4 Amazing Maya Pyramid Sites

Josh Ferry Woodard

We take a look at the ancient and imposing ruins of the Mayan civilisation 

For over 3,000 years the Maya civilisation flourished in the lush jungles of Guatemala and southern Mexico. The Maya developed a highly sophisticated writing system that was used to chronicle royal lineage and military achievements, as well as a number of pioneering developments in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and calendars.

Shaman priests made meticulous observations of celestial bodies with unrivalled pre-telescopic accuracy. These astronomical observations were connected to a diverse pantheon of supernatural deities that were seen to hold profound influence over daily life. And it is these revered deities that were the inspiration for some of the Maya’s most impressive pyramids and temples.

 

1. Palenque 

Set to a soundtrack of booming howler monkeys and polyphonic motmot birds, the humid city of Palenque features dozens of beautifully excavated pyramids backing onto mountains of dense green forest.

Reaching its zenith under the rulership of Pakal the Great between 615 to 683, Palenque became an important Maya site with some of the finest temples, sculptures and bas-relief carvings. 

Perhaps the most famous Maya ruler, Pakal inherited a city devastated by war and famine at the tender age of 12 but, with the help of his mother Lady Sak K’uk, he managed to instigate a change in fortune after capturing and sacrificing several enemy lords. His 68-year reign was the longest in the ancient Maya world and he was buried in a striking jade death mask within Palenque’s largest stepped pyramid, the 27-metre high Temple of the Inscriptions.  

Pakal’s tomb was discovered by Alberto Ruiz L’Huillier in 1952, in what is widely seen as one of the most important findings in the history of archaeology: “At the moment of crossing the threshold, I had the strange feeling of travelling to an age that would have stopped a thousand years ago,” said L’Huillier.

A reproduction of the seven-ton sarcophagus lid can be viewed in the Palenque Archaeological Site Museum, along with a detailed analysis of the fascinating glyphs. The masterpiece of Maya iconography shows several of Pakal’s ancestors being reborn as trees, while Pakal himself is depicted in the centre of the cosmos, wearing his jewels, headdress and skirt being reborn as the maize god of fertility and abundance.

 

2. Yaxchilán 

Reached only by lancha, the Maya city of Yaxchilán borders Guatemala on the Mexican banks of the Usumacinta River. In contrast to Palenque, many of the ancient structures have been left untouched giving the site the magical feel of a prehistoric lost city.

The first glimpses of Yaxchilán’s reclaimed pyramids, emerging from the forest covered in moss and mud, evoke wonder and awe. Isolated from modern society–and the customary souvenir hawkers–this archaeological site can really take intrepid visitors on a trip back to another epoch.

Bats lurk inside ancient corridors, alligators prowl the riverbank and troops of monkeys throw fruit at those who climb the temple steps high enough to reach their forest canopy.

In addition to its prized riverside location, Yaxchilán is famed for its monolithic carved stelae and well-preserved narrative stone reliefs carved on lintels spanning the temple doorways–some of which can now be viewed thousands of miles away in the British Museum. 

The extravagant palaces, temples and plazas were home only to the elite nobility, distinguished by their jewelled teeth inlays and artificially induced cross-eyes, to honour the Sun God. The majority of the city’s population lived in more rudimentary structures on the other side of the river, which was accessed by a now collapsed 100-metre suspension bridge, the longest bridge of the ancient world.

 

3. Bonampak 

Bonampak is a smaller sized Maya site home to woodpeckers, wild boar and an unrivalled collection of colourful cave drawings. 

Preserved within the three-roomed Temple of the Murals located halfway up a stepped pyramid, the exquisite, richly coloured paintings depict the events surrounding the ascension to the throne of Chooj, a revered Bonampak leader.

Room 1 shows Chooj, adorned with jaguar, quetzal and serpent elements, in the middle of a ritual dance with his brothers. Musicians play rattles, drums and turtle shells, while regional governors watch from the sides smoking pipes and a tribute of 40,000 cacao beans is offered to Chooj’s father.

Room 2 features what is renowned as the greatest battle scene in all of Maya art. 139 human figures are seen engaged in the heat of battle. The victors, including Chooj’s father, are depicted wearing jaguar elements with two right hands, while the defeated are seen stripped nude with two left hands (left-handedness was seen as a sigh of weakness). Other captives are depicted in deep agony while their fingernails are being ripped off as a form of torture before being sacrificed.

Room 3 features the ritual celebration of victory. The scene shows Chooj and his brothers wearing tall, green quetzal-feathered headdresses, a mystical entity with square eyes and a pointed tooth expelling two serpents and a musical procession that culminates with a dwarf being raised to a supernatural yellow backdrop. 

 

4. Tikal

 

At the other end of the scale lies the ancient metropolis of Tikal, with its towering temples and multitudinous sacred pyramid structures. Deep within the most impenetrable landscape of Guatemala’s Peten rainforest, Tikal was at times the most powerful city in the Maya world, with influences as far south as Copan in Honduras and as far north as Teotihuacan near Mexico City.

A recent advancement in laser technology, known as LiDAR, which allows archaeologists to perform the equivalent of an X-ray on the forest terrain to reveal the existence of manmade structures hidden beneath the trees, has shown that the great city of Tikal was likely part of an even greater urban conurbation. The LiDAR data suggests that dozens of cities in the Peten basin were connected by raised causeways, suggesting the area could have been home to 10-15 million people–much higher than previous estimates of 5 million.

The new scanning technique has been heralded as the single greatest development in Maya studies in the last century. Over the last year the LiDAR scans have revealed huge surprises, in population distribution, trade networks, defence structures and intercity warfare. However, leading theorists believe that it will take another 100 years to fully investigate what LiDAR has surfaced.

 

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