The three secrets behind the extremely powerful architecture of the ancient Maya

One February morning in 1976, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake shook the Central American country of Guatemala. The earthquake originated on the Motagua Fault, the meeting point of the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, and killed about 23,000 people and injured many more. The damage to buildings was also devastating, with tens of thousands of brightly painted mud-brick homes reduced to rubble within seconds.

Ironically, one of the few places in Guatemala not destroyed by the earthquake is the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Although the impact uprooted many trees, the city’s limestone buildings, including its famous pyramids, did not show much scratching. For locals, this was as comforting as it was puzzling.

How did you do? Maya, who lived hundreds of years ago and had only limited access to technology, created architecture that was as strong and durable as anything modern engineering can produce? The answer, as research is beginning to show, has to do with three old tricks, relating to the location, structure and essence of its construction.

Until they are discovered, Tikal’s sophisticated structures and buildings remain buried under thick covers of dirt and vegetation. (Credit: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock)

What was unique about Maya architecture?

The city of Tikal was hidden in the jungles of northern Guatemala, about 30 miles from the border with Belize. It was occupied between about 300 and 900 BC However, the city’s largest buildings came centuries later, between about 600 and 900 AD, when the Maya were at the height of their power. The city, whose name means “at the water well,” is believed to contain more than 4,000 buildings, most of which have not yet been excavated.

The buildings, organized around plazas and courtyards, come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from large to absolutely massive. While the small wooden homes of ordinary Maya citizens have long been lost, the palaces they erected for their kings – multi-storeyed and surrounded by towers and plazas – still stand.

What were the Mayan pyramids used for?

Also standing are the pyramids, which are similar to their Egyptian counterparts in basic design but different in final form. Built on a slightly steeper slope, the exterior is as richly decorated as the rooms inside. Tikal had several courts for playing talachtli or poke ta poke, a traditional Maya ball game in which players used only their elbows, knees, and hips.

Read more: 5 important artifacts from the ancient Maya civilization

Researchers say the ruins of Tikal are still standing, thanks to the Maya’s awareness of their surroundings and advanced architectural knowledge. (Credit: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock)

Why was Maya architecture so long-lasting?

With all that in mind, what allowed the Mayans to make their structures so powerful?

1. Strong website

The durability of Maya architecture can have several explanations, the first of which relates to location. Due to their deep familiarity with the terrain, the Maya built their largest settlements in places that were mostly safe from natural disasters, with the surrounding swamps insulating Tikal from the worst of the aftershocks in 1976.

But although swamps provide protection from earthquakes, they are also vulnerable to flooding. The Maya addressed this problem with careful urban planning, placing their buildings on high ground so they would remain dry during the rainy season.

2. Strong structure

A second explanation for the durability of Maya architecture relates to the Maya’s knowledge of geometry. The pyramids are among the most stable and earthquake-resistant structures ever produced, rivaling Roman domes. This is because every layer Larger and heavier than the one above it, according to a 2020 analysis, which prevents the structures from falling or collapsing in on themselves.

3. A recipe for resilience

If location and geometry are the first two parts of the equation, then material will be the third. Limited by the natural resources that were available to them, the Maya made their buildings out of limestone, which they reinforced with a technique called calcareous refractory technology.

Read more: Where is Tulum located and why was it so important to the ancient Maya?

Maya architectural techniques

By burning limestone to temperatures of over 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit, the Maya builders created quicklime—a strong compound that hardens when exposed to carbon dioxide.

A research paper published in 2018 indicates that the Mayans discovered this Pyrotechnic technology As early as 1100 BC. By the time Tikal entered its glory days, the city was composed of very solid buildings, capable of withstanding thousands of years of exposure to the region’s tropical climate.

In addition to igneous technology, the Maya infused their lime plaster with ingredients from the environment. By studying the architecture of Maya ruins at Copan, south of Tikal, and consulting indigenous people in the area, a team of mineralogists from the University of Granada in Spain found that Maya builders injected quicklime with lime. The sap of two types of local trees, Chukum And com.jiote.

Recreating Mayan plaster

Working on the assumption that these biological additions served a practical, rather than a ceremonial, purpose, the mineralogists created their own homogeneous mixture of Maya plaster, allowing them to put its structural integrity under the microscope.

According to the team’s analysis for 2023, this assumption has been confirmed. Once added, the tree’s sap is “absorbed and contained in the mesostructured calcite crystals that form the cementitious matrix of the plaster.” “These organic materials profoundly affect” the structural features of the material, “making the plaster more resistant to physical and chemical weathering,” they concluded.

Read more: How the ancient Maya practiced sustainable agriculture

Other great uses for ancient architecture

It is worth noting that the Maya civilization was not the only civilization that enriched plaster and mortar with objects taken from its immediate environment. Over the years, researchers have discovered ancient structures containing traces of various substances such as milk, cheese, beer and even urine. Mortar for the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City was made from starch and Sticky riceWhile the Roman architect Vitruvius said in his book On architectureHe recommends cooking oil as a way to make lime waterproof.

Trial and error engineering

Ancient architecture was a field for experimentation, and not all of these unusual components were equally useful.

Sometimes materials are thrown in randomly just to see what they will do. At other times, builders worked with intention, guided by experience and understanding. This appears to be the case in India, where inland people used grasses to help their mortar resist moisture, and where coastal people routinely added unrefined sugar to protect buildings from the corrosive effects of sea salt. Use Maya Chukum And com.jiote The sap appears to have been similarly intended.

Read more: The reason why 2,000-year-old Roman concrete is still so strong

Why is ancient architecture important?

Ultimately, studying the chemical composition of ancient architecture could help improve its modern counterpart. Although Mayan, Indian and Roman materials could never be used in the construction of skyscrapers – a flat made of Roman concrete, Victoria University archaeologist John Oleson once said He said in an interview“You’ll fall apart when you get to the third story” – Their unconventional techniques can now inspire engineers to make important breakthroughs.

The stronger the building, the longer its life. In architecture, future generations are always a goal.

Read more: Why did the Maya abandon their once bustling cities?

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