An Unfinished Temple at the Classic Maya Centre of Aguateca, Guatemala

By Inomata, Takeshi; Ponciano, Erick et al. | Antiquity, December 2004 | Go to article overview

An Unfinished Temple at the Classic Maya Centre of Aguateca, Guatemala


Inomata, Takeshi, Ponciano, Erick, Chinchilla, Oswaldo, Roman, Otto, Breuil-Martinez, Veronique, Santos, Oscar, Antiquity


Introduction

Large temple pyramids were central elements of every city of the Classic Maya (AD 250900). The construction of temples representing the dominant ideology was probably one of the most important projects that the ruler and court officials planned and organised. Such construction projects, which brought a large number of people together under the command of the elite, were stimulants for developments in administrative organisation, occasions for reconstitutions of communities, and arenas for the imposition and negotiation of power (Mendelssohn 1974; Trigger 1990). A study of construction methods and processes therefore provides critical insights into administrative systems, the organisation of specialised labour, and the nature of power relations between the elite and non-elite.

Studies of Maya construction methods have been based mainly on observations of architectural elements of finished buildings and on experimental archaeology (Abrams 1994; Andrews 1975:72-79; Coe 1990; Erasmus 1965; Loten & Pendergast 1984; Pollock 1965). Archaeological remains from the unexpected cessation of building projects present a unique advantage by allowing archaeologists to glimpse how construction proceeded. In addition, such evidence should offer a revealing tale of how dynasties suffered sudden reversals in their political and economic fortunes.

Structure L8-8 at Aguateca, Guatemala, described here, presents a clearly demonstrable case of an unfinished temple. Its construction ramp and other features revealed in extensive excavation give us a rare window into Maya building processes, and the comparison between faced and unfaced sections provides reference data which help archaeologists to identify unfinished buildings at other sites. In addition, evidence from Structure L8-8 corroborates the hypothesis that Aguateca was abandoned rapidly as a result of a military attack.

Unfinished buildings in the Maya area

The identification of unfinished buildings in the Maya area has been surprisingly difficult. Maya archaeologists have reported a small number of temples which appear to lack facing stones and other elements which may be unfinished, but, they may equally be finished buildings robbed of stones by later Maya builders or post-collapse squatters. The massive Platform 5E-1, or the East Acropolis, at Tikal exhibits exposed rubble fills. Jones (1996) and Coe (1988:72) consider the alternative possibilities that it was an unfinished building and that it was a finished Early Classic acropolis dismantled of cut stones, Patrick Culbert (personal communication, 2003) favouring the latter interpretation. Structure 5D-11 in the West Plaza of Tikal was pyramidal in shape but had no superstructures on the summit and no facing stones except for a single course along the southern side (Peter Harrison, personal communication, 2003). A rich, probable royal tomb found under this building (Burial 77) contained ceramics dating to the end of the Late Classic period (Coe 1988:74; Harrison 1999:179). Although Harrison who excavated this building thinks that it was an unfinished temple, he does not dismiss the possibility that it was robbed of stones.

The lack of dressed stones over the exterior of Structure O-17 at Piedras Negras suggested to Fitzsimmons (1999) that the final construction phase of this pyramidal building was never completed. Interestingly, he found piles of rough stones in front of and on top of the building, which may have been related to construction activities (James Fitzsimmons, personal communication, 2003). At Lamanai, Graham (n.d.) detected a possible case of incomplete construction activity, although robbing of stones from existing buildings was common practice at this centre with long occupation continuing into the historic period. The Maya started to place cut stones to infill the rear doorways of the building that lay across the central stairway of Structure N 10-27, the Stela Temple, which, Graham suspects, marked the beginning of a new construction phase.

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