Univ 110A: Great Discoveries in Archaeology
Dr. Melinda Leach, Fall 2014
I have looked at the site and building orientation of Mayan ceremonial centers and reviewed multiple hypotheses over the reasoning and possible factors that led Mayan architects to use the structural positioning that they did in these ceremonial centers. These hypotheses vary from astronomical and cultural factors to the physical environment. It is suggested that the Maya had a method for determining magnetic north, and it still remains unexplained why the Maya shifted building alignment from time to time and often simultaneously at different sites. I focused on the ancient Maya city of Yaxchilan as an example of how these cities were strategically and carefully built.
MAYA HISTORY & CHRONOLOGY
The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization who’s influence can be detected in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and some parts of Mexico. The area of Maya influence can be divided into three zones: the southern Pacific lowlands, the highlands, and the northern lowlands. The Maya highlands include all of the elevated terrain in Guatemala and the Chiapas highlands of Mexico (Coe 1999, 47). The southern lowlands lie just south of the highlands, and incorporate a part of the Mexican state of Chiapas, the southern coast of Guatemala, Belize, and northern El Salvador. The northern lowlands cover all of the Yucatan Peninsula (Coe 1999, 47).
Archaeologists today still discuss when exactly the Maya civilization was first established. Discoveries made in Cuello, Belize have been carbon dated to around 2600 BCE, and the Mayan calendar begins with a date equivalent to August 11, 3114 BC. As of now, the most widely accepted view is that the first early Maya civilizations were established around 1800 BCE, which is known as the Preclassic period, and is characterized by sedentary communities and the introduction of pottery and fired clay figurines (Coe 1999, 61). The Classic period (AD 250-900) was the peak of large-scale construction and urbanism, the recording of monumental inscriptions, and significant intellectual and artistic development, particularly in the southern lowland regions. The people developed an agriculturally intensive, city-centered civilization consisting of numerous independent city-states (Coe 1999, 63). During this period the Maya population reached the millions. They created a multitude of kingdoms and small empires, built monumental palaces and temples, engaged in highly developed ceremonies, and developed an elaborate hieroglyphic writing system (Coe 1999, 63). During the succeeding Postclassic period (from the 10th to the early 16th century), development in the northern centers persisted, characterized by an increasing diversity of external influences.
Maya architecture spans several thousands of years. Often the most easily recognizable as Maya are the stepped pyramids from the Pre-classic period and beyond. Being based on the general Mesoamerican architectural traditions these pyramids relied on intricate carved stone in order to create a stairstep design. Each pyramid was dedicated to a God whose shrine sat at its peak. During this period of Maya culture, the centers of their religious, commercial and bureaucratic power grew into large cities. Through observation of the numerous elements and distinctions, surviving traces of Maya architecture have become an important key to understanding the evolution of their ancient civilization (Webster 1997, 219). Long before archaeologists could read Maya dates, understand the meaning of Maya inscriptions, or comprehend the complex symbolism of Maya art, there were the buildings. The first European intimations of complex Maya culture were the white temples, shrines, and houses that Spanish explorers sighted and briefly visited along the northwest coast of Yucatan in 1517-1518. Some of these