The Mayan pyramids stand out as one of the most impressive architectural achievements of the ancient world. Precisely designed and requiring a massive human effort to build, they tell the story of a highly organised society with unique accomplishments in language, astronomy and mathematics. At the same time, depictions on the temple walls of human sacrifice and gruesome blood rituals tell a darker story of brutal hierarchy and violent oppression.
The Maya were a group of Native American tribes who were connected by language and culture but never unified politically. Organised into separate and often-warring city-states, their civilisation stretched from the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico to present-day Honduras and El Salvador. The Maya arose as early as 2000BC and survived in some form until the Spanish conquest in the 1600s. Their most famous city centres and pyramids were built during the Classic Period between A.D. 200 and 900.
A typical Mayan pyramid was a series of stepped platforms with a small temple built on top. The temple roof was often adorned with a highly embellished structure called a "roof-comb," decorated with sacred images in stucco relief. Steep stairways lined the sides of the pyramid where the priests would ascend to conduct ceremonies. The interior of the temple contained one or more rooms reserved for secret rituals. The pyramids were part of a larger complex of buildings, including palaces and ball courts, arranged around broad plazas or courtyards. Temple-pyramids were usually the tallest buildings in the complex. They could reach as high as 230 feet above ground.
Huge workforces were needed to build the pyramids. Massive limestone blocks, the main building material, had to be quarried and transported to the construction sites without the aid of draft animals. Labourers and overseers, architects and engineers, toolmakers and artisans all had a role to play.
The core of the pyramid was made from a mixture of earth and rubble. Labourers then cut and shaped limestone slabs for the exterior, using flint-stone chisels and wooden mallets. They burnt limestone to a powder and mixed it with water to make a lime-based plaster. This was used as mortar to hold the stones together, as a coating for walls, and as stucco to decorate the temple with relief carvings.
Some (but not all) pyramids served as burial chambers for kings. Other temple complexes were designed precisely to mark the equinox and solstice positions of the sun at sunrise. But the main function of the Mayan pyramid was religious. The Maya worshipped a large pantheon of gods who were responsible for the sun, rain and soil that guaranteed the food supply. Temple-pyramids were dedicated to honour and appease the gods through sacred rituals, which included gruesome rites of human sacrifice and bloodletting.
Much of what we know about the ancient Mayan culture comes from the excavation and study of the pyramid-temple complexes. The Maya had a highly developed writing system of hieroglyphs, which were inscribed in books, called codices, as well as on the temple walls and surrounding monuments. When the Spanish invaded in the 1600s, most of these codices were burnt in an effort to obliterate the Mayan religion and culture. But the monuments and temples remain to this day. So far, 80 per cent of the glyphs have been translated, and temple inscriptions continue to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Mayan civilisation.