Architecture and Burials in the Maya and Aztec
Plundering and carnage were the overlying results of the Spanish conquest of MesoAmerica beginning in 1519. The ensuing years brought many new “visitors,” mostly laymen or officials in search of wealth, though the Christianity toting priest was ever present. Occasionally a man from any of these classes, though mainly priests would be so in awe of the civilization they were single handedly massacring that they began to observe and document things such as everyday life, religious rituals, economic goings on, and architecture, which was the biggest achievement in the eyes of the Spaniards. That is how the accounts of Friar Diego de Landa, a priest, were created, giving us rare first per-son historical accounts of the conquest and the people it effected. To archaeologists monumental architecture is more important than an inscribed stelae listing names and dates. There is so much more to learn from a building than a slab of stone usually seething with propaganda. In most societies they are what remains after conquest, usually for their beauty or ability to withstand the elements. Landa was amazed by what he found. “There are in Yucatan many edifices of great beauty, this be-ing the most outstanding of all things discovered in the Indies; they are all build of stone finely ornamented…” (Landa, 8). If it were a commoners domestic dwelling we would learn through the study of remaining artifacts and middens what objects were used on a daily basis and also the standard of living, helping us to construct an accurate view of the long neglected commoner. According to Landa steepled roofs covered with thatch or palm leaves protected the habitat from rain. Homes were often divided into two sections, a living section, customarily whitewashed, and a domestic area where food was prepared and inhabitants slept (Landa, 32). In Aztec societies commoners often lived in calpolli, a residential area segregated by occupation, usually surrounded by walls for protection (Smith, 145). If it were a domestic dwelling for a noble it would be larger than a com-moner’s dwelling, and usually consisted of more than one large structures occasionally located on a platform near the center of the town. The high status is obvious by the in-clusion of more elaborate and ornamental objects and frequently frescos adorned the walls. Monumental Architecture of public and private buildings are one of the best indi-cators of the size and importance of a site. The size of the structure has direct corrolation to the power held by the leader, in his ability to conduct peasants to construct the build-ing. Temples and plazas were the main objects of monumental construction and often rival the pyramids of Egypt in quality and size. Temples were often pyramid like struc-tures that were built, facing east, over the cremated remains of a priest or ruler. With each acceding ruler the temple was made larger by building over the previous, thus the layering effect so often uncovered. Different styles of decoration and construction were used by each culture during different periods. “In contrast to earlier Mesoamerican pyramids with a single temple built on top and a single stairway up the side, the pyramids built by the Early Aztec peoples had twin temples and double stairways” (Smith, 43). “There are several complexes of Esperanza architecture at Kaminaljuyu…these are stepped temple platforms with the typical Teotihuacan talud-tablero motif…” (Coe, 84). Then in less than three hundred years there was a completely different style of architec-ture in the area, “Characteristic of Puuk buildings are facings of very thin squares of limestone veneer over the cement-and-rubble core; boot-shaped vault stones…and the exuberant use of stone mosaics on upper facades, emphasizing the usual monster-masks with long, hook-shaped snouts, as well as frets and lattice-like designs of criss-crossed elements” (Coe, 157). Mesoamerican architecture has withstood the test of time, many of the structures not destroyed during the conquest still stand today, whereas numerous Spanish buildings do not. In pre-modern history, throughout the world burials have been customarily simi-lar, irregardless the distance. Whether this is coincidence or not will be determined at some point in the future, but for now I am of the opinion that since many cultures wor-shipped similar gods many of their customs will be comparable. For example many cul-tures, including the Aztecs and the Maya buried bodies in the fetal position facing east. More often than not various foods and goods were placed in the grave to accompany the deceased in the next life. Burials usually followed some ritual and occurred near the home, which would be abandoned soon after (Landa, 57). If they were not cremated the body would be wrapped in a shroud and buried in the temple (Coe, 76). It is believed that many Aztec adults, though commoners, were cremated, mainly because of the lack of adult burials found (Smith, 142). Nobles and priests were cremated and placed in an urn or hollow statue and if the person was of great importance they would be buried in a tem-ple or have a temple erected over their burial site. “Foreign lords of the Esperanza phase chose the temple platforms themselves as their final resting-places. As with the earlier Miraflores people, each platform was actually built to enclose the ruler’s tomb, a log-roofed chamber usually placed beneath the frontal staircase, successive burials and their platforms being placed over older ones…Surrounding him were rich funerary vessels, undoubtedly containing food and drink for his own use…” (Coe, 84-85). Unlike the Maya who believed that everyone went to Xibalba, the cold Maya un-derworld, the Aztec believed there were several underworlds depending on the method of death. “Soldiers who died in battle and sacrificial victims went to an eastern solar realm…women who died in childbirth went to a western solar realm…people who died by drowning or other causes related to the rain god went to the earthly paradise of Tlalo-can. Most people, however went to one of the nine levels of Mictlan, the underground realm of death” (Smith, 141-142). Funerals of Aztec nobles were often attended by peo-ple of importance throughout the empire, usually bringing jewels or other gifts such as slaves. Although a Spaniard, Landa was one of the most important historians of his time in regards to Mesoamerica. His accounts may be less than scientific and a bit biased to-wards his own culture but at the same time show an awe of the “primitive” societies they were attempting to civilize in the name of Christ. He was ignorant and therefore in my mind is not to be blamed much, at least he tried to preserve information on their culture, though he did burn most manuscripts written by the natives.
Works Cited Landa, Diego de. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. Dover Publications Inc. New York City, New York, 1978. Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Blackwell Publishers. Oxford, UK, 1996. Coe, Michael D. The Maya. Thames and Hudson Ltd. London, 1999. Works Cited Landa, Diego de. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. Dover Publications Inc. New York City, New York, 1978. Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Blackwell Publishers. Oxford, UK, 1996. Coe, Michael D. The Maya. Thames and Hudson Ltd. London, 1999.
Architecture and Burials in the Maya and Aztec