Maya Pyramids - Keystage 2 Guide
Updated: Nov 30
On seeing the word "pyramid", most people will think about the Ancient Egyptian pyramids. And who can blame them, the Egyptian pyramids are very famous - in fact the Great Pyramid of Giza is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world that still stands today.
But what many people don't know is that Mesoamerica (that's the area of America where the Maya lived) actually contains more pyramid structures than the rest of the world combined! These pyramids were constructed by ancient civilisations like the Aztecs, the Inca, the Olmec and the Maya (or Mayans, as they are sometimes called).
What did the Maya Pyramids look like?
The pyramids built by the Maya (and other ancient Mesoamerican civilisations) are often called "stepped pyramids". This is because the sides of these pyramids are built with platforms that look like large steps leading all the way to the top. Most of these structures also have actual staircases leading up the sides for people to climb - though some of them were very steep.
Maya pyramids didn't have a pointed apex at the top - instead, they were often topped with a flat platform or small, flat-roofed, temple building.
How were these pyramids built?
The Maya would begin construction on their pyramids by creating a large mound of earth to give the basic shape of the building. They would then construct the pyramid around this mound of earth with large stones.
The Maya were obsessed with the sky and the heavens. They would often build important buildings, like pyramids, to face towards important celestial events. Which is a complicated way of saying pyramids would be built to face things like sunrises and sunsets during events like the spring and autumn equinoxes.
The Maya would rebuild their pyramids again and again to honour a new king or strengthen the king's relationship with the gods. But the Maya wouldn't tear down the old pyramid and build a new one in its place - instead they would build the new pyramid over the top of the old one, using the old structure as a base for the new construction. Archaeologists have found pyramids that contain several other layers of pyramids inside! Maya pyramids are like a Kinder egg surprise for historians!
What were the pyramids for?
The Maya pyramids had a number of practical functions.
Firstly, they were used as landmarks. Maya cities were often built deep in the jungle so it was easy to get lost. The pyramids were some of the tallest structures in the area (Temple IV at Tikal is 65 metres tall - that's nearly half the size of the Blackpool Tower! Sadly there's no evidence to suggest the Maya did ballroom dancing on top of Temple IV) so they could be seen over the tops of the trees. This helped people find their way through the dense jungle.
Maya pyramids were also used as burial places for important people (much like the Egyptian pyramids). Recent explorations have uncovered evidence of tombs hidden inside the Maya pyramids. These were likely to be the tombs of royalty or high-ranking officials. The tombs included narrow corridors leading to small burial chambers deep inside the pyramids.
There is also evidence suggesting they may have been used for military defense when the city was at war.
Did the pyramids have religious functions too?
Although the practical functions listed above were useful for the Maya people, this was not what the pyramids were built for. Their main purpose was a holy one. In fact, the pyramids were such an important part of the Maya religion, they actually built two different types of pyramids to aid them in their worship of the gods. Although both types of pyramids look very similar, they were used very differently.
The first type of pyramid was a temple pyramid. Maya priests would climb the stairs on the sides of these pyramids to access the temple at the top. They believed climbing the pyramid stairs brought them closer to the gods. At the temple, the priests would worship the gods, make sacrifices or create shrines. Some of these temples had flat roofs where religious ceremonies could be held.
The second type of pyramids were homes for the gods. The stairs on the sides of these pyramids were often too steep to climb. This was important because these pyramids were not to be touched or climbed by humans. They were often built with fake doors leading nowhere and traps to ward off any wrongdoers.
What are some of the most famous Maya Pyramids?
El Castillo at Chichen Itza -
Still standing today, you can visit this famous pyramid at the spring or autumn equinoxes to see the shadow of a giant serpent slithering up the pyramid steps. It also has 4 staircases with 91 steps - combined with the step entering the temple, that's 365 steps - one for each day of the year.
Temples at Tikal -
Impressions in the walls of the Tikal temples help the amplification of the human voice - so you can talk at normal volume in one temple pyramid and still be heard in any of the other temples at the tops of the other pyramids.
Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal -
According to Maya legend, the god of magic, Itzamna, built this pyramid in one night all by himself. The legend says Itzamna built the pyramid as a training place for shamans, healers, and priests.
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