Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging
of the Maya Cities of
UXMAL, KABAH, SAYIL, and LABNÁ
The Puuc Region, Yucatán, México
Looked at from the point of view of European civilization, the ancient Maya exhibit an incomprehensible combination of Stone Age technologies with highly developed art and architecture and a few intellectual accomplishments that surpassed even those of Europeans at the time.
Although the Maya had almost no metal tools, the quality of their carving is often superb. Although they did not have wheeled vehicles or beasts of burden, they constructed major cities with impressive stone buildings.
Maya architecture was, from the European point of view, structurally “primitive,” lacking “true” structural arches or interlocking stones. Their buildings were essentially mounds of rubble and concrete, faced with cut stones that were only partly structural, covered with stucco and plaster. Nevertheless, their buildings were structurally sound and many are still standing after more than a thousand years.
The size of most interior rooms was limited, but Maya buildings, plazas, and courtyards created large outdoor stage settings for their civic-religious ceremonies. The proportions of their buildings and the complexity and subtlety of their decoration are the finest of any in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Moreover, their thatched-wattle domestic structures on slightly raised platforms were easily built and repaired and provided protection from the intense seasonal rains and summer heat.
It is largely misleading to judge Maya architecture by the character of European architecture. The Maya were able to sustain vast populations in dense urban societies. Maya architecture seems to have admirably suited their climate and social needs over a vast area for centuries.
Knowledge of writing, mathematics, a calendar, and chronology was limited to a small elite of priests, royalty, and perhaps to some extent to administrators, architects and artists. But the intellectual level developed within this elite was exceptional. The Maya created a mathematical system incorporating the concept of zero and the most accurate yearly solar calendar of any culture including European. They created one of the world’s unique writing systems. Although the range of ideas, emotions, and intellectual concepts that could be written was extremely limited, they recorded in detail and with great precision extensive chronologies of political and royal events, wars and alliances between royal families, from which more complex concepts and relationships are being gleaned by Maya epigraphers.
The extraordinary explosion of Maya scholarship in recent years has transformed our understanding of the people and their culture. The famous decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs in recent decades has significantly revised and enhanced our understanding of Maya society. Transforming discoveries have been made in our understanding of the origins of Maya culture, of the extensive trade carried on within Mesoamerica, of the sophisticated hydraulic systems developed to collect and manage water, of the extent and layout of entire cities covering much larger areas than the civic-ceremonial centers, and much else. Although this web site does not deal with many of these issues or with the Maya as a whole, it is heavily dependent on many of the outstanding publications described in the annotated bibliography on this web site.