Maya Ceremonial Centers

The content of Maya classic civilization is very rich and can be summarized only in a briefest way. They consist of large pyramidal mounds and platforms made of earth and rock fill. Many of the Maya buildings are tremendously high and amazingly steep. As examples, the great temple pyramid of Tikal rise tower-like to heights of over 60 meters above the plaza floors.

The buildings which surmount the pyramids and platforms also were constructed of rubble fill and stone-block masonry. In some, as in the northern lowlands, the dressed-stone facing were no more than a veneer set in stucco. Walls of the buildings were thick and rooms were relatively narrow; roofs were vaulted with corbelled arches.

Doors were usually small and windows very rare so that the interiors of those structures still intact are dark and cool. Small buildings, of from one to three rooms, placed on the tops of steep pyramids, likely were temples; longer and larger buildings, with many rooms and set on lower, broader platforms, probably were palaces.

The ball court, a Maya Late Classic Period feature, was the other principal building type. The basic plan of Maya ceremonial centers, particularly in the southern lowlands, was a rectangular plaza enclosed on three or four sides by mounds. These plazas were often artificially dressed hilltops, as at Uaxactun, or terraced hillsides, as at Piedras Negras and Palenque. By successive layers of construction, the plaza unit gradually assumed the aspect of an acropolis, of which the famous “Main Group” at Tikal or the “Acropolis” of Copan is good examples.

Carved stelae and altar stones were set up in the plazas, frequently at the feet of pyramid stairways. High above the plazas, the temples and palaces were ornamented with intricate roof-combs, flying facades, and carved and stucco-sculptured decoration.

The Maya ceremonial centers were constructed and supported by sustaining populations of jungle farmers, but the archaeological record of this people is now only beginning to be set down. The ordinary classic Maya dwellings were probably much like the wood, mud, and thatch huts of their historic or modern descendants, and such buildings have left little trace above ground. Fortunately, many of them were built on small platforms of earth or stone, and a number of these “house mounds” have been discovered and studied. These studies indicate that dwellings were not closely packed in and immediately around the ceremonial centers. Clusters of mounds have been found close to the main plazas and mounds of the centers, but equally large clusters were scattered along the river bottoms or around the edges of lakes and bajos (swamps) several kilometers removed from the ceremonial centers.

There are some debatable exceptions. Some archaeologists claim that Tikal is the Peten was truly urban in its proportions, as was Dzibilchaltun in northern Yucatan. But for the most part, the over-all settlement pattern of the Classic Maya was a scattered hamlet dotting most of the suitable farming land. Interspersed among these hamlets were minor ceremonial centers, and somewhat more distant from one another were the major centers with their elaborate architecture and monuments. Presumably, several hamlets coordinated their efforts to construct and maintain a minor ceremonial center, and in turn, the total populations tributary to such minor centers coalesced with other similar groups to support major centers.