Oaxaca, Mexico for approximately 1000 years.

A little over 100 miles away from the Olmec, they had a very similar culture. 

In the first century B.C. to the far north, in central Mexico, the Aztecs were beginning their legendary history as well. 

Mayan Timeline 

Due to their cultural, scientific, religious and geographical importance they have been studied extensively by archaeologists for many years.

Mayan history is divided into three periods Pre Classic, Classic, and Post Classic. These periods roughly define the beginning, middle, and end of their civilization. 

Pre Classic Period

The Mayan civilization originated in what is modern day Mexico, and Central America. The formal beginning of the Maya civilization happened in 600 B.C. in the Peten region of northern Guatemala, with the establishment of the city Nakbe. Other major sites in the area like El Mirador, Uaxactun, and Cival also flourished in this period. From their humble beginning, the Maya became skilled astronomers and traders launching their civilization into greatness.

Classic Period

Palenque

The Palace at Palenque

As previously stated the Maya civilization flourished between the years 250 and 900 A.D. The Mayans were made up of several independent Kingdoms or city states, and stretched from the Yucatan, as far down as El Salvador and Honduras.

The Maya city of Tikal, located in Guatemala, is thought to have been the largest in the region at the time. Some even argue that it may have been the largest city in the world. Archaeologists now estimating that as many as 10 million people occupied the area at its height.

The Maya civilization was based around the Mayan Long Count calendar, which had a 13,000 year cycle. The Maya civilization developed an advanced writing system, and transformed it into a highly sophisticated script, along with a very advanced astronomical calendar, which were all used as part of a calendar cycle. In fact the Maya had three consecutive 13,000 year cycles, one of which was when their Mayan calendar would start and end.

The most famous sites in this area were Tikal, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Copan. Bonampak Calakmul, Caracol (c. 1200 to 1350 AD) are considered the most important cultural centers during this period.

The city at Chichén Itzá, located in the Yucatán Peninsula, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. It

was of considerable size and influence for its time and had survived several wars until its destruction in 1540 by the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. It was a powerful city, not only due to its population, but due to its natural resources and strategic location on a number of trade routes.

For a long period, it was the most important center in the ancient Mayan civilization. It is particularly renowned for its massive pyramid, the temple of Kukulkan.

However the Maya civilization had their fair share of damage and conflict. This unfortunately contributed to their inevitable decline. But the Maya had a lasting legacy that still influences many cultures in the region today.

Post Classic Period 

Mayan City

Mayapan

The Post Classic city Mayapan is located in the Yucatán Peninsula and is characterized by various artistic symbols, like the shell-patterned facades and the mirror reflecting facades. It is one of the most popular archaeological sites in the Yucatán. Mayapan was discovered in the late 15th century, and has been considered the most important of all the pre-Columbian Maya archaeological sites, after the city of Palenque. Archeologists believe that Mayapan was the capital of the civilization in this Post Classic period.

The Mayans constructed some of the largest and best-preserved ancient cities in the Americas. They left behind an amazing amount of history.  Although shrouded in mystery, archaeologists are making new discoveries every year. 

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. 

Poking out of the lush green canopies of the Mayan jungles, are ancient ominous limestone structures. Rivaling the Pyramids of Egypt in size and in number, these overwhelming temples are still shrouded in mystery. These are the Mayan Pyramids. 

The Mayan pyramids are some of the largest and oldest structures in the world. Unlike the pyramids in Egypt, Mayan pyramids are ziggurat like step pyramids. With over 4,400 known mayan sites throughout Mexico and Central America, the Maya left a permanent mark in history. 

How Old Are the Mayan Pyramids?

Mayan Pyramids How Old

Tzol'kin Mayan Calendar

The Mayans civilization stretched over the span of thousands of years. Many kings and queens would go off on construction campaigns.

When the Mayan pyramids were first discovered, the pyramids had weathered severely. Some completely covered by the jungle, you would not even know you were standing on a pyramid. 

Many of the Mayan pyramids were built at different times. All over the Maya peninsula, there are cities that have still not been discovered.

Even well known Mayan archaeological sites continue to reveal more and more about the mysterious Mayans. Archaeologists are still uncovering new structures deep in the jungle, and the established knowledge and timeline is changing.

So how old are the Mayan pyramids? To answer this question, one needs to understand that the Mayan civilization was comprised of city states that were constantly at war with one another. City’s would rise and fall, change rulership, and literally be built on top of each other. 

Chichen Itza

How Old Mayan Pyramids Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

For example at Chichen Itza the famous pyramid “El Castillo” was built or enhanced onto an existing pyramid the Maya had built centuries previous. 

Archaeologists dub this former pyramid the substructure, and it is said to be built somewhere around 600 A.D. Hundreds of years later around 900 A.D the Maya complete the pyramid in honor of the god “Kukulkan”, which is the Mayan version of the Aztec god “Quetzalcoatl”. 

The Pyramid itself is a calendar. With a total number of 365 steps, representing their solar calendar “The Haab”. The temple also tracks the spring and autumn equinoxes, and is positioned so perfectly that on these two days triangles of light illuminate the staircase to form what looks like a serpent crawling down the pyramid from the sky.

Pyramids of Palenque

Ancient Palenque City

Palenque

In the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico lies one of the most beautiful mayan sites. Famous for its history of rulers, monuments and detailed inscriptions. Some of the city’s earlier structures date back to around 226 B.C. 

Temple of Inscriptions 

Palenque Pyramid

Temple of Inscriptions

Built by the infamous Lord Pakal around 675 A.D in the late Classic period, this massive 9 level pyramid gets its name from the many detailed inscriptions. At the top of the temple like platform, carved into the stone is 180 years of Palenque’s history. The pyramid houses a tomb where Pakal’s body is encased in an elaborate sarcophagus. 

Temple of the Cross, Sun, and Foliated Cross

Palenque Pyramids Cross Sun and Foliated Cross

Temple of the Sun

After Pakal’s death his son Kan Bahlam erected the three temples, to commemorate his lineage. Constructed in 692 A.D, these three pyramids all facing a central court yard are very unique.

Pyramids at Tikal

jaguar, stains, look

Jaguar

In the Guatemalan lowland jungles, the Mayans built an enormous city. Tikal was a massive city state that reigned for centuries. Flourishing in the classic period from around 200 A.D to 900A.D. 

Recent discoveries of raised highways and aqueducts, are rewriting the history books about this ancient city. Archaeologists are now saying that the area was home to close to ten million people. 

Tens of thousands of structures hidden by the jungle overgrowth still remain uncovered. 

Temple of the Jaguar

Guatemala Pyramid Jaguar Temple

Temple of the Jaguar

Tikal’s Temple of the Jaguar was constructed around 732 A.D. The temple is 180 ft tall and has 9 levels, representing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld Xibalba. 

Jasaw Chan K’awiil ruled Tikal in the Classic period, and was buried the Temple of the Jaguar’s tomb. 

The temple gets its name from a carving of a king sitting on a jaguar throne. Ironically enough this area is one of the few remaining bio reserves that is home to many wild jaguars.

El Mirador’s La Danta

 

North of Tikal, deeper into the dense jungle stands one of the largest pyramids in the world, La Danta. 

At the site of El Mirador, archaeologists have uncovered amazing carvings and reliefs that portray scenes from the Popol Vuh. Many of the structures at El Mirador are Pre Classic Maya. El Mirador lasted between 1000 B.C.- 250 A.D

La Danta is the largest Mayan pyramid at 236 feet tall, by volume La Danta is the largest in the world at 99 million cubic feet. 

Uxmal and the Magician’s Pyramid

At the Mayan site of Uxmal in the Yucatan Peninsula, is the Magicians Pyramid. A fairly large pyramid that was decorated with lattice type design. Uxmal thrived around 600 to 1000 A.D. It is said that the god Itzamna built the pyramid overnight, giving it the name “Magicians Pyramid”.

The Purpose of Mayan Pyramids: what were they used for?

If you're keen on diving deeper into the intricacies of the Maya world, a visit to our homepage at MayanDay.com will give you today's Maya Calendar date—a vital part of their cosmology. But another monumental aspect of their world, both literally and metaphorically, were the pyramids.

Pakal's Tomb in Palenque

King Pakal, shown in the tomb of one of the most iconic mayan pyramids, the Temple of Inscriptions

King Pakal, shown in the tomb of one of the most iconic mayan pyramids, the Temple of Inscriptions

Nestled within the dense jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, the ancient city of Palenque serves as a testament to Mayan ingenuity and spirituality. Among its architectural wonders is the Temple of Inscriptions, a pyramid specially commissioned by King Pakal. This structure is renowned for preserving a wealth of Mayan glyphs, bas-reliefs, and carvings.

At the temple's core, archaeologist Alberto Ruz unveiled a remarkable find: the tomb of Lord Janaab K'inich Pakal, the great king of Palenque. Encased in a grand sarcophagus, Pakal's burial chamber is a treasure trove of Mayan art and glyphs. Notable among the artifacts is an intricately crafted jade mask, adding another layer of mystery and reverence to this extraordinary discovery.

Not Just Tombs

Contrary to popular belief, the Mayan pyramids were not primarily intended as burial places like their Egyptian counterparts. Although some of these structures do contain tombs, they served a more complex array of functions.

Platforms for the Gods

The most immediate purpose of these pyramids was religious. They served as platforms where priests could get closer to the gods and perform sacrifices, rituals, and other religious ceremonies. The staircases often aligned with celestial events, connecting the Earth with the cosmos in a physical and symbolic way.

Centers of Community and Governance

Beyond their religious function, the pyramids were also the centerpieces of Mayan cities and were surrounded by other important structures like ball courts, palaces, and plazas. They essentially served as the central point around which the community revolved, acting not just as places of worship but also as hubs of social, political, and economic activity.

Astronomical Significance

The Maya were keen astronomers, and many of their pyramids are designed to align with celestial bodies and events. The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, for instance, is renowned for the snake-like shadow it casts during the equinox, symbolizing the feathered serpent god descending from the heavens.

Calendrical Relevance

The steps and tiers of some pyramids also encoded the complex Mayan calendrical systems, like the Tzolk'in and Haab. These were not just buildings; they were stone representations of time itself.

Conclusion

The Mayan pyramids were multi-dimensional constructs that served as the physical and metaphysical centers of their cities. From facilitating spiritual communion to acting as astronomical observatories, these pyramids are a testament to the rich and complex life of the Maya civilization.

To expand your knowledge of the Mayan world and its complex calendar system, visit MayanDay.com or check out our book "The Maya Calendar: An Archetypal Structure of Reality."

This article is sponsored by MayanDay.com, where you can find resources to expand your knowledge of the Maya Calendar and the Maya world at large.

 

 

 

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