Decoding the Maya Pyramids

December 2, 2022



Towering over lush jungles, mist rising in the early morning sun, there is little else that is more iconic than great stone pyramids when people think of the ancient Maya. For many, these impressive structures conjure images of a bygone era of bloody battlefields and gruesome human sacrifices to unfeeling gods. However, archaeological research suggests that these iconic monuments played a far more diverse and important role in Maya society than previously thought.

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The Maya civilization was one of the most advanced civilizations of its time. The earliest traces of the Maya date to earlier than 2000 BCE, lasting on to (and past) the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. The stereotypical view has been that the height of the Maya culture lasted from around 300 CE to 900 CE, named by archaeologists as the Classic Period. 

The Classic Period is the one with the densest urban and construction events, most heavily focused in the Peten region of Guatemala. However, the Maya culture existed before this period, as well as continued to thrive after it ended in the so-called collapse. During their long history, the Maya had a complex social hierarchy, a written language, an exemplary understanding of astronomy, and impressive architectural feats. One of the things that they are most well-known for is their pyramids. But what were these pyramids used for? Keep reading to find out.

Pyramids as Burial Tombs 

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The most well-known pyramids in the world are obviously the Great Pyramids in Egypt, each the tomb of a single Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Because of this, most people automatically assume that anything called a pyramid is also used in the same fashion. This isn’t always the case, however. 

While the Maya did build pyramids to be used as tombs, they are very rarely like what would be seen in Egypt. Firstly, most tomb pyramids were used for multiple people rather than just one. These individuals were often the successive rulers or other important elite members from the ruling dynasty of a city. These structures, not always the typical triangular pyramid, were important places for both the living and the dead. 

The Maya practised ancestor veneration, meaning that important people in their family line were used to help to keep that family in power. Part of doing this meant holding regular rituals at the buildings holding their tombs and making those pyramids funerary temples. Adding to the building, creating a new tomb or just refurbishing the look of the pyramid was an important way for rulers to honor their ancestors as well as show their wealth and power. 

Pyramid Temples 

As mentioned above, some Maya pyramids were actually temples, with some built to honor ancestors, and others to serve as places of worship for the gods. These temple pyramids were not used for burials but were instead places where the elite went to perform religious rituals, most often conducted in the room at the peak of the pyramid. Stairs were placed along the center of the structure, leading to the top, so that the crowds in the courtyard below could see the religious progression. 

Human sacrifice may have taken place, but it was most likely the kind that is referred to as bloodletting. This kind of sacrifice involved cutting the skin with obsidian blades or sting ray spines to spill blood. This could be done by those performing the ritual (called auto-sacrifice) or done to captives. Archaeologists are currently divided on whether or not the Maya practised full human sacrifice in the form of killing.

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Archaeologists believe that the Maya considered their pyramids to be man-made mountains, places that connected the three levels of the world: the heavens, the surface, and the underground. Images of a deity or concept referred to as witz were used to transform pyramids into living mountains. 

Maya pyramids also served an important socio-political purpose. By gathering at ceremonial sites located at the top of these structures, rulers of a city could be seen performing the rituals and ceremonies that kept them in favor of the gods. All pyramids were based around an open courtyard area, where people could gather and watch or participate in the ceremony with music, the burning of incense, and other forms of interaction. Some rituals were conducted at special temples, with access to those pyramids and their courtyards limited to priests or other elite.

Pyramid Observatories 

Mayan observatory Chichen Itza Mexico Yucatan

Another function of Maya pyramids was as an observatory. The Maya were expert astronomers, and they used the pyramid's height and alignment with certain celestial bodies to track astronomical events. By doing this, they were able to predict things like eclipses and solstices, which were marked by large ceremonies and rituals. Many of the most well-known Maya pyramids, such as those at Chichén Itza and Tikal, are aligned with the sun or moon during key dates in the Maya calendar.

At Tikal, the two twin pyramids (built in the Classic Period) of the central precinct are aligned so that on the solstice, each creates a shadow along the other at sunrise and sunset. At Chichén Itza, the famous Temple of Kukulcán (built in the Postclassic) is designed so it appears as if the shadows of a great snake are climbing the stairs as the sun sets on the solstice.

One specific kind of architectural arrangement that is thought to be used primarily for solar observation is the so-called E-Group structures. First identified at the city of Uaxactun

, E-Groups are made of a long low-range building on the eastern edge of an open courtyard, with a tall pyramid opposite to the west. From this pyramid, the setting and rising suns of the solstice align with the three buildings on top of the eastern structure. These kinds of arrangements are seen throughout the Maya world, with most built before or during the Classic Period, showing how important solar observation was for the Maya. 


Though they may be best known for their gruesome past, it seems that the real story of the Maya pyramids is much more complicated than popular thought would have us believe. Thanks to the dedicated work of archaeologists, we are gradually uncovering new insights into how these imposing structures were used by the ancient Maya people.

These are just a few of the many uses that Maya pyramids had. While they might be most well-known now as tourist attractions, it's important to remember the historical and cultural significance that these structures had, and still have to modern Maya and other peoples living in Central America. Respect should always be shown when viewing these impressive structures.

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