One unsuspecting morning in February 1976, a 7.5 scale earthquake struck the Central American country of Guatemala. Originating on the Motagua Fault, the meeting point of the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, the earthquake killed about 23,000 people and injured many more. Damage to buildings was also devastating: tens of thousands of brightly painted adobe houses were reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds.
Ironically, one of the few places in Guatemala that was not devastated by the earthquake was the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Although the impact had uprooted many trees, the city’s limestone buildings, including its iconic pyramids, did not show a scratch. For locals, this was both relieving and disconcerting.
As Maya, who lived hundreds of years ago and had limited access to technology, created architecture that was as strong and durable as anything modern engineering could produce? The answer, as research has begun to show, has to do with three ancient tricks, related to the location, structure and substance of their buildings.
Until they are discovered, Tikal’s sophisticated structures and buildings are buried under thick blankets of soil and vegetation. (Credit: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock)
What was so special about Mayan architecture?
Hidden in the jungles of northern Guatemala, about 30 miles from the border with Belize, Tikal was originally Occupied between approximately 300 and 900 BC. c. That said, the city’s largest buildings emerged centuries later, between approximately 600 and 900 AD, when the Mayans were at the height of their power. The city, whose name means “at the watering hole”, is believed to contain more than 4,000 buildings, the vast majority of which remain unexcavated.
The buildings, organized around squares and plazas, come in many different shapes and sizes, from large to downright colossal. While the small wooden houses of ordinary Mayan citizens have been lost to time, the palaces they built for their kings (multi-story and surrounded by towers and courtyards) still stand.
What were the Mayan pyramids used for?
Also standing are pyramids, similar to their Egyptian counterparts in basic design but different in finish. Built on a slightly steeper slope, their exterior is as richly decorated as the rooms inside. Tikal even had several courts for playing tlachtli or pok-ta-pok, a traditional Mayan ball game where players used only their elbows, knees, and hips.
The ruins of Tikal still stand, researchers say, thanks to the Mayans’ knowledge of their environment and their advanced architectural knowledge. (Credit: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock)
Why was Mayan architecture so durable?
Taking all this into account, what allowed the Mayans to make their structures so strong?
1. A solid location
The durability of Mayan architecture could have several explanations, the first of which has to do with location. Deeply familiar with the terrain, the Mayans built their largest settlements in places that were mostly safe from natural disasters, with the surrounding swamps isolating Tikal from the worst aftershocks of 1976.
But while swamps provide protection against earthquakes, they are also prone to flooding. The Mayans addressed this problem with careful urban planning, placing their buildings on high ground so that they would remain dry during the rainy season.
2. A robust structure
A second explanation for the durability of Mayan architecture has to do with the engineering knowledge of the Mayans. The pyramids are among the most stable and earthquake-resistant structures ever built, rivaling Roman domes. This is because each layer It is larger and heavier than the one above it, according to a 2020 analysis, preventing the structures from falling or collapsing on themselves.
3. A recipe for resilience
If location and engineering form the first two parts of the equation, material would be the third. Restricted to the natural resources that would have been at their disposal, the Mayans constructed their buildings with limestone, which they reinforced with a technique called lime pyrotechnology.
Mayan Architectural Techniques
By burning limestone at temperatures of more than 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit, Mayan builders created quicklime, a tough compound that hardens when exposed to CO2.
An article published in 2018 claims that the Mayans discovered pyrotechnology already in 1100 BC. C. When Tikal entered its glory days, the city was made up of buildings so resistant that they could withstand millennia of exposure to the region’s tropical climate.
In addition to their pyrotechnology, the Mayans sprinkled their lime plaster with environmental ingredients. By studying the architecture of the Mayan ruins of Copán, south of Tikal, and consulting with the indigenous people of the area, a team of mineralogists from the University of Granada in Spain discovered that the Mayan builders infused their quicklime with the sap from two species of native trees, chukum and jiote.
Recreating Mayan plaster
Operating under the assumption that these biological additives had a practical purpose, rather than a ceremonial purpose, mineralogists made their own replica of a Mayan gypsum mixture, allowing them to put its structural integrity under a microscope.
Based on the 2023 team’s analysis, that assumption was confirmed. Once added, the tree sap was “absorbed and occluded in the mesostructured calcite crystals that formed the cement matrix of the plasters.” They concluded that “these organic substances profoundly affect” the structural characteristics of the substance, “making the gypsum more resistant to physical and chemical weathering.”
Other notable uses of ancient architecture
It is worth noting that the Mayans were not the only civilization that enriched their plasters and mortars with elements taken from their direct environment. Over the years, researchers have found ancient structures containing traces of materials as diverse as milk, cheese, beer, and even urine. The mortar of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City of China was made with starch and sticky ricewhile the Roman architect Vitruvius, in his book About architecturerecommends cooking oil as a means to waterproof limescale.
Trial and error engineering
Ancient architecture was a field of experimentation and not all of these unusual ingredients were equally useful.
Sometimes they would throw random materials at each other just to see what they would do. At other times, builders worked with intention, guided by experience and understanding. This appears to have been the case in India, where inland dwellers used herbs to help their mortar resist moisture, and where coastal dwellers routinely added raw sugar to protect buildings against the corrosive effects of sea salt. Mayan use of chukum and jiote sap appears to have been equally intentional.
Why is ancient architecture important?
Ultimately, studying the chemical composition of ancient architecture can help improve its modern counterpart. Although Mayan, Indian and Roman materials could never be applied to the construction of skyscrapers (a floor made of Roman concrete), once University of Victoria archaeologist John Oleson said in an interview“they would collapse when you reached the third floor”; Their now unorthodox techniques may inspire engineers to make major breakthroughs.
The stronger a building is, the longer it will last. And in architecture posterity is always an objective.