Deep in the tangled rainforests of Guatemala and the Yucatan, the Maya made some of the greatest contributions to world architecture. Their stone cities complete with temples, palaces, tombs, and ball courts are fitting monuments to the complex, and highly sophisticated civilization that existed in these regions many centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. Mayan priest-astronomers made elaborate calculations to catalog the passage of time. Great warrior kings immortalized themselves and their deeds on stelae, recording for future generations the contributions they had made toward maintaining the cosmic order. The Maya were the only Pre-Columbian people to ever have invented a complete system of writing. Their glyphs, only recently translated, reveal a people concerned above all with the maintenance of a grand cosmic order. It was an order that was based upon cycles of time - the reason for the high elaboration of the Mayan calendar - and everything in Mayan society, from the bloody sacrifices performed by their kings, to the great cities deep in the jungle, served as a physical representation of this order.
As in many cultures around the world, the site chosen for the construction of a sacred building was often as important as the building itself. In Israel, the Dome of the Rock is built on the Temple Mount, and in Europe, many churches are to be found in locales that have strong pagan associations. Of course, in these cases, the original sacral import of the site has been forgotten, and the site, while retaining its original importance as a focus of ritual, is now associated with beliefs and practices different from those originally connected to the particular spot. The Maya however, in the long centuries of their existence as an independent people, maintained their basic world-view. The many "lost cities" that first re-emerged from the rainforest at the hands of Western archeologists in the Nineteenth Century show a continuity of purpose and even of general style that is in many ways unique to the Mesoamerican experience. Many of the impressive temples that we see today are in fact superimposed on earlier structures. The present temples literally enclose earlier structures, entirely surrounding them as does each successively larger Russian doll - break open one, and you find a smaller one inside. This "building upon the past" is a feature not only of specific structures, but also of entire cities. Take for example the Acropolis at Copan. Here, adobe buildings survive beneath the later layers of construction. The purpose of these buildings, and their arrangement represent an earlier, and technologically more primitive version of the later city. It is as if we were to find another and earlier Rome or London beneath the present-day cities, the sites of the modern public building churches, schools, and so forth - everything considered essential to the proper functioning of society - occupied by rudimentary versions of those structures currently to be found at each location.
Such continuity at Maya sites is apparent not only in the choice of building location, but as well, in the specific form these structures take. The adobe buildings of primordial Copan are directly ancestral to the later more sophisticated edifices, juveniles to the Classical adults. The Acropolis of Copan was originally a collection of three distinct sacred sites; each with its own set of ceremonial buildings constructed on platforms, and built of earth and cobble.
Like the later and much larger sacred complex, these groups of building served as a focus for the celebration of the ruling royal lineage. Royal residences, temples, and tombs clustered around a central courtyard, represented the focal point of Mayan society. Like the groupings of buildings themselves, the ideal Mayan society fused the worldly and the otherworldly, the past, the present, and the future. Maya kings were their city's high priests as well as its rulers, thus their residences shared the same plot of ground as their temples. The Maya concept of time was also cyclical, with specific periods of time, from small to larger, nesting inside one another, and repeating endlessly until the final end of the world. With such a world-view, there could be no true division between the sacred and the secular, or any separating out of living beings from those who had gone before them, or those who would come afterwards. The royal tombs that occupied the city center were as palaces of the deceased kings who still reigned alongside their living successors.
The method of reusing these ceremonial sites and their public buildings is quite interesting. Even in the case where older buildings were partially demolished because their precise appearance would have interfered with the engineering of the later structure, the material of the earlier building is still conserved.
Most individual structures within this accumulation comprise a series of renovations that were carried out over their span of use. When they became obsolete, these buildings were usually partially demolished so that the debris from roofs and upper walls could be used to fill their rooms and support new overlying construction (these fills, together with the original hearting of building platforms, are composed of mixtures of wet-laid mud and rock, and prove to be extremely stable). Occasionally, especially important buildings were buried more or less intact. This pattern of use, renovation, demolition, and burial has produced a stratified sequence of construction with remnants sufficiently complete to reveal and record architectural plans and partial building elevation data (including decorative elements).
As Copan grew, so did the size and complexity of the sites occupied by its rulers. Eventually they fused into one. Yet, the main focus of this site was removed slightly from the original central area. It was as if the great kings of the Classical era were attempting to show in physical terms that their rule had inaugurated a new era. They were more powerful, politically, militarily, and spiritually than their predecessors, and wished to set themselves off from them, just as they set themselves off from the lesser nobles.
The following diagram shows the placement of the acropolis in relation to the other areas of construction at Copan:
Shading off from the great complex occupied by the rulers of Copan, there is an extensive area of closely packed smaller complexes that belonged to the nobility. Theses nobles were persons of great authority and importance in Mayan society, but they were subordinated to the ruling family and the king. The complexes belonging to these lesser families form a bridge between the residences of the common people, and the great acropolis of the kings of Copan. What is more, the building complexes of the individual noble families are miniature copies of that of the ruler of the whole city. They too contain their palaces, temples, tombs, and ball courts. Again, the small is contained within the larger, the world of Mayan officialdom being given concrete form through the placement of architectural features. Indeed some of these complexes of the nobility rival that of the royal family. Size matters, and the grandiose scale of these constructions, their lavish decoration, and above all, the large areas of land occupied by them, all point toward their having belonged to persons of extremely high rank. In fact, it has even been suggested that some of the more magnificent complexes - especially those sporting decorations typically thought of as being reserved for royalty - may have belonged to alternate royal lineages. Were this the situation, it would mean that the kingship alternated in different families, perhaps even in accordance with some sort of regular system. This would help explain the permanence of the so-called subordinate structures.
They are built every bit as solidly as their known royal counterparts. They are also built of stone as opposed to being built in the adobe that remained the building material of choice for the common people's huts.
To the extent that houses were symbolically or even literally one means by which nonegalitarian social organization was constituted, expressed, and socially reproduced, there must have been an important shift at Copan sometime in the late seventh or early eighth century. Although we can detect impressive residences outside the Main Group before this time, around or shortly after A.D. 650 some of them began to include larger subplatforms and wellbuilt masonry superstructures, often vaulted or enhanced with sculpture....The permanency of these constructions, which tended to both differentiate them from the largely perishable structures of the common farmers who formed the bulk of the population and make them much more like the royal structures at the Main Group. If such permanency was formerly a royal household prerogative, it was eventually appropriated by others.
The permanency that was accorded to the dwellings of the upper class, is reflective of the firmly held Mayan belief that this class was intimately linked to the world of the divine. The specific hierarchical grouping of residential complexes mimicked Maya cosmology, in which every aspect of creation had some sort of numerological significance.…