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AN ALBUM OF MAYA ARCHITECTURE
By Tatiana Proskouriakoff
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 DOVER PUBLICATIONS, INC.
All rights reserved.
Structure E-VII sub
A COMPLETE description of this structure and its excavation may be found in UAXACTUN, GUATEMALA, GROUP E—1926-1931 (1937) by O. G. and E. B. Ricketson.
The motif below is Stela 20 of Uaxactun.
Structure E-VII sub
UAXACTUN, in the heart of the Maya Old Empire, is buried in the dense, tropical forests of northeastern Peten. It is only one of many sites in this region which contains greater and more spectacular ruins, but it is of particular interest to the archaeologist because among its monuments are the earliest stelae yet discovered in the Maya area, as well as one of the latest. The Carnegie Institution began excavations at Uaxactun in 1926, and the hope that a city of such long occupation would yield examples of early architecture was amply rewarded when a trench through the badly ruined Pyramid E-VII uncovered a huge stucco face, almost perfectly preserved under later masonry. Further digging revealed that this was one of eighteen grotesque heads that decorate the stairways of the small pyramid now known as E- VII sub. Associated pottery finds indicate that this pyramid is very old—older, in fact, than the earliest stelae. It was probably intended to support a temple constructed of wood and thatch, for in the upper platform there were originally four deep post holes, which were later filled and smoothed over with plaster, as if the building had been razed, and its substructure adapted for outdoor ceremonies.
The pyramid is roughly square, with stairways on all four sides, but the upper platform has only one stairway and is higher at the rear than at the front, resembling in form the building platforms of later temples, built entirely of masonry. A striking feature of the construction is the irregularity of its shape: its grossly inaccurate angles and proportions. The facing stone is very roughly cut, laid horizontally, and covered with a thick coat of plaster. The whole looks less like a masonry structure than like a form carelessly modeled from some more plastic substance or cast in a rough mold. In spite of the crudity of workmanship, however, its well-defined design and the use of decorative elements which remain characteristic of Maya art throughout its entire history, clearly imply an established architectural tradition, and one which awaited only increased technological skill to reach full flower.
There is rude vigor in the execution of the two motifs of its ornament. One, in spite of its battered condition, can tentatively be identified as a simplified version of the serpent. The other is anthropomorphic, though to call it man or deity is perhaps to tempt biased interpretation. It is better described noncommittally as a mask, the favorite motif of decoration in all subsequent Maya styles. The significance of masks is obscure, and in their variations they exhibit a gamut of human and animal features which is difficult to unravel. Even if in time we discover a meaning in their complicated attributes, we can never be sure that this meaning was intended by the artist. It is quite conceivable that, with constant repetition, formerly significant designs become merely abstract elements of composition, and many grotesqueries may be the result of an arbitrary mixture of traits from widely different sources. If the masks did possess a purposeful significance, we must seek even earlier examples than those of E-VII sub to discover whether this already conventional form once had a more naturalistic prototype that would permit us to give it a name.CHAPTER 2
A PLAN and section, photographs, and a description are published in Explorations in the Department of Peten, Guatemala (1911-1913) by Teobert Maler. The restoration is based partly on this report and partly on unpublished measurements and notes taken at the site by E. M. Shook in 1941.
The head of the Maya priest is restored from fragments of carved wooden beams found in Temple II.
TIKAL is one of the largest and one of the least accessible of ancient Maya cities. Its massive temples tower above the forest that envelops and conceals countless lesser buildings, still unexplored. For many decades archaeologists have dreamed of the exciting possibilities offered by the excavation of this spectacular city, a task that would require years of effort even by a large and well-equipped expedition. The lack of a dependable source of water supply near Tikal is one of the many obstacles that have prevented intensive exploration even of the surface remains, and, although many have visited the site, few have stayed there long enough to take adequate measurements and notes of the buildings. Detailed and reliable information is scanty. This restoration of Temple II is presented with great hesitation, for it is based on insufficient and conflicting data. It is included in this series only because other examples of its type are even less well documented, and because it represents the crowning development of the temple in Old Empire times, and the composition of its mass alone may serve to illustrate the effect which the Maya builders aimed to attain. In 1941 Mr. Edwin M. Shook, of the Carnegie Institution, visited the site and obtained accurate measurements of the building itself, the platform on which it is built, and the standing portions of the roof comb. Except for the stucco decoration, which is largely destroyed, the restoration of these features is probably substantially correct. The form of the terraces of the pyramid, however, is very uncertain, as well as the exact slope of the steep stairway, which can be seen now only as a ruined mass of stone. Mr. Shook's work at Tikal was hampered by unseasonable rains, and the short period of his stay prevented his taking more than very cursory notes on the details of the substructure. These notes disagree both with the drawings presented by Maler and with the model constructed under the supervision of Dr. Herbert J. Spinden, in the Museum of Natural History in New York. In some respects, Mr. Shook's notes find confirmation in photographs, but one important feature, the existence of a low plinth or projecting molding at the bottom of each terrace wall, remains in question.
Of the five great temples at Tikal, Temple II is the smallest. The largest, Temple IV, is more than two hundred and twenty-five feet in over-all height, and is sketched on the accompanying map of the Maya area to emphasize the massive composition of Peten architecture in contrast to that of adjacent regions. The actual room space of these temples is very small in comparison with the thickness of masonry which surrounds them, and their vaults are very high and steep. A number of lintels that spanned the doorways are still preserved. They are made of the hard, heavy wood of the sapote tree and some are beautifully decorated in the formal, ornate, but sensitively naturalistic style of the greatest period of Maya art. If we accept the chronological evidence of these lintels, which, however, may have been carved years after the erection of the buildings, we must conclude that the religious architecture of Tikal remained extremely conservative. Experiments in vault construction and variations of plan were impeded by the weight of the ponderous roof combs, and interior space was sacrificed to the effect of height and grandeur. No doubt the religious cult of the time presented to the populace an august spectacle, but reserved its secret rites and sciences for the privileged few who were instructed in its mysteries. The forbidding temples seem to express the exalted aloofness of the priesthood that ruled this great city.CHAPTER 3
Shrine in the Temple of the Cross
SECTIONS and plans of the Temple of the Cross are published in Biologia Centrali-Americana, Archaeology (1889-1902) by A. P. Maudslay. The combined section and perspective shown by W. H. Holmes in his Archaeological Studies Among the Ancient Cities of Mexico disagrees in some details with the Maudslay drawings.
The sculptured plaque is from Palace House E.
Temple of the Cross
UNLIKE the ponderous temples of Tikal, those of Palenque reflect a taste which aspires to perfect proportion rather than to an overwhelming effect of sheer mass. The pyramids are not so high as to dwarf the buildings they support. Doorways are wider and more frequent, rooms are wider and vaults lower, and the roof combs, perforated to reduce their weight, are not so remotely aloft that their exquisite stucco sculpture could not conveniently be observed and enjoyed from the plaza in front of the building. The site itself, with its background of low, wooded hills seems expressly designed by nature to set off the beauty of these small temples, and a clear, swift-flowing stream that crosses the ruins is a godsend to the traveler, resigned to having his curiosity taxed by all kinds of physical discomforts. Palenque can be reached by a short ride on horseback from an air-field located at the nearby village of Palenque, but it is little visited by tourists, perhaps because it is off the regular routes of the airlines, or possibly because its main attractions are not of the sort than can be described in superlative terms.
For a number of years, the Government of Mexico has carried on excavations in the principal group at Palenque, consolidating falling masonry and reconstructing essential portions of some of the buildings to arrest their further ruin. It is hoped that this work will continue and will be extended, for Palenque is a large site, and an intensive study of its distinctive and sophisticated style cannot fail to yield rewarding results.
The Temple of the Cross is one of three which are almost identical in plan and design. It has an outer room with three wide exterior doorways which permit a view of the front chamber from below. The shrine is placed in one of the rear chambers, behind the central doorway, and is in the form of a diminutive temple. Its upper zone is ornamented with stucco, and its front wall and the rear wall of its single room were originally formed of thin slabs of stone set on edge and carved with a design of human figures and panels of hieroglyphs. These slabs have since been removed. The three which form the rear wall are now in the National Museum in Mexico City; the two on the sides of the doorway have been set into the wall of a church in Palenque village. The relief is low and delicate, emphasizing the sensitive, undulating line, which is the greatest charm of the sculptures of the great period. Distinctive of the region are the faces of the figures, with their large noses made even more prominent by sharply sloping foreheads, an effect deliberately produced by the Maya, who habitually deformed the heads of their infants by strapping them between two boards, a practice which, to judge by their cultural accomplishments, did not impair their mentality, however it may have affected their tempers. Virile youth and doddering age are clearly represented on the two front panels of the shrine. In an art which is strictly formal and depends largely on symbolism to convey its meaning, the expressiveness of these two figures is unusual in its degree of naturalism and directness. Although the compulsion to fill every square inch of space with design is conspicuous in these carvings, they are quite free of the extreme elaboration that is sometimes adduced as evidence of barbarism in less enlightened styles of Maya art.CHAPTER 4
PIEDRAS NEGRAS, GUATEMALA
COMPLETE reports on excavations at Piedras Negras by expeditions of the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, are not yet available, but sections of a projected series have been published recently as Piedras Negras Archaeology: Architecture, part 1, no. 1 (1943) and parts 2, 4, and 6 (1944) by Linton Satterthwaite Jr. The Museum's Piedras Negras Preliminary Papers, no. 1 (1933) and no. 3 (1935), also describe acropolis buildings. This plate is used here by courtesy of the University Museum.
The back of a throne in Structure J-6 is shown below.
IN ANCIENT times the Usumacinta River was probably a busy artery of trade and travel. Starting at the confluence of the Rio de la Pasion and the Rio Salinas, it now forms the boundary between Chiapas, Mexico, and the southwestern corner of Department of the Peten, Guatemala. In Tabasco it joins the Grijalva River in a huge delta just before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico at the port of Alvaro Obregon. At intervals the Usumacinta breaks into violent rapids, but it is navigable by canoe for the greater part of its course, becoming impassable only at the rapids of San Jose, shortly before it clears the hills of Chiapas and flows into the open coastal plain. About fifteen or twenty miles above these rapids is the ruined city of Piedras Negras, which the expeditions of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of J. Alden Mason and Linton Satterthwaite Jr., have excavated and studied for many years. Though not of great size, Piedras Negras is remarkable for the number and superb quality of its sculptured monuments. As one should expect in a city that was located on an important trade route, its artistic creations are influenced by many styles, linking it with such distant regions as that of Copan and of northeastern Peten. This eclecticism is reflected in the varied techniques and designs of its stelae, though Piedras Negras sculpture, whether executed in high, three- quarters relief or in bas-relief scarcely raised from its background, maintains an excellence peculiarly its own.
Stone carving at Piedras Negras was never an adjunct of architecture, as it was to a great extent at Copan. Architectural decoration was almost entirely confined to stucco, and the scarcity of the fragments that remain indicates that even such ornament was restrained. Pleasing effects depended upon the refinement of proportions, made possible by technical improvements in the construction of the vault. Thin walls and multiple doorways give this architecture a grace apparently never quite achieved by the more conservative builders of Tikal and other cities of northeastern Peten.
The Acropolis of Piedras Negras is built on a natural hill, the contours of which are modified by a rising series of courts, in part artificially built up by constructions which were consecutively abandoned and covered over with fills of loose rubble. The natural irregularity of the terrain did not encourage a rigidly formal arrangement, but even as the plans were altered and expanded, the builders never lost sight of an obviously deliberate scheme. The principal approach is by a single, broad stairway, flanked by two pyramidal structures and by long platforms supporting rows of stelae. The stairway leads to a building of many doorways, through which one enters an enclosed quadrangle, surrounded by higher terraces and rectangular buildings. Beyond this, two more courts at still higher levels rise to the crest of the composition, a small palace, overlooking the river flowing nearly three hundred feet below. Each court is protected from direct approach by the surrounding buildings, and, in the spaces between them, by light masonry walls with small openings which permit the passage of one person. It was not fear of military attack, however, that motivated such exclusiveness, for many wide stairways and entrances lead to all parts of the Acropolis. It is better explained by a desire to screen the activities inside the courts from the view of the plaza below. The latter was open to the citizens at large, and was used, no doubt, for public ceremonies and gatherings; and access to the Acropolis seems to have been the prerogative of nobles, priests, and neophytes, who performed secret rites, debated issues of state, or pored over abstruse manuscripts in the long palace buildings, safeguarded from the rude approach of the laity.
Excerpted from AN ALBUM OF MAYA ARCHITECTURE by Tatiana Proskouriakoff. Copyright © 2002 DOVER PUBLICATIONS, INC.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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