Ancient Maya Art – Architecture I

View of the main plaza at Tikal (Petén Basin, department of El Petén, northern Guatemala). Tikal was one of the largest urban centers of the Maya civilization. Though monumental architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD.
The Tikal Temple I, also known as “Temple of the Great Jaguar”. The structure is typical of the Petén-styled architecture featuring limestone stepped pyramids. The building dates ca. 732 AD. At the top of the stepped pyramid, the temple is surmounted by a characteristic roof comb, an architectural feature distinctive of the Maya civilization.

The great mass of the Mayan population lived in small and dispersed communities (towns, villages, hamlets), mainly dedicated to work the land. The ceremonial centers were inhabited by the noble class (royalty and priests), civil servants of the complicated civil and religious hierarchy, warriors, merchants, their corresponding servitude, and probably some skilled craftsmen. During the pre-Classic period, the Mayan temple was a simple hut similar to a peasant’s home; towards the end of this same period, the walls were made of masonry, although the thatched roof was still used. At the beginning of the Classic period the corbel or angular vault appeared as an imitation of the thatched roof that was previously used to cover some tombs. The temple was usually built on top of a pyramid as a resemblance of the mountain from which it took its form from the silhouettes of the surrounding hills, a sacred place par excellence for the Maya peoples. The palaces used to contain several rooms arranged in rows and sometimes on several floors; these palaces were in fact narrow galleries transversely divided, dark and poorly ventilated, since they almost always lacked openings or only had narrow entrances. The Maya also built ball game courts, observatories, triumphal arches, steam baths… Even though in regions of uneven terrain it was the topography that determined the distribution and orientation of buildings there was a marked tendency to group them around main squares or patios.

The Structure 33 at Yaxchilan, an ancient Maya city located on the bank of the Usumacinta River (state of Chiapas, Mexico). In the Late Classic Period Yaxchilan was one of the most powerful Maya states along the Usumacinta. The structure pictured here is located in the Central Acropolis of the monumental complex. The building was probably dedicated in 756 AD by Bird Jaguar IV.
View of the west acropolis at Yaxchilan.
The Structure 19 at Yaxchilan. This building is also known as “The Labyrinth”. It stands at the western edge of the Central Acropolis. The structure consists of a temple with rooms spread over three levels and joined by interior stairways.

Although the temple was the most important building, the common people didn’t have access to it. Hence, the temple’s interior space was sacrificed for the sake of its external aspect that should be as imposing as possible. This practice reached such a degree that the temples of Petén (Tikal, in particular) crowning towering and steep pyramids, contained only tiny shrines, some of them a little more than a meter wide, while their walls reached up to six and seven meters thick to withstand the tremendous load of the massive “roof comb*” that raised over the roof and that only served to add greater ornamented surface to the facade.

A view of the ruins of Palenque, an ancient Maya city state (Usumacinta river, state of Chiapas, southern Mexico). Palenque flourished in the 7th century and its ruins date from ca. 226 BC to ca. 799 AD. Although Palenque is a medium-sized site compared to sites like Tikal, Chichén Itzá or Copán, it contained some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings produced by the Maya.

This “facade architecture” is found in other regions influenced by the Petén culture. In Piedras Negras, on the banks of the Usumacinta, the sanctuary was also reduced because of the roof comb, although it was preceded by an open porch, a structure unknown in Petén but characteristic of Palenque, from where it may have come from. In a neighboring city of the same region, Yaxchilán, another Palenque element is present: the roof comb made of a wall of very low weight that didn’t impose the construction of thick walls and thus allowed to increase the interior space. However, some temples of Yaxchilán had a single corridor instead of two as it was more usual, and the roof comb rested on the closing of the vault, the thinner and therefore more fragile area of the ceiling, reason why they added, within the temple, some not-very-pleasant buttresses that reduced and defaced the interior space.

The Temple of the Cross at Palenque is a stepped pyramid containing bas-relief carvings inside. The temple was constructed to commemorate the rise of Chan Bahlum II to the throne after the death of Pacal the Great. The cross motif found at the complex gave the temple its actual name, the cross was a representation of the World Tree found in the center of the world according to Mayan mythology.
The Temple of the Sun at Palenque.
The Temple of Inscriptions is the largest stepped pyramid at Palenque. The structure was specifically built as the funerary monument for K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who ruled over Palenque in the 7th century during almost 70 years. The Temple of the Inscriptions has been a key element for the study of the ancient Maya, due to the extraordinary amount of hieroglyphic text found on the Inscription Tablets (the sculptural panels on the piers of the building) and the artifacts found inside Pakal’s tomb.

Palenque had a much more balanced architecture than that of Petén and the Usumacinta region. The Palenque architecture was made on a more human scale and with an ingenious functionality, fantasy and a remarkable sense of ornamentation (sloping roofs and very protruding eaves with gutters to prevent heavy rains from entering buildings, windows in the outer walls and openings in the central walls of the vaults for greater ventilation). The temples were almost all small, although always provided with an open portico, and usually with two pillars that determined three entrances. The portico communicated with the sanctuary and with two small lateral rooms; the sanctuary constituted a small structure, with its own roof and walls inside the central room. Underneath the floor of several temples were tombs, with a secondary use of the pyramid. However, the great crypt discovered inside the pyramid that supports the Temple of Inscriptions and which contained an extraordinary and completely sculpted stone sarcophagus, was united to the temple by a staircase and thus formed a single architectural unit with the pyramid, a case so far unique in pre-Hispanic America. This tomb corresponds to the burial of K’inich Janaab Pakal I, a leader (“ajaw“) of the city-state of Palenque during the Late Classic period. After his death, Pakal was deified and buried within the Temple of Inscriptions. His skeletal remains were lying in his coffin, wearing a jade mask and bead necklaces, and the sarcophagous was surrounded by sculptures and stucco reliefs depicting the ruler’s transition to divinity and figures from Maya mythology. These were once colorfully painted as traces of pigment have been found on their surface.

The Palace of Palenque includes a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards. The palace complex was built across several generations during a period that spanned four centuries. The Palace was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies. It is located in the center of the ancient city.
The Palace of Palenque as seen from the courtyard with the observation tower in the foreground.
Reconstruction of the tomb of Pakal the Great found at the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).


Roof comb: The structure that tops a pyramid in monumental Mesoamerican architecture. Typically the roof combs crowned the summit of pyramids and other structures; they consisted of two pierced framework walls which leaned on one another. This framework was covered by plaster decorated with artist depictions of gods or important rulers.