The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples

By George Kubler | Go to book overview

PART TWO
THE MAYA AND THEIR NEIGHBOURS

Chapter 7
THE MAYA TRADITION: ARCHITECTURE

Classic Maya

THE Classic Maya peoples produced objects both of use and of pleasure with tools of stone alone. The Marxist stereotype, that cultural behaviour is determined by the instruments of production, finds no confirmation in Maya art. Its forms, though comparable to those made by the metal-using civilizations of Mediterranean antiquity, belong technologically to much older, Neolithic horizons of prehistory.

Classic Maya art spanned the centuries from the time of Christ until about 1000, and had its home in central Yucatán, bounded on the south by the Guatemalan highlands and on the north by a flat and dry limestone plain. The term 'Classic' distinguishes monuments exactly dated by inscriptions in Maya calendrical notation from pre-Maya, from non-Maya, and from Toltec Maya manufactures after 1000. Classic Maya art consists1 a of stone architecture using corbelled vaults and burnt-lime cement or concrete; of stela-like slabs and prisms of stone carved in low relief commemorating the priests, the warriors, and the various periods of Maya history; and of calendrical inscriptions which permit exact dating, to the day, within a 700-year range. Other products, such as painted pottery and jade carving, are often part of manufactures of the Classic style, but they are not constitutive or diagnostic, in the sense of the corbelled vault, the stela, and the calendrical inscription, which define Classic Maya art.2

The corbelled vault (Figure 30) is a system of cantilevered stones, each placed to overhang the course immediately underneath. The Maya vault consists of bearing walls, capped by the overhanging vault, which is of about the same height as the bearing walls. The spatial enclosure is attained simply by the inclination of two or more walls towards one another. The system is inherently unstable. Its equilibrium depends upon a nice adjustment among the unstable overhangs, and upon various devices of counter-balance. Burnt-lime mortar, cement cores, wooden tie-rods, and special stereotomic forms, such as the boot-shaped stones used in late vaults, contributed to stability.3 End walls and cross partitions also played a part (Figure 30B). The use of cement or concrete bonding is a Maya habit, absent from non-Maya examples of corbelled vaulting from the south- eastern United States to southern South America.4 The central Maya roof decoration, called roof-combs (Figure 30A), and the north Maya false fronts, or flying façades

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