How the Maya Built Their World

[ Latin American Studies ]

How the Maya Built Their World

Energetics and Ancient Architecture

By Elliot M. Abrams

The social structures and engineering that enabled the Maya to build their massive buildings.



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6 x 9 | 192 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70462-6

Maya architecture is often described as "massive" and "monumental," but experiments at Copan, Honduras, convinced Elliot Abrams that 300 people could have built one of the large palaces there in only 100 days.

In this groundbreaking work, Abrams explicates his theory of architectural energetics, which involves translating structures into volumes of raw and manufactured materials that are then multiplied by the time required for their production and assembly to determine the labor costs of past construction efforts. Applying this method to residential structures of the Late Classic period (A.D. 700-900) at Copan leads Abrams to posit a six-tiered hierarchic social structure of political decision making, ranging from a stratified elite to low-ranking commoners. By comparing the labor costs of construction and other economic activities, he also prompts a reconsideration of the effects of royal construction demands on commoners.

How the Maya Built Their World will interest a wide audience in New and Old World anthropology, archaeology, architecture, and engineering.

  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Background to Architectural Energetics at Copan
  • 3. Maya Architectural Forms
  • 4. The Energetics of Construction
  • 5. Costs and the Construction Process
  • 6. Energetics and the Hierarchy of Social Power
  • 7. The Organization of Construction Labor
  • 8. Architecture and Economics
  • 9. Conclusions
  • Appendix A. Costs per Task per Structure
  • Appendix B. Reuse Savings
  • References
  • Index

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The very nature of the investigation of the archaeological remains of architecture changed dramatically with the embracing of an anthropological perspective (Willey and Sabloff 1980). Beginning and maturing in the decades of the 19605 and 19705, the study of architecture evolved from one that emphasized the descriptive elements of architecture or the historic association of palatial and funerary architecture to one that viewed architecture as a consequence of ongoing social processes. As such, the anthropological perspective challenges the archaeologist to derive social and evolutionary meaning from the ruins of past societies.

The initial analyses of architecture understandably exhibited the wide range of directions that one would expect with the emergence and then growth of the new anthropological paradigm that was shaping archaeology. Settlement surveys relied upon architectural remains to generate and test models of urbanization (Willey 1956). Ancient public mounds built by egalitarian societies were viewed as demarcators of territorial and proprietary rights (Renfrew 1973). The energy expended in monumental construction was estimated to reveal the scale of sociopolitical complexity within a general ethnological taxonomy (Erasmus 1965).

In the decades following these pioneering studies, a large corpus of literature has grown concerning the anthropological analysis of architecture (see summaries in Abrams 1989; Lawrence and Low 1990; Kent 1990). The present study is designed to follow the logical continuum of one type of architectural analysis called architectural energetics. Architectural energetics involves the quantification of the cost of construction of architecture into a common unit of comparison—energy in the form of labor-time expenditure. Architecture, as a collection of raw and manufactured components, is translated into the composite cost of procuring and transporting those materials, manufacturing necessary parts, and assembling the finished product. This approach, as expressed in this book, is seen less as a replacement of other methodologies than as an exploration of the potential that this analysis may hold for anthropological archaeology.

To explore the effectiveness of such an approach, a specific site from which rather detailed architectural data are available is studied. Based on the enormous amount of available architectural data, the Maya site of Copan, Honduras, was chosen. The fact that the analysis must necessarily be site-specific will presumably not restrict its future application to sites outside the southern Maya lowlands.

Early Assessments of Maya Architecture

The lowland Maya Indians created one of the most complex cultural systems in a wet tropical environment in the New World (Figure 1), the study of which has attracted and fascinated scholars for over a century. The earliest archaeological investigations of the lowland Maya often focused on observations and interpretations concerning architectural achievements, principally based on qualitative assessments of scale and ornamentation. From the onset of the "discovery" of Maya centers, architecture was the most immediate and conspicuous form of evidence of the complexity, power, and splendor of the Maya civilization. Bishop de Landa, who provided the primary ethnohistoric description of the sixteenth-century Yucatecan Maya, referred to their architectural works as "the most remarkable of all the things which up to this day have been discovered in the Indies," adding that the sight of these buildings "fills one with astonishment" (Tozzer 1941:141). John L. Stephens (1841), the first popular Western chronicler of the ancient ruins of the southern lowland Maya centers, concluded that the prehispanic Maya must have built great urban centers, based on his impression of the beauty and enormity of the architectural ruins. These and other initial assessments of Maya architecture were perhaps in part influenced by the fact that the environmental setting of many of these ruins was the wet tropical forest, adding an element of mystery and accomplishment to the Maya, and that the comparative framework for observing Maya architecture was that of the classical civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Since Maya architecture was perceived as similar in scale, these Old World cultures, by inference, were deemed comparable (Totten 1926).

The analytic potential of Maya architecture was recognized very early in anthropology by Lewis Henry Morgan when he stated, "When rightly understood, they [Maya architectural accomplishments] will enable us to estimate the extent of the progress actually made, which was truly remarkable for a people still in barbarism, and no further advanced than the Middle Status" (1881:288). Although we neither use Morgan's terms nor endorse his explanations of the cultural evolutionary process, his observation noting the analytic import of architecture remains relevant.

Historically, Mayan archaeology has placed considerable attention on excavating the largest of architectural works from various sites; contemporary archaeologists are indebted to the pioneering efforts of the Peabody Museum and the Carnegie Institution, whose archaeological projects resulted in architectural reports that still represent some of the most detailed in Maya studies (Ashmore and Willey 1981). Nonetheless, the interpretations of the ancient Maya based on the analysis of architecture often relied upon subjective assessments of scale and quality of those structures. The assertion that the Maya did achieve a level of complexity associated with "civilization" has long been attributed to an impressionistic measure of size and elaboration of architecture (e.g., Childe 1950). The assessment of enormity of scale led A. V. Kidder, with reference to the architecture of Uaxactun, to infer that "it almost seems as if construction was conceived to be in itself an act of piety" (1950:12). This mentalistic evaluation of the Maya shared a place with similar monolithic psychological projections of obsession with time, calen-drics, introversion, and ritual. Similarly, the qualitative assessment of the magnitude of architectural construction influenced J. Eric Thompson (1954) to directly implicate overtaxation of labor expended in elite construction projects in the presumed sudden and catastrophic collapse of the Maya state. Interestingly, even the concept of cultural "collapse" derives from the architectural or structural metaphor, evidence of the inculcation that architecture has had on our interpretation of the prehispanic Maya. More recently, George Andrews (1975:17) has continued this impressionistic assessment of Maya architecture by stating that only a particularly complex sociopolitical organization could "take on the herculean task of continuously rebuilding and extending the man-made domain."

The point of this brief overview is not to deny that the Maya built large and numerous structures or to minimize the outstanding pioneering descriptive research on architecture that has dominated Maya archaeology. Rather, it is intended to point out that interpretive statements concerning the ancient Maya have historically been based on subjective assessments rather than more empirical, quantitative studies of architectural scale. These subjective assessments consistently emphasize the extreme power and strength of rulers, reflected in their architectural projects. Ironically, this impression is exactly what the elite, when commissioning the construction of these edifices, wished to evoke from the Maya population; in a sense, the large architectural works serve as testament to the acute political skills of the Maya rulers.

Quantitative Assessments of Maya Architecture

It is considered essential for contemporary archaeologists to transcend subjective, qualitative assessments of architectural scale in reconstructing the Maya past. There have been two primary means through which architecture has been quantified in archaeological analysis. One means is based on a volumetric measure of architecture at a site or sites, with the comparative volumes serving as the basis of analysis. Various forms of volumetric quantification have been applied to the ancient Maya (Turner, Turner, and Adams 1981; Cheek 1986; Ringle and Andrews V 1988; Tourtellot 19883). The principal goal of these studies has been to estimate relative political power and social status within a single site or among various sites.

The second means of quantification is an energetic assessment of architecture (Erasmus 1965; Arnold and Ford 1980; Folan et al. 1982; Abrams 19843, 1987; Gonlin 1985, 1993; Ford 1991; Carmean 1991). This method involves, first, quantifying the volume of materials or components in architecture as in a volumetric study and, second, translating those volumes into their labor equivalence. The end result of this quantitative method is a labor cost estimate for each structure. As with the volumetric method, the analytic value of the energetic method lies in its applicability to comparative studies of power, status, and rank. It transcends the simpler volumetric method in providing the researcher with a more detailed and powerful measure of architecture, one that has not been fully exploited in Maya archaeology. In the present study, the energetic quantification of architecture, or architectural energetics, is detailed for the site of Copan, Honduras, with several applications offered to demonstrate the analytic value of this quantified method.

To the best of my knowledge, the earliest effort toward the energetic quantification of architecture was conducted at Chichen Itza (Morris, Charlot, and Morris 1931). During the restoration of the Temple of the Warriors, Earl Morris and his colleagues quantified in labor and time the cost of manufacturing and applying the plaster that at one time coated this large edifice. This pioneering effort is somewhat tempered by their comment that "it is quite impossible to form an adequate conception of the amount of labor expended in construction of one of the ancient buildings" (ibid.:224).

The first major architectural energetic study, involving both methodology and analysis, was conducted by Charles Erasmus, who quantified civic architecture at Uxmal (1965). Combining volumetric measurements with labor costs based on replicative experiments, Erasmus was able to assess the level of complexity of this Maya center within Elman Service's (1962) taxonomy of sociopolitical types. Although Erasmus' interpretation was criticized (Sanders and Price 1968), his method was generally accepted. In addition, the costs generated through his replicative experiments have been applied in various other energetic studies, including my own work.

Overview of This Study

The relatively few quantified architectural studies—and explicitly energetic studies in particular—are countered by the majority of archaeological reports of the Classic Maya, which describe architecture in subjective terms such as "massive" and "huge." The lack of quantified research is ironic given that the analytic import of architecture among Mayanists is clearly recognized; Wendy Ashmore, for example, states that "the clearest indices of differential wealth at Quirigua would seem to be architectural—that is, the differential ability to commission monumental architecture and to incorporate masonry in construction" (1988:161).

The present volume provides a method of energetic quantification by which architectural scale and quality can be translated into the single analytic attribute of cost. To justify the energetic method, several applications of architectural energetics are presented for the Maya site of Copan, Honduras. The essential goal of the book is to show the value of architectural energetics as an important component to archaeological studies in anthropology. I hope that parallel studies at other sites, within and beyond the Maya region, will lead to the maturation of such studies.

In Chapter 2, the site of Copan, Honduras, is described in terms of environmental setting and the previous architectural research that is germane to the construction process. Although Copan is the focus of this analysis, many of the results of this single case are transferable to other Maya sites. Chapter 3 describes the various forms of Classic Maya residential architecture and considers the factors contributing to those forms. Although the method of quantification is applicable to any type of building, the analyses all focus on residential structures; thus Chapter 3 deals more with domestic rather than civic architecture. Although a wide range of factors are recognized as being instrumental in affecting residential form, I argue, following a materialist-selectionist perspective, that the consequences of form on the biopsychological quality of life take priority as "determinants" of one's mental conception of form. Establishing the idea that differential quality of life characterizes various residential forms is analytically important, for then domestic architecture is linked behaviorally with status and power distinctions as well as with symbolic values assigned to architecture by the Classic Maya. The methodology of quantifying architecture into energy equivalence is detailed in Chapter 4, as is the description of the range of structures within my sample. The structures in my sample are all fully excavated and span the entire spectrum of statuses at Copan, from king to commoner, expanding beyond previous analyses. Chapter 5 presents additional behavioral aspects of construction, use, and maintenance of buildings, thus supplementing the more empirical aspects of the architecture per se. Chapter 6 begins the series of logical inferences derived from the energetic assessment of architectural scale and quality, focusing directly on reconstructing the sociopolitical hierarchy at Late Classic Copan—essentially an energetic refinement of settlement analysis. Chapter 7 combines this reconstruction with the energetic cost estimates to generate the organization of labor for the purpose of construction. Chapter 8 addresses the question of specialization of construction personnel within a broader model of the ancient Maya economy. The final chapter draws various conclusions about Maya archaeology and the study of architecture, emphasizing the need for expanding the energetic approach. To place this study in broader perspective, this last chapter discusses studies conducted elsewhere in the world as a means through which future comparative research can be assessed. Thus, although the book must necessarily focus on a single site, its application is arguably global.

Since data and analysis are of value only within the context of a broader theoretical framework, it is necessary to state that the orientation here is explicitly materialistic. The analyses focus on the comparison and interpretation of collective measures of architectural cost rather than on the more symbolic or psychologic dimensions of the architecture, although these factors are in reality not disarticulated. One could perhaps deconstruct this materialistic orientation to posit some deeper explanation for this decision. However, the more surficial explanation for selecting a materialist approach to scrutinize architecture is that it is methodologically accessible and represents the most effective means of answering the questions posed within this research. Even with its flaws (as I discuss in Chapter 4), a quantitative approach to understanding behaviors associated with construction, or a comparison of costs and benefits of various architectural forms to best assess desirability of form, is preferred to many alternatives in that the method is explicit, replicable, and analogous to observable patterns of behavior in the contemporary world, as is discussed in Chapter 3. In essence, the approach taken here—that of architectural energetics—is considered "scientific," or at least more scientific than many alternatives (cf. Binford 1989). Some very interesting analyses of architecture are directed at such questions as style, perceptions of space, archaeoastronomy, and geomancy (e.g., Lawrence and Low 1990; Kent 1990). Nonetheless, the dimensions of architecture analyzed in these studies have little if any bearing on the cost of construction, and thus this book does not delve into these important yet quite distinct analyses.

Elliot M. Abrams is an associate professor of anthropology at Ohio University.

"Abrams is proposing what I think is a very useful and potentially powerful tool; personally, I would even hope it becomes a standard archaeological analysis for ancient architecture, with concomitant development of site-specific analogues."
—Wendy Ashmore, associate professor of anthropology, University of Pennsylvania