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.
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.
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.
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.
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.