Ancient Maya Art – Architecture II

Examples of the río Bec Mayan architectural style. Top Left: Structure XI at Becan (state of Campeche, Mexico). Top Right: The Structure II at Hormiguero (state of Campeche, Mexico) is a rectangular platform, with two false-staircase towers at either side of a colossal Chenes-style monster-portal. Bottom Left: Structure I at Xpuhil, in the state of Campeche, this construction is of particular interest because it was not built in the Río Bec style dut to its three towers and atypical distribution of interior spaces. Bottom right: A reconstruction of Structure I at Xpuhil by the Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff.

Several architectural styles are recognized in the north of Yucatán corresponding to the late Classical period (600-900 AD.), ie. contemporaneous with the boom of the cities of the central area mentioned before. These styles are designated by geographical references: Bec river (the name of one of the archaeological sites characteristic of this style, located in the southern end of the Campeche and Quintana Roo states); Chenes (the northwest region of Campeche, in which the name of the villages often ends with the word “chen” meaning well), and Puuc (a Mayan name, equivalent to “low mountain range”, referring to the hills located in the confines of the Campeche and Yucatán states). These three styles were related and didn’t constitute distinct phases of one same artistic evolutionary sequence. The most southern style (Bec River: Becan, Xpuhil, Hormiguero, Channá) was influenced by both the Petén, region with which it borders to the South, and Los Chenes, immediately to the North. The temples were completed at both ends and at their back by tall towers provided with steep (unusable) stairs crowned by simulated temples. These towers bear great resemblance to the pyramids and temples of Tikal, and can be considered as the culmination of the “facade architecture” mentioned before, since here they represent mere ornamentation. As for the decoration of both the simulated temples and the “true” temples, it was the same as that characteristic of the Chenes style in which the facade is completely covered with ornamental motifs that as a whole represented the mask of the rain god in which the mouth corresponded to the temple’s entrance. The archaeological sites of the Chenes region (Hochob, Dzibilnocac, El Tabasqueño, Xtampak, Dzehkabtún, Dzibiltún), besides their characteristic facades, present some elements from the third style of the Peninsula, the Puuc style, as are the superimposed masks of the god of the Rain placed on the corners of buildings. However, both in Bec river and in Los Chenes, the stucco was heavily used to complement the ornamentation, a material that was totally discarded in the Puuc style.

Examples of the Chenes Mayan architectural style. Top Left: The Principal Palace or Structure II at the Maya site of Hochob (state of Campeche, Mexico), the facade shows the typical monster-mouth entrance. Top Right: The Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltún (state of Yucatán, Mexico). The building took its name because of seven small effigies found at the site when the temple was discovered. Bottom Left: Mayan ruins at El Tabasqueño located on the peninsula of Yucatán (state of Campeche, Mexico). Bottom Right: Facade of the palace at Santa Rosa Xtampak (state of Campeche, Mexico). The Palace is a three level building with 27 rooms on the fist level, 12 on the second and 5 on the third, for a total of 44 rooms. It has four external stairways, two of them are located on the west side of the structure and lead to the second level.
Top Left: The Chenes style Dzehkabtún Mayan ruins in the state of Campeche (Mexico). Some examples of the Puuc Mayan architectural style. Top Right: The “Adivino” or Pyramid of the Magician, in Uxmal, one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites (state of Yucatán, Mexico). The “Adivino” is a stepped pyramid structure, unusual among Maya structures in that its outline is oval or elliptical, instead of the more common rectilinear plan. The origin of its name is found in one of the best-known tales of Yucatec Maya folklore, “el enano del Uxmal” (the dwarf of Uxmal). According to the story, the pyramid was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the ruler or king of Uxmal. Bottom Left: Palace of the governor at Uxmal, this building is one of the finest in Uxmal with its elaborately carved facades on both the inside and outside. Bottom Right: The Structure 2C6 or Codz Poop of Kabah, located in western Yucatán state (Mexico). This structure is also known as the “Palace of the Masks”, because its facade is decorated with hundreds of stone masks of the long-nosed rain god Chaac; the name Codz Poop, means “Rolled Matting”, from the pattern of the stone mosaics. This massive repetition of a single set of elements is unusual in Maya art, and here is used to produce a unique effect.

The buildings of the Puuc (Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labná, Almuchil, Chacmultún, Huntichmool, Yaxché, Kiuic) are of low height, covered with well cut and assembled ashlars; on the facade the plain walls contrast with the exuberant decoration of the friezes, a true stone mosaic in which the masks of the rain god are profusely highlighted among the repetition of geometric, symbolic and ornamental elements. The column was commonly used in contrast to the sites of the central area where it never appeared; it could serve as a support for dividing the entrances into several bays, or as an ornamental feature in plinths, friezes and even architraves and cornices in the form of slender shafts or cylindrical cones. The roof comb still appeared in the oldest temples (VI and VII centuries AD.), but disappeared in those that corresponded to the flourishing of the style (VIII and IX centuries AD.). The Puuc style was also found in some places far from its original region, such as Chichén-Itzá (temple of the Three Lintels, The Nuns, The Church), where they corresponded to the Maya occupation prior to the Toltec invasion.

More examples of the Puuc Mayan architectural style. Top Left: Detail of decorative elements at Kabah Mayan ruins. Top Right: The Great Palace at Sayil (state of Yucatán, Mexico). Bottom Left: The Getaway Arch in Labna, (southwest Yucatán state, Mexico). From the palace, a ceremonial road (sacbe*) extends to this elaborately decorated gateway arch (“El Arco”) which includes well-preserved bas-reliefs. The arch didn’t represent an entrance to the city, but rather was used as a passageway between public areas. Bottom Right: First storey of the Cabalpak building at Chacmultun (Yucatán state, Mexico). Chacmultun’s buildings most distinguishing feature is the red stone from which they were made. This color was the result of microorganisms living in the stone which turned red when they came into contact with air and water.
Puuc Mayan architectural style. Top Left: Mayan ruins of Yaxha, located in the northeast of the Petén Basin region (Guatemala). Top Right: The Temple of the Three Lintels at Chichén-Itzá (Tinúm Municipality, Yucatán State, Mexico). Bottom Left: Mayan palace at Kiuic (Puuc region of Yucatán, Mexico). Bottom Right: The Nun’s House at Chichén-Itzá, is one of the more notable structures at the site.

The Mayan-Toltec style that emerged from the fusion of techniques, architectural conceptions, ideas, and artistic sensibilities of those two well-differentiated ethnic groups, is presented in its most clear and brilliant manifestation in Chichén-Itzá (XI-XIII centuries AD.). Perfected by Mayan builders and artists, the artistic elements from Tula, the Toltec capital, are easily recognizable: wide halls, hypostyle halls, thickening of the base of the walls, interior benches, ornaments on the roofs (wrongly called battlements), columns in form of serpents, pillars decorated with Tula-like warriors and a multitude of typically Toltec sculptures: “atlantes”, “chacmooles“, standard bearers, feathered serpents, eagles and jaguars eating hearts, symbols of the god Quetzalcóatl-Kukulcán, etc. All of these were ingeniously combined with Mayan elements: angular vault, smooth facade walls, architraves and cornices with three moldings, masks of the rain god, jaguar thrones.

Puuc Mayan architectural style at Chichén-Itzá. Top Left: Relief of the god Chac at the facade of the Nun’s house. Top Right: “El Castillo” (“The Castle”), also known as the Temple of Kukulcán, is a stepped-pyramid that dominates the center of Chichén-Itzá. It was built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD and served as a temple to the god Kukulkán, the Yucatec Maya equivalent of the Feathered Serpent deity closely related to the god Quetzalcóatl of the Aztecs. The pyramid consists of a series of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. Sculptures of feathered serpents run down the sides of the northern balustrade. Bottom Left: The “Church” building decorated with elaborate masks. Bottom Right: Chacmool effigy turning his sight towards the Temple of Kukulcán.
Puuc Mayan architectural style at Chichén-Itzá. Top Left: A feathered serpent sculpture at the base of one of the stairways of the Temple of Kukulcán. Top Right: The “serpent effect” observed during the spring equinox at the Temple of Kukulcán. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes off the northwest corner of the pyramid and casts a series of triangular shadows against the northwest balustrade, creating the illusion of a feathered serpent “crawling” down the pyramid. The event has been very popular, but it is questionable whether it is a result of a purposeful design. Bottom Left: The Temple of the Warriors and the group of the Thousand Columns. The Temple consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. This complex is analogous to Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula, and indicates some form of cultural contact between the two regions. Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns, although when the city was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof system. Bottom Right: “El Caracol” (“The Snail”) observatory temple is a round building on a large square platform. It gets its name from the stone spiral staircase inside.

In Mayapán, which replaced Chichén-Itzá as a dominant city in the north of Yucatán during the mid-13th century, some techniques, decorative motifs, and Mayan-Toltec symbols were still in use, but those times were marked by struggles between different states, and the decadent art reflected a collapsing society. Another consequence of this political instability and the war ambience of the time, was the construction of walls that surrounded some cities, like Mayapán and Tulum, the latter on the Caribbean coast. The architecture of the Caribbean coast, for the most part of late development, retained a few Toltec elements but displayed its own style: small buildings, walls frequently plunged outwards, stucco-based decoration in which a “descending” deity proliferated perhaps representing the sun at dusk.

Top Left: The elaborate mosaic masks decorating “La Iglesia” (“The Church”) at Chichén-Itzá. Top Center: The Pyramid of Kukulcán at Mayapán (state of Yucatán, Mexico) with the Templo Redondo (“Rounded Temple”) at its far left. The pyramid is the main temple in Mayapán. The structure is a radial four-staircase temple with nine terraces; it is generally similar to the Temple of Kukulcán at Chichén-Itzá. Top Right: The Pyramid of “El Castillo” at Tulum along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo (Mexico). Bottom Left: The Tulum ruins overlooking the Caribbean. Bottom Right: The Temple of the Frescoes at Tulum included a lower gallery and a smaller second story gallery. The building was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. Figurines of the Maya “diving god” or Venus deity were placed in niches decorating its facade.


Sacbe: (Yucatec Maya for “white way” or “white road”). A raised paved road built by the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Most sacbeob connected temples, plazas, and groups of structures within ceremonial centers or cities, but some longer roads between cities are also known. The “sacbe” were white because they were originally coated with limestone stucco, which was over stone and rubble fill.