Mayan Architecture [Ultimate Guide] - Buildings That Created New Worlds


Congrats! You survived 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar.

Thanks to Mayan Architecture, we can understand the history of this ancient civilization and understand what that calendar means.

Let's go back in time and see how.

Mayan Architecture Guide

Welcome to the Jungle: Tropical Mayan Architecture

To understand these Mesoamerican civilizations, we have to understand why they were built?

Mayans were surrounded by many resources, but in a risky climate!

(Yes, even riskier than the American East Coast)

They lived in three locations:

  • the Northern Maya Lowlands (Yucatan Peninsula)
  • the Southern Maya Lowlands (Guatemala and Belize)
  • the Southern Maya Highlands (Mountainous Guatemala)
Location

Were these Mayans suntanning, building snowmen, or climbing trees?

Yucatan Peninsula climate is an arid subtropical climate. This means they would drown in 6 months of rain, and starve in 6 months of drought.

This subtropical climate came from the jungles around civilizations. These jungles provided Mayans with the diverse resources they needed to live.

Mayan Pyramid

Resources like water from nearby rivers, moist soil for agriculture, and animals for domestication.

Not only that, but the environment provided limestone, palm trees, volcanic rock, sand, and sandstone. All in one place!

These resources created the ancient worlds of the Maya. But how were they used for Mayan Architecture? Keep reading to find out!

Building the New World: Mayan Architecture History

History is rarely exciting or even interesting. But that's not the case for the mysterious disappearance of an entire civilization.

To this day, archaeologists are unsure why Mayans disappeared during their decline in the early 1000s.

The lifeline of the incredible Mayan civilization is split into five eras:

  • Pre-classical Era (1500 B.C.E. - 250 C.E.)
  • Classical Era (250 C.E. - 600 C.E.)
  • Late-Classical Era (600 C.E. - 800 C.E.)
  • The Collapse (800 C.E. - 900 C.E.)
  • The Mexican - Mayan Period (900 C.E. - 1100 C.E.)

Each of these eras were filled with discoveries that made the modern cities we have today.

A 3000 year old diet: The Pre-Classical Era

In the Pre-Classical Era, the Maya developed their own agricultural system. This system included plants like corn, beans, squash, and cassava; laying the groundwork for much of today’s Latin american diet.

Imagine that! The corn based diet in most Latin American countries was actually developed 3500 years ago.

Not only that, but Mayans began trading with the surrounding Olmecs.

This is tremendously important as we think about the exchange of information between the two native civilizations, spreading successful techniques to survival.

(The phrase “It takes a village” comes to mind)

With this, the Maya began building huts in groups and developing public works like plazas. Creating villages.

Village

For The Gods! Classical Era

This Era was when Mayan Civilization began to thrive. A LOT of people were brutally sacrificed to the Mayan Gods. Very brutally.

Other than the development of religion, the Mayans began developing Mathematics, Astronomy, and Mayan Architecture style.

With the developments of Astronomy, the Maya could predict weather conditions, seasons, time of day, and even when it was best to plant and harvest.

These studies gave Mayans a super calendar.

Mayan Calendar

One that would last thousands of years.

Villages became city-states ruled by kings and priests from their Mayan temples and palaces. Mayan culture was practiced through ball games TO THE DEATH (Ulama). Sacrifices and rituals were used to contact ancestors.

Want to know something that’s crazy?

Ulama is still played today, obviously not to the death.

These City-States became hubs of art, carvings, literature, and architecture. All based around religion. 

Art

Photo credit: Nora Martinez

All until war raged between city-states.

Stained with Blood: Late Classical Period and the Collapse

The start of the late classical period marked the beginning of the end for the Maya.

Wars

Created by: Pierre Joubert

This period of Mayan civilization was teeming with disputes between other Mayan city-states.

It is because of the looming threat of war that entire city-states became abandoned.

But because of war, murals were carved into Mayan Pyramids, paper was invented to exchange information, and many religious events took place (probably because there were too many war prisoners to keep alive).

It was after this late-classical era that the Mayans mysteriously disappeared. And for the longest time, no one knew why.

As the archaeological process changed, scientists began evaluating the soil and limestone sediments of the Mayan settlements. Many theories came out of it; including years and years of drought, famine, war, and even overpopulation.

But as the Mayans disappeared, other central-american civilizations took their place.

Mexican - Mayan period

Not much is known about who exactly settled Mayan civilizations.

Whoever settled the area after the Mayans were heavily influenced by Mayan art, language, and even religion. As seen in this group's carvings.

Carvings

They continued to be influenced by the Maya way of life until the Spaniards colonized and ravaged the area for their own benefit in 1521.

Luckily, the stone carvings and buildings of the Maya were preserved for thousands of years for us to study their exciting religious way of life.

Building the New World: Mayan Architecture History

Because the Mayans developed language and writing skills, we can actively read about all the ancient sacrifices, beheadings, and dissections that took place in the city centers.

There were of course intricate beliefs and thoughts behind each of these ceremonies.

Their religion didn’t just dominate Mayan way of life, but also it motivated the studies of astronomy, mathematics, and Mayan Architecture.

The Maya believed in many gods, heavens, and even hells, but let's start with the creation of our world.

Mayans believed that Huracán, the god of wind, created earth for animals and plants. Then, Man was made from the earth, and women from men. 

Gods

Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The Maya even believed in an apocalypse, where humans would be replaced by another godly creation. Just like other practiced religions across the world.

Not only this, but Mayans believed that after death, there were levels of Heaven and Hell for each person: 9 levels of Heaven, 13 levels of the underworld. This is an important concept for Mayan architecture characteristics.

Mayan Religion

Photo credit: The British Museum

Because these gods were representative of nature, Mayan priests and kings had to please gods for a great harvest and wartime prosperity.

Giving Blood: Religious Rituals

Now here is the exciting part of Mayan religion.

Mayan’s had many different ways of pleasing gods, most violent, some non-violent.

The most famous of these rituals were the Human Sacrifices.

Sacrifices

These Sacrifices, done on Mayan pyramids and temples, were reserved for only the greatest Mayan events. In these rituals, Kings and Priests would decapitate, remove beating hearts, or throw people down wells, all to bring prosperity during harvest season and war time.

Another interesting ritual was that of bloodletting. A ritual done by the royal family to communicate with ancestors, celebrate births, and symbolize the blood that gods shed for them.

Bloodletting

Non-violent rituals like Dances communicated with gods. These dancers often wore traditional, colorful costumes, held staffs, and wore rattles.

Dances

The Mayan practices alone informed almost every aspect of Mayan Architecture where temples, palaces, and cities were built to honor gods.

So, let's give you what you came here for.

The First American Civilization: Mayan Architecture and Styles

Religion dominated the design of buildings in the Mayan City states. But their shape, organization along the north-south axis of city-states, and construction was conceived by the climate and resources.

These are the Characteristics of the Mayan’s Vernacular Architecture.

First, let's start with the smallest scale of Mayan Architecture, the Homes of farmers and peasants.

Mayan Architecture - Homes

To start, Mayan homes were located on the outside of the religious city center in groups or small villages.

Mayan Home

Because of the subtropical climate, homes had one room, built with:

  • Triangular wood and palm tree roofs to cool homes and prevent leakage from rain
  • Vertical wooden walls
  • Concrete foundations to keep homes from being destroyed by small storms

Unfortunately, homes were still often destroyed by the flooding of lowland city-states.

Mayan Architecture - Pyramids

Pyramid

These structures are possibly the most famous and used structures in Maya civilization

These pyramids had uses such as:

  • Sacrifices
  • Burials of kings
  • Storing of precious goods
  • Served as a testament to a king's power

The most interesting thing about these pyramids was their form. Especially because their form stemmed from Mayan Religious beliefs.

Their form had:

  • Come from the mountains that were held sacred to the Mayans
  • Stacked steps or levels that represented the levels of heaven mentioned previously
  • Underground chambers for burials that represented the number of levels in the underground world (13)
  • Carved with hieroglyphics that told stories of gods, wars, and people in the city center
  • Statues and carving of religious symbols
  • Temples on top, where sacrifices would take place
  • Built on top of one another to create even larger symbols of power

Mayan Architecture - Temples

There were two types of temples: the large temples that topped pyramids, and the small temples, called Triadic Groups, that were shrines to gods and stars.

Temple

The Mayan temples that topped these pyramids were, to me, the most interesting part of Mayan Civilization. Because this is where the most building engineering took place.

Temples, where people's heads were often cut off or dissected had:

  • Thick, individually carved limestone and sandstone stacks, sometimes covered with stucco
  • Carved religious symbols and stories
  • Post and lintel entrances
  • Vaulting of corbelled openings to create interiors: a process of stacking rocks to create triangular openings
  • Included the “boot rock” innovation that add thrust to these opening to make them even larger
  • Built with wooden ties for stability

These temples and pyramids had three varying styles based on location:

  • The Puuc Style - the most common style, where buildings were comprised as a short lower wall and a taller, more elaborately decorated upper wall
Puuc Style
  • East Coast Style - Used in Southern Lowlands, and consisted of wood beams and flat roofs. However, these wood beams often rotted and collapsed the structure. Interior columns were later used.
East Coast Style
  • Mexican-mayan style - Very similar to Puuc Style; however, carvings and artwork featured vastly different patterns and stories.

These Temples were where kings practiced religious ceremonies, but where did the kings live?

Mayan Architecture - Palaces

Whereas Pyramids were massive, stacked structures that housed the dead; Palaces were massive 1-7 floor buildings that housed many of the priest class.

Palace

The most amazing thing about these palaces were the program that they housed, including:

  • Homes for the highest class
  • Tombs for some of those that once lived in the palace
  • Courtyards for leisure
  • Food Halls for feasting
  • Steam rooms
  • Cooking Areas
  • AND EVEN BATHROOMS

Just like Pyramids and Temples, these massive structures were highly decorated and located among the religious city centers. These centers served as the center for all cultural activities. Even Umala, the ball game played to the death.

Ball Courts

Mayan Sport Umala

Umala was the Mayan sport of choice. Games took place in their own designated courts. These rectangular courts, also made of limestone and cement were comprised of:

  • Two walls spanning lengthwise around the court
  • Two carved hoops for the ball to pass through
Umala Goal
  • Seating for spectators to watch these games that were located above the court, just like modern stadiums
Umala Field

Because Umala was considered a religious event, these games attracted entire city states. However, most games were played between one local team and one team of prisoners. Whoever lost was sacrificed. Of course, the prisoners lost the most.

These pyramids, palaces, and ball courts have directly influenced cities and culture of Central American and construction techniques used across the world.

Architecture of the Future

The Maya gave the modern world WAY more than just interesting artifacts and elementary school history classes. They LITERALLY shaped our cities.

Of these influences, 3 remain the most widely used:

  • Mortar that was once used to stack loose stones hold together our brick buildings now
  • Concrete once used for foundations in homes and pyramids STILL create foundations for our homes and megastructures
  • The Wall Section, used to construct every modern building, was used by the Mayans to make walls waterproof, decorative, and colorful. Mayan wall sections consisted of Paint, Stucco, structural concrete or wood, Stucco, and then carved Ashler Slabs

Even more literally, one architect named Richard Stacy Judd, Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) took components and decoration directly from these mesoamerican communities in a branch of Art-deco Architecture called Mayan Revival.

Richard Stacy Judd
Richard Stacy Judd

That is why studying Mayans is so crucial to understanding ancient civilizations and the architecture we have today!

Go out and See For Yourself!

These buildings preserved advancements in language, writing, sculpting, and construction. They told us the fascinating story of the life and mysterious disappearance of an entire civilization.

Mayan Architecture is an amazing religious testament to this civilization's advanced history and discoveries that still exist for you to see.

Comment below your favorite Mayan buildings you want to see!

About the Author

Dušan Cvetković is a professional architect from Serbia with international experience in the industry. Collaborated with numerous clients all around the world in the field of architecture design, 3D modeling and software education. He's been teaching Rhinoceros3D to thousands of architects through How to Rhino community and various social media channels.