How were the ancient Mayan cities? How did the Mayans decorate the buildings? What was the purpose of the buildings we see today?

Visit any Mayan archaeological zone It is an addictive activity and widely recommended. Strolling around and discovering these ancient cities where one of the largest civilizations on the planet developed is something exciting.

Each city has its atmosphere, its personality, its greatness, its details, its location, its history that make it unique and unrepeatable.

El Mirador

How were the old ones Mayan cities

The ancient Mayan cities that today we visit show the buildings without the stucco, the ornaments and the paint that used to beautify them. These buildings were from limestone coated with stucco y decorated with masks, crests, stone reliefs ... and color generally predominated Red.

Many Interior walls of the rooms and temples were decorated using colors like blue, yellow, green or red that they managed to extract from plant substances. Can you imagine those wonderful illustrated walls? Create addiction beauty.

Explore the best pyramids of Mexico of ancient maya

Mayan city recreation
Recreation city of Tikal. Source
ancient Mayan cities
What were the ancient Mayan cities like? 1
Recreation of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Source 
ancient Mayan cities
Tikal, Guatemala

The reconstructed buildings we see today were ceremonial centers, housing complexes or buildings for political use where the rulers developed the different daily activities.

The great bulk of the Mayan population he lived in the surroundings in modest houses made of wood and covered with guano. Today only the strongest and most robust buildings remain, as would happen with any city that suffered devastation due to a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or abandonment of the place.

What were the ancient Mayan cities like? 2
The inhabitants lived around the centers of power and ceremonials. Source

It is difficult for the visitor not versed in the Mayan civilization to imagine how were cities like Palenque o Tikal, as these recreations show.

What were the ancient Mayan cities like? 3
Recreation of Palenque in the Classic Maya (200 aC - 900 dC)
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Recreation of Tikal in the Classic Maya (200 aC - 900 dC).

Restoration work of the ancient Mayan cities:

In this series of photos we see part of the restoration process of the Pyramid of Kukulc谩n de Chich茅n Itz谩 made by the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), authority that manages the heritage of Mexico.

The first image is a drawing of Catherwood that belongs to his book Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1844). It gives us an idea of 鈥嬧媓ow the first explorers found these remains, which had been abandoned for hundreds of years.

What were the ancient Mayan cities like? 5
Frederick Catherwood Art Print Kukulc谩n Pyramid of Chich茅n Itz谩 S.XIX. Source
Chichen Itza reconstruction
Reconstruction of the Kukulc谩n Pyramid of Chich茅n Itz谩, Yucat谩n. Mexico
Chichen Itza reconstruction

Kukulcan Pyramid of Chich茅n Itz谩 restored

Despite the large and successful restoration work by the INAH, which allow us to appreciate with greater sense these ancient Mayan cities, I think that is not sufficient so that the uncultivated visitor can properly evaluate and imagine what the cities of the ancient Maya were like.

Where to see the Mayan pieces of the ancient cities?

Most the original Mayan pieces (stelae, ceramics, vases, sculptures, censers, altars ...) are not found in the remains to preserve them from the corrosive weather and keep them guarded and preserved in museums. We see Mayan cities stripped of their ornaments and colors.

Uxmal, Yucatan

Here a thorny question opens: Where is most of the Mayan heritage? such as vessels, codices, steles, prints, ceramics, panels? most of Mayan art pieces are in museums of Mexico and museums of foreign countries like the United States, Spain, United Kingdom, Germany, some with exquisite collections of Mayan art.

Colonists and explorers did their business in these lands. Unfortunately there are also many pieces looted in private collections.

Mayan Peabody Museum

Could visits to Mayan archeological sites be improved?

I do not know if the competent authorities can improve the places to make them more attractive, if there is money, if they generate enough; I don't have that information. In my case I end up thinking that there is little effort or imagination on the part of INAH, and other qualified entities. I long for a greater affection that is able to bring more light to the traveler who travels these fantastic Mayan vestiges.

Sayil Archaeological Zone, Puuc Route, Yucatan
Brief explanation written in Mayan Yucatec, Spanish and English of the Palace of Sayil, Yucatan.

Most Mayan archaeological zones they lack a museum, as well as complete and attractive explanations in the tour of the enclosures. Site Museums where to observe the findings of the place you find them in Dzibilchalt煤n, Palenque, Tonina and few more.

Archaeological zone Palenque, Chiapas
Palenque Site Museum Alberto Ruz Lhuillier,

I imagine arriving for example at the Temple of the Kohunlich Masks and being able to appreciate a detailed model of the temple as it was in the time of the ancient Maya. So we would see the wonderful colors, stuccos and beauty of ancient Mayan cities.

Kohunlich masks
Masks of Kohunlich. Right original, left representation exposed in the Great Mayan Museum of Merida

Original pieces in the Mayan vestiges

In most of Mayan vestiges remain pieces original such as reliefs, sculptures, glyphs, ornaments, paintings or stelae between the walls of the stones. There is always a story to tell or some remarkable find From which to learn something else, wonderful details that easily escape. 

I would love for them to explain what the stelae tell us, that would translate the glyphs in the enclosures to know what they narrate in them or that there were colored drawings of the stelae to appreciate them in their originality.

Due to this lack of information there I feel that the power to appreciate more accurately the exquisiteness of Mayan art and understand the way of life of the ancient Mayan escapes us.

Archaeological zone Yaxchilan, Chiapas
Estela in Yaxchil谩n, Chiapas, one of the vestiges with more original pieces
Bonampak archeological zone, Chiapas
Estela de Bonampak, Chiapas.
Archeological site Calakmul, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
relief in Calakmul, Campeche
Masked stucco in Bec谩n, Campeche.
Mask coated in Becan, Campeche.
Hands in the Temple of the Paintings of Tulum.
Hands and remains of paint in the Temple of the Paintings of Overall.
Palenque archaeological site, Chiapas
Temple of the inscriptions seen from the Palace, Palenque
Temple inscriptions Palenque. The tombs inside
Temple inscriptions Palenque, Pakal's tomb. Source
Palenque archaeological site, Chiapas
Palenque Alberto Ruz Lhuillier Site Museum, Palenque Archaeological Zone, Chiapas

It would be great to give the best effort to have in the archaeological sites useful and attractive information to help us imagine how were the ancient Mayan cities, that the visitor can see through the peephole of time what he cannot see due to lack of knowledge. Catch it, do it live the Mayan civilization more closely.

What were the ancient Mayan cities like? 6
Ruppert & Denison, Anthill, 1943. Campeche, Mexico. Source
What were the ancient Mayan cities like? 7
Frederick Caterwood Uxmal S.XIX Art Print. Source
Recreation of the construction of El Mirador, Guatemala
What were the ancient Mayan cities like? 8
Mayan ceremony recreation. Source
Representative model of a market
Representative model of a market, National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City

When one esteems and values 鈥嬧媠omething so much, what they want is that visitors to these Mayan lands, whether local or foreign, can fully enjoy the journey.

To learn about the Mayan civilization is to learn about our human ancestors, it is to know about our footprints on the Planet. Have we changed a lot? I better not start philosophizing.

Good way,

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Sandra Salvad贸 Training photographer, traveler by vocation and certified tourism guide by the Government of Mexico. We promote natural wonders and contemporary Mayan culture. Great fan of pre-Hispanic history. Author of the blog and co-founder of The Shortest Path Travel, agency that guides you through alternative paths in Mayan lands. Social and sustainable tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas.
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