Uncovering the Purpose of Maya Pyramids 

December 2, 2022
Nick

 

To most, the pyramids of the ancient Maya in Central America are synonymous with mystery. For years they have captured the imaginations of archaeologists, historians, authors, filmmakers, and the general public. All that have found a fascination with these buildings seek the same thing; to unveil the secrets hidden within their walls. 

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While there are still things we do not know about these iconic structures, recent discoveries have given us a greater insight into their purpose. In this blog post, we'll take a look at some of the latest findings and what they tell us about the role of the Maya pyramid in ancient society.

The large man-made mountains that the Maya made, were not actually pyramids, in the strictest sense of the definition. There is a great deal of variation in the sizes, shapes, and functions of these great stone structures. These pyramids were used for a variety of purposes, including public or private ceremonies, religious rituals, the home of multiple tombs, and astronomical observatories. Even in a complex that has multiple pyramids, each one could have served a different purpose for the Maya. Investigating these grand structures tells us a great deal about this ancient culture. 

Construction Techniques

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Unlike the ancient Egyptians, the Maya did not build their pyramids out of large, stacked blocks. Instead, they started construction on a courtyard or bedrock surface, and then created a platform made of a combination of earth, rock, and plaster. These platforms were generally square or rectangular that sloped upwards at an angle. Multiple platforms would then be built on top of each other, with each higher one being slightly smaller. Walls of cut limestone were used to hold the building material in place, with those cut stones creating the faces of the structure. 

They were not left bare; stucco, a kind of plaster made from burning limestone, resulted in a brilliant white paste that they applied to the surface of buildings. This was then painted or carved with decorative elements, most often with the most impressive features flanking a central staircase that ascended to the top of the pyramid, where there was either an open platform or a room/building.  

If there were open rooms within the structure, it was common practice for the next ruler to fill those rooms and build a new layer over top. This was done for multiple reasons, such as to show the ruler’s power and control, but also for safety. The Maya did not have the true arch but used what is called a corbeled vaulted arch, which is much more triangular. This resulted in long narrow rooms that were not very stable, so filling them in and creating new rooms or platforms helped to prevent collapses/ 

Pyramids, Temples, or Both? 

One of the most common misconceptions about Maya pyramids is that they were used exclusively as tombs for powerful rulers or religious figures. This would make them similar to the more famous kind of pyramids seen in Egypt. However, archaeological evidence points to this not being the main use the Maya had for their pyramids. Only a few were used as tombs, and those that do house human remains did so in a particular manner.

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In fact, most of what we would consider pyramids were actually religious or ceremonial structures. Unlike those seen in Egypt, the Maya pyramids were designed so activity took place on them, rather than inside of them. Stairs were generally placed in the center of the structure that led to the peak, where an open room or building was located. This building was then the temple, where ceremonies or rituals took place. Spectators would stand in the large open courtyards at the base of the pyramid to witness or participate in the ceremony. 

Tombs are only seldomly found in these pyramid temple structures, and usually only a limited number of them. These would generally have belonged to important rulers and/or religious figures, most often an important member of the royal dynasty. Perhaps the founder of the dynasty, or the ruler who ordered the construction of the pyramid.

There were of course structures that were more tombs than a temple. Archaeologists refer to these kinds of buildings as mortuary temples. They were used to house multiple burials, likely from the same ruling dynasty, where living members of that dynasty could then complete rituals to honor their ancestors. These structures tend to group to themselves, in a Necropolis, with the other temple pyramids found elsewhere within the city. 

Pyramids and Astronomy 

Another key function of the Maya pyramids was to keep track of astronomical events, though not all pyramids were used in that manner. The Maya were expert astronomers and kept detailed records of astronomical phenomena such as eclipses, planetary alignments, solstice, and equinox events. 

To aid in this effort, they constructed many pyramid complexes that had observatories located at their summits, rather than temples. From these high vantage points, Maya astronomers could make detailed observations of the sky and record their findings in hieroglyphic writings, either in books that have not survived or on murals within the pyramid complex. In this way, the Maya were able to develop highly accurate calendars that could be used to predict future astronomical events with remarkable accuracy. 

Conclusion

The ancient Maya civilization produced some of the most impressive architectural feats in history with their beautifully designed pyramids. 

While there are still elements we do not know about them, recent discoveries have given us a greater insight into the purpose of the ancient Mayan pyramids. These structures served many different functions in Mayan society, from temples and burial chambers for elite members of society to observatories used by Maya astronomers to track astronomical events. By unravelling some of the mysteries surrounding these iconic buildings, we can begin to get a better understanding of life in ancient Maya civilization.

The next time you see a picture of a Mayan pyramid, you will be able to appreciate all that went into its creation!

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