Architecture and Art

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Architecture

altMaya architecture traditionally enclosed a patio or courtyard.

These so called "plazuela groups" formed the basic living unit or household.  Within site centers many of the large and important temple pyramids were located on the east side of the courtyard.  Long, range type buildings or palaces flanked these temples and served as residences for the ruling elite and for administrative purposes.  Many of these structures were roofed by use of the corbelled arch.  This arch consisted of two sloping walls that converged until the space between them could be spanned by a single slab of stone.  Because massive weight from above is required to hold the arch together, the rooms within vaulted buildings seldom could exceed ten to twelve feet in breath, but there was no limit to their length.  Outside the site core, people of high status duplicated the architecture of the core but on a much smaller scale.  In contrast, common folk constructed low platforms on which they erected thatched wattle and daub buildings that served as both residences and shrines.

Beside palaces, temples and residences, the Maya also constructed astronomical observatories, causeways (sacbeob), reservoirs, bridges, ballcourts, sweat baths, chultunes, and dams.  The most famous observatory is a structure known as the "Caracol" located at the site of Chichen Itza.  In Belize, remains of Maya bridges have been found at Pusilha and Baking Pot, and a large dam is situated at a small site near the Raspaculo Branch of the Macal River.

Art

Maya art is often divided into two types: monumental and portable.

Monumental art was predominantly produced on stone or from lime plaster that was stuccoed unto buildings.  The former includes carved stelae and altars, three-dimensional sculpture such as the zoomorphic (animal) figures discovered at Quirigua and Copan, and painted murals like the ones found by Thomas Gann at Santa Rita, Corozal, or that found on the interior palace walls at Bonampak.  Art produced from lime plaster generally consists of masks which flanked the stairways of temples (e.g. at Lamanai) or stucco friezes (symbols/designs) like those from Xunantunich.

Portable art is far more common at Maya sites and was produced using diverse mediums such as bone, wood, shell, stone, ceramic, and other perishable materials.  Ceramic figurines were particularly common during the Middle Preclassic and Terminal Classic periods.  Wooden objects were also undoubtedly popular throughout Maya prehistory but because they do not preserve well, few objects made from this material have been discovered.

 

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