How - And Why - Did The Mayans Build Their Pyramids?

Mayan pyramids are so mysterious and complex that popular conspiracy theories posit they could only have been built by aliens. In reality, a considerable amount of manpower went into creating these awe-inspiring structures. Like the ancient Egyptians - who also built pyramids - or the ancient Romans - who constructed the Colosseum - the Mayans had to move massive blocks of stone to create their pyramids without the convenience of modern technology. To this day, the Mayan pyramids are revered as major feats of engineering.

Pyramids had multiple functions within Mayan society. Some had temples at the top with stairs and platforms for ritual sacrifice. Others had stairs that were too steep for use. The height and majesty of the pyramids are themselves a monument to the gods, but they also had a practical use: Visible above the forest canopy, they could be used as landmarks for Mayans to navigate by. The pyramids also served a political purpose: They glorified rulers and acted as the center of Mayan cities.

Archeologists still have a lot to uncover about the history of these long-lasting structures, but what they've found in recent years is certainly impressive.

  • Temples Were Built On Hills And Rose Above The Rest Of The City

    Mayans constructed their cities on hills to prevent flooding and to give the Mayans a defensive advantage. The pyramids and their temples towered over traditional buildings and even acted as landmarks for navigation.

    Ordinary Mayan citizens built their homes on the land below the temples and radiating out from the center of the city. These smaller structures have since been reclaimed by natural growth or eliminated by inclement weather.

  • They Were Designed With The Stars In Mind
    Video: YouTube

    They Were Designed With The Stars In Mind

    Many Mayan pyramids were designed to emphasize important astrological events, such as the equinox and solstice. At a pyramid in Chichén Itzá, people still gather to watch the interplay of light and shadow during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. When the sun strikes the stairs of the pyramid, a shadow is cast behind the head of a serpent statue that appears to give it a slithering body.

    During the winter solstice at the Temple of Inscriptions, the sun passes across a doorway. It then appears to descend the interior staircase down into the tomb of King Pacal, whose coffin is located within the pyramid.

  • The Mayans Used Any Available Resources

    Mayans used a variety of materials in constructing their pyramids, including limestone, sandstone, and tuff, a rock made from volcanic ash. All these materials were sourced from locations within the Mayan empire.

    Builders used mud or concrete made from burned limestone as mortar. High-relief carvings decorated the outside of the structures, which were covered in stucco. Some of the best-preserved pyramids retain their original colored stucco exteriors.

  • Some Pyramids Were Burial Chambers For Spouses Of Mayan Leaders 

    Pyramids and their temples often housed burial chambers for influential Mayan citizens, and leaders sometimes constructed separate temples for their spouses, as well.

    In Tikal's Temple I, the body of Jasaw Kaan K’awil reposes in a chamber containing jaguar skins, jade, and bones with elaborate carvings - all indicators of wealth. Facing Temple I is Temple II, which was built for Lady Tun Kaywak, K’awil's wife. Their union represented a political alliance between the cities of Tikal and Yaxhá.

  • Pyramids Were Often Rebuilt Every 52 Years

    Some researchers believe the Mayans rebuilt their pyramids and temples every 52 years, in accordance with the length of the Maya Long Count Calendar.

    However, new rulers also rebuilt religious and government structures to exemplify their own power.

  • Mayan Temples Were Built With Corbelled Arches

    Corbelled arches made Mayan architecture unique among Mesoamerican cultures. The stones that make up a corbelled arch are stacked in such a way that they move closer to the center of the arch as they ascend. These stones meet at the top of the arch and are often capped with flat stones. The corbelled arches come in a variety of shapes, from rounded to triangular ones.

    Mayans were not the only civilization to use corbelled vaults, but they were the only ones in Mesoamerica to do so during the timespan of their civilization. Other societies that used corbelled arches include the Java civilization from Indonesia.

    There's also evidence that corbelled arches were used in Mediterranean and Mesopotamian cultures.