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Maya Palaces and Elite Residences

Maya Palaces and Elite Residences
An Interdisciplinary Approach

This book brings together state-of-the-art data and analysis regarding the occupants, ritual and residential uses, and social and cosmological meanings of Maya palaces and elite residences.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

June 2003
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352 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 91 b&w illus., 6 tables |

Maya "palaces" have intrigued students of this ancient Mesoamerican culture since the early twentieth century, when scholars first applied the term "palace" to multi-room, gallery-like buildings set on low platforms in the centers of Maya cities. Who lived in these palaces? What types of ceremonial and residential activities took place there? How do the physical forms and spatial arrangement of the buildings embody Maya concepts of social organization and cosmology?

This book brings together state-of-the-art data and analysis regarding the occupants, ritual and residential uses, and social and cosmological meanings of Maya palaces and elite residences. A multidisciplinary team of senior researchers reports on sites in Belize (Blue Creek), Western Honduras (Copan), the Peten (Tikal, Dos Pilas, Aguateca), and the Yucatan (Uxmal, Chichen-Itza, Dzibilchaltun, Yaxuna). Archaeologist contributors discuss the form of palace buildings and associated artifacts, their location within the city, and how some palaces related to landscape features. Their approach is complemented by art historical analyses of architectural sculpture, epigraphy, and ethnography. Jessica Joyce Christie concludes the volume by identifying patterns and commonalties that apply not only to the cited examples, but also to Maya architecture in general.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Elite Residences at Blue Creek, Belize (Thomas H. Guderjan, Robert J. Lichtenstein, and C. Colleen Hanratty)
  • 2. At Court in Copan: Palace Groups of the Early Classic (Loa P. Traxler)
  • 3. A Multipurpose Structure in the Late Classic Palace at Copan (E. Wyllys Andrews V, Jodi L. Johnson, William F. Doonan, Gloria E. Everson, Kathryn E. Sampeck, and Harold E. Starratt)
  • 4. Palaces of the Royal Court at Tikal (Peter D'Arcy Harrison)
  • 5. The Political Acquisition of Sacred Geography: The Murciélagos Complex at Dos Pilas (Arthur Demarest, Kim Morgan, Claudia Wolley, and Héctor Escobedo)
  • 6. Where Did Elites Live? Identifying Elite Residences at Aguateca, Guatemala (Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan)
  • 7. Access Patterns in Maya Royal Precincts (Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo)
  • 8. Evidence for the Functions and Meanings of Some Northern Maya Palaces (Jeff Karl Kowalski)
  • 9. The Function of a Maya Palace at Yaxuna: A Contextual Approach (James N. Ambrosino)
  • 10. Palace and Society in the Northern Maya Lowlands (Edward B. Kurjack)
  • 11. The Tripartite Layout of Rooms in Maya Elite Residences: Symbolic Centering, Ritual Mediating, and Historical Governing (Jessica Joyce Christie)
  • 12. Conclusions (Jessica Joyce Christie)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Jessica Joyce Christie is Assistant Professor in the School of Art at East Carolina University.


This volume brings together scholars in archaeology, anthropology, art history, and epigraphy. They will investigate residential architecture at a number of different Maya sites, but they all will analyze architectural form and associated artifacts, as well as iconographic and epigraphic information, with the goal of reconstructing use and function of specific rooms and houses and what such reconstructions might reveal about ancient Maya social organization. The authors will look at two categories of residential architecture: palaces and residences. Both of these categories are similar in form and layout--they consist of gallery-like structures, on low platforms, that surround courtyards. They differ in that palaces are usually larger in size, are built of stone masonry and with corbeled vaults, have more sculptural decoration, and are located closer to the ceremonial core of a city. Most scholars assume that ruling families both lived in palaces and conducted government business from them but that elite residences were used exclusively as dwellings. Individual authors will define these architectural categories further and bring them to life as they discuss how palaces and elite residences were built and used in different Maya cities.

This introduction will begin with a brief outline of Maya history followed by a chronological overview of approaches taken and directions of research in Maya studies. The history of research will demonstrate the need for the interdisciplinary perspective pursued in this volume. Finally, the authors of the individual chapters and their topics will be introduced.

Interest in Maya palaces was raised when early European explorers discovered their ruins in the nineteenth century.

Continuing on this terrace, we stopped at the foot of a second, when our Indians cried out "el Palacio," "the palace," and through openings in the trees we saw the front of a large building richly ornamented with stuccoed figures on the pilasters, curious and elegant; trees growing close against it, and their branches entering the doors; in style and effect unique, extraordinary, and mournfully beautiful.

We had reached the end of our long and toilsome journey, and the first glance indemnified us for our toil. For the first time we were in a building erected by the original inhabitants, standing before the Europeans knew of the existence of this continent, and we prepared to take up our abode under its roof. (Stephens [1841] 1988: 278)

Maya palaces were first mentioned in the literature by Spanish writers, who described certain Maya structures as palacios, as well as by early explorers whose vision of Maya ruins was colored by eighteenth-century romanticism, as the above excerpt from John L. Stephens' account illustrates. Based on their physical appearance as large building complexes with a high density of rooms, the so-called palacios reminded early visitors of European Renaissance and Baroque palaces. It filled them with awe and surprise to stumble across examples of monumental architecture constructed of fine stone masonry in a tropical jungle far removed from any trace of Western civilization.

Rain forest covered much of the Maya area, which extended from the present Mexican state of Chiapas in the west to the Copan Valley located in Honduras in the east, and from the coast of Yucatan in the north to the Guatemalan highlands in the south. In the Late Preclassic from approximately 200 B.C. to A.D. 250, the earliest public monumental structures were erected by the Maya. These were primarily temple buildings with ornate facades decorated with stucco sculpture in Maya cities in northern Belize and in the Peten such as Cerros, Lamanai, El Mirador, Tikal, and Uaxactun. During the Classic period from about A.D. 250 to 900, Maya culture reached full maturity. Maya cities were governed by individual rulers who battled each other to expand territories and influence or attempted to forge political and marriage alliances to increase their power. These rulers were the generous patrons who commissioned the construction of temple buildings and palaces, as well as the carving of their portraits on stone stelae and the written documentation of their accomplishments in life. During the Late Classic, the artistic output dramatically increased and there is mounting evidence that social stratification became more complex. In particular, the elite class gained in size and influence.

Beginning in the ninth century, most Maya cities were being abandoned, with only a small local resident population remaining. Contacts with other areas of Mesoamerica, specifically central Mexico, were increasing. Maya culture rose once again in the Yucatan peninsula in the Postclassic, approximately from the tenth century to the Spanish conquest, in centers such as Chichen Itza and Mayapan. However, Postclassic cities were no longer ruled by one individual but by a council or multiple government in which several independent lineages were represented. As a consequence, Maya art, which since Preclassic times had attempted to make kingship sacred, changed.

This was the Maya culture the Spanish encountered when they arrived in the Yucatan in the sixteenth century. Bishop Diego de Landa was one of the first to write about Maya houses. His description of thatched dwellings still fits most rural Yucatecan houses of today. He also addressed the layout of towns and hierarchy of space when he observed that temples and the houses of the lords, priests, and most important people stood in the central areas while the houses of the lower class were found at the outskirts of towns (Tozzer 1941: 62).

It was not until the twentieth century that the term "palace" and how it was applied to Maya architecture came under academic scrutiny. Early researchers classified architectural entities that they assumed to be residential as palaces. There was no agreed-upon definition as to what exactly constituted a palace with regard to form or function. The palace category was primarily a convenient tool to distinguish temple buildings from other types of architecture; temples usually have single rooms and sit on high pyramidal substructures, while palaces are multichambered and rest on low platforms--a description which applies to most Maya buildings that are not temples.

In his report on Tikal, Alfred Tozzer discussed buildings of what he called the "residential type" (1911). He outlined several characteristics of "residential" structures: they contain large numbers of rooms and may be two stories high, the plans often exhibit two rows of parallel longitudinal rooms and one or two transverse rooms at either end, residential buildings are frequently arranged around courts (Tozzer 1911: 96-98). Based on such formal elements alone, Tozzer concluded that these structures had the function of residence.

At the same time, Tozzer noted a close physical connection between residential and religious structures. He suggested that many residences "were probably the homes of the priests" and that, together with temples, they may have formed a court (Tozzer 1911: 98).

Herbert Spinden's understanding of palaces was quite similar to that of Tozzer. He defined as palaces large buildings with multiple rooms that sat on low terraces and were usually arranged around courts. Like Tozzer, he deduced a residential function from the above formal and material aspects (Spinden 1913: 98).

His vision was also forward-reaching when he considered the numerous small mounds seen near temples and palaces at the large sites of Yucatan to be dwellings of the "common people" (Spinden 1913: 99). This observation foreshadows the current debate over the hierarchy of residences and their owners. Spinden also realized that palaces could have experienced changes in plan and grown over time and that function could have changed in this course. All of these are issues for which archaeology at some sites has now provided material evidence.

Ledyard Smith reiterated Spinden's position (1913) in his report on Uaxactun (1950). He used formal categories for what constituted a palace that were similar to Tozzer's and Spinden's and made a clear point that the material form of an archaeological palace determined the function of a residence. However, he cautioned that some buildings may have been used for residential as well as ritual purposes or may have changed from a temple into a dwelling. Like Spinden, he differentiated "palaces" and "dwellings of the common people" (Smith 1950: 71-72).

By 1962, in his report on Mayapan, Smith was more aware of the ambiguities associated with the term "palace." He avoided the term all together and instead established categories of building types under which he discussed excavated structures. These types of buildings are "dwellings of the poor or unimportant," "dwellings of the wealthy or important," kitchens, oratories, group altars, and group shrines, as well as miscellaneous structures. The main criterion he used to distinguish the dwellings of the poor from those of the wealthy was size. He further noted that the dwellings of the wealthy are almost always arranged in a group and located in the vicinity of the ceremonial center (Smith 1962: 217-218). He listed the number of large and really elaborate residences as "probably not more than 50" (Smith 1962: 218) but did not explore what this number might reflect about social structure and political organization at Mayapan. Altogether, Smith's work was important because he advocated more complex building functions that were not limited to religious/ritual or residential uses.

Linton Satterthwaite was the first scholar to propose a new and more objective archaeological approach to reconstructing the function of Maya palaces. In the 1930s, he excavated the palaces on the Acropolis of Piedras Negras. Based on formal elements, he distinguished two plan-types among palace buildings. He defined the term "palace" by these plan-types but was very careful not to assign any functional significance (Satterthwaite 1935).

He observed that form alone was insufficient to deduce domestic use of a building and that this kind of conclusion would have to be backed up by material remains of such domestic activities as eating and sleeping. Satterthwaite himself found insufficient evidence for eating and sleeping in the Acropolis palaces. He also described the discomforts associated with living in these palaces: their narrow interior spaces, darkness, and humidity, as well as the difficulty of moving daily supplies, particularly water, up the steep hill of the Acropolis. In Satterthwaite's opinion, the Acropolis palaces were nonresidential and rooms containing benches with backscreens might have been used for formal audiences and receptions (Satterthwaite 1933).

John Eric Thompson expressed his belief that Maya cities were ceremonial centers which were filled with life only on special occasions and that Maya royalty and priests must have lived in thatch-roofed houses at the periphery of the ancient cities (Thompson 1963: 48-49). Like Satterthwaite, he stated that stone buildings were unsuited for permanent habitation: "They had no chimneys and no windows, although some rooms had small vents in the walls. Moreover, they were damp and ill lit" (Thompson 1959: 57-58). He suggested that stone buildings could only have been used for secret rites and for storage of paraphernalia.2

In summary, Satterthwaite as well as Thompson present the view that the primary function of palaces was public in nature and not residential. In their opinion, palaces may have provided spaces for formal audiences, political receptions, religious ceremonies, and storage of precious items.

By the 1960s, most researchers began to realize that the function of Maya palaces was neither strictly residential nor strictly public. Expanding archaeological data provided evidence that palaces had multiple functions: they were used as living spaces but also housed religious as well as political events. All the authors represented in this volume share this concept.

The reason that the ambiguity of function has been fully recognized is the explosion of newly available data. In the past decades, there has been a burst of settlement pattern surveys in the lowland Maya area that have documented new palace-type structures not only in city centers but also in further outlying areas. One of the earliest and most comprehensive projects was the work at Tikal sponsored by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and directed by William R. Coe and William A. Haviland. Fieldwork was carried out for over ten years from 1956 to 1969, and the results were published in a series of Tikal reports. Tikal Report 13 was written by Dennis E. Puleston and documents the settlement survey of Tikal, while Reports 19 through 22 focus on residential areas. Excavations in the residential areas were supervised by Haviland and Marshall J. Becker, who identified numerous new palace-type structures (Coe and Haviland 1982).

Another large-scale survey was the Copan Valley Settlement Pattern Project of Harvard University, which was carried out from 1975 to 1977 under the direction of Gordon Willey. The principle goal of the project was to establish the extent of occupation and to begin an analysis of site size and layout. An initial typology of sites based upon size, arrangement, height, and construction materials was created (Hendon 1987: 51-55). The most informal grouping of structures identified are small, low, isolated platforms which occur in the more remote parts of the valley. Types I through IV conform to the plaza or plazuela (small square) arrangement, in which a rectangular courtyard area is surrounded on all four sides by structures oriented inward (see also Ashmore 1981). There is an increase in the number of plazas, buildings, height, and quality of construction from I to IV. The top of the hierarchy of sites constitutes a major center, in this case the Main Group at Copan, which is seen as the focal point of a regional system. This site typology, which is applicable to most Maya cities, demonstrates that Maya residential architecture is very complex. If one agrees that architecture reflects social structure, then one has to conclude that Maya social organization must have portrayed a similar degree of complexity.

After the Harvard Project ended, work at Copan continued as the Proyecto Arqueológico Copán Primera Fase (PAC I) from 1977 to 1980, directed by Claude F. Baudez, and as PAC II from 1981 to 1984 under the direction of William T. Sanders. PAC II was designed to focus specifically on the Late Classic period in the Copan Valley. In addition, extensive, long-term excavations were carried out in Las Sepulturas (Hendon 1987: 55-57). The work in Las Sepulturas, in particular, has provided a wealth of new information about elite residences in the Late Classic. Julia Ann Hendon thoroughly documented the structural remains and the associated artifacts and used these data as the basis of her functional analysis (Hendon 1987). It is important to note that Hendon's work constitutes one of the recent, more holistic approaches which is not limited to architectural form--as the research of early scholars was--but places equal emphasis on artifacts as well as sculptural decoration.

But what do the data from Las Sepulturas tell us about the position its inhabitants held in Maya social hierarchy, their relationships with other residents in the Copan Valley, and about Maya social organization in general? Diane and Arlen Chase (1992) address these questions with great clarity and careful consideration of data from throughout Mesoamerica. They criticize the traditional cut-and-dried two-division model of Mesoamerican societies that have been viewed as having two tiers consisting of nobles or elites and commoners or non-elites (Chase and Chase 1992: 7-9). The archaeological evidence from Las Sepulturas, as well as from many other Maya cities, shows a large number of high-status residences that were occupied by an elite class which was probably large in numbers and not homogeneous. Excavations have uncovered variations in the quality of construction and decoration which are probably indicative of gradations in the social status, as well as occupation, within the elite class itself. In describing the problem of identifying elites, Chase and Chase observe that, "based upon both archaeology and ethnohistory, it would seem that Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerican social organization was less clear-cut than a simple two-class system, for there appear to have been varying intermediate categories of individuals" (1992: 11). They argue that a series of variables has to be analyzed, some of which fall outside the purview of archaeology. Thus, it is becoming increasingly clear that an interdisciplinary approach is required in order to understand the function and the role palaces and elite residences played in Maya society.

Two such variables to be considered are iconography and epigraphy. In 1960, Tatiana Proskouriakoff was the first to recognize that Maya inscriptions record historical information (Proskouriakoff 1960). Accepting her profound insights, the new generation of epigraphers deciphered texts from a historical perspective and began to reconstruct entire dynastic histories of Maya cities (Schele 1976-1997). Textual and iconographic analyses combined made it possible to understand the interactions and relationships between Maya sites (Schele and Freidel 1990). In the 1990s, epigraphic and iconographic studies enriched and complemented archaeological investigations in many ways. A nice example is Structure 5D-46 in the Central Acropolis at Tikal. Harrison had suspected for some time that this was the clan house of the ruler Great-Jaguar-Paw when archaeologists located a cache vessel deposited under the west stairs of 5D-46. The inscription on the pot records that it was made for the dedication of the "holy structure of Great-Jaguar-Paw"--thus clearly identifying him as the owner (Schele and Freidel 1990: 464-465).

Traditionally, archaeology as well as art history and epigraphy have focused on the material remains of a bygone culture, such as standing walls, artifacts, carved monuments, and painted walls. Anthropology, on the other hand, looks at cultural behavior and therefore how architectural space was used and how it constitutes another variable to be integrated into an interdisciplinary approach. In the mid-1980s, Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson lamented "the absence of any general models relating spatial structure to social formations" (1984: 26). They advocated that society be "described in terms of its intrinsic spatiality" and space be described "in terms of its intrinsic sociality" and proposed "a broad theory of the social logic of space and the spatial logic of society" (1984: 26). According to Hillier and Hanson (1984), the primary purpose of architecture is the ordering of space, and they outline a syntax model of space in the form of a morphic language whose primary elements are closed and open architectural spaces. Their principal argument, derived from syntax theory, is that spatial organization is a function of social solidarity as defined by Durkheim (Hillier and Hanson, 1984: 142). Mechanical solidarity, which is a form of social integration forged through similarities of group belief and structure, requires a segregated and dispersed space that separates the constituent social groups and helps them maintain their individual identity. Organic solidarity, in contrast, is a form of social integration forged through an interdependence based on differences, for example, the division of labor. This type of solidarity requires an integrated and dense space to facilitate the numerous social encounters needed for the exchange of information and material that ties together the mutually interdependent social entities (Ferguson 1996: 21). Hillier and Hanson further distinguished between what they called correspondence and noncorrespondence sociospatial systems (1984: 256-261). In a correspondence system, spaces and social groups correspond to each other. Encounters result from physical proximity through membership in a spatial group and the system is strong locally. In a noncorrespondence system, a split occurs between spatial groups and transpatial groups, which are other types of social associations not defined by residence. Transpatial groups must interact across space to relate individuals in different spatial groups to each other, and therefore the system tends to be globally strong (Ferguson 1996: 22).

Other scholars share Hillier and Hanson's view of the close relation that exists between architecture, space, and society. Susan Kent has shown that segmentation in various parts of culture, behavior, and cultural material, such as architecture, increases with the development of sociopolitical complexity (1990: 5).

While the pure space syntax model clearly has shortcomings--for example, it cannot address changes in access due to remodeling efforts without independent evidence from archaeological data--it can and should be applied to Maya architecture because it will enrich our understanding of palaces, elite residences, and their inhabitants, as well as their relationship to the rest of Maya society. Especially Maya elites from different cities might be compared and contrasted following the model of a noncorrespondence system. One application of Hillier and Hanson's syntax model of architectural space to Maya archaeology is demonstrated by Liendo Stuardo (this volume).

The main purpose of this volume is to present an interdisciplinary approach and bring together scholars in archaeology, anthropology, art history, and epigraphy, as well as information from a number of different Maya sites, to see what kind of formal and functional patterns in palaces and elite residences can be isolated and in which ways they reflect the structure of Maya society. The majority of the chapters focus on one specific Maya city. Both Loa Traxler and E. Wyllys Andrews and colleagues, for instance, take the reader to Copan. Traxler outlines the development of residential architecture underneath the Acropolis during the Early Classic. The earliest constructions were made of adobe, and one patio group has been identified as the residence of the founder of the Copan royal lineage, Yax K'uk' Mo'. Traxler shows how the adobe structures were replaced by masonry buildings over time. Andrews and coauthors introduce the Late Classic residences in Group 10L-2 south of the Acropolis. They identify the private houses of Yax Pasaj, the final ruler in the dynasty started by Yax K'uk' Mo', and assign functions to most of the other buildings. The evidence for their interpretation is primarily architectural layout and furniture, sculptural decoration, and hieroglyphic inscriptions. Together, the two chapters clearly describe the similarities and changes in palace architecture at Copan from the Early to the Late Classic.

Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan present a special situation at Aguateca. This Maya city was attacked in the early ninth century, most of the elite residences were burned, and the site was abandoned. Because of this rapid departure of the inhabitants, Inomata and Triadan encountered in these structures unprecedented assemblages of in situ domestic artifacts, that form the basis of their functional analysis. One of the buildings was identified as the house of a high-status scribe. Arthur Demarest, Kim Morgan, Claudia Wolley, and Héctor Escobedo explore the role natural geography played in the design of the Murciélagos palace complex at Dos Pilas. Morgan and colleagues demonstrate that a subterranean system of caves and springs impacted the plan of this palace and was strategically used to sanctify and legitimize the power of the Dos Pilas ruler. Peter Harrison's work concentrates on the Central Acropolis at Tikal. His reconstruction of function takes into consideration information derived from epigraphy and iconography, and in this respect Harrison's chapter greatly enhances the interdisciplinary approach of this volume. Thomas Guderjan, Robert Lichtenstein, and C. Colleen Hanratty report transformations and changes in elite residences at the site of Blue Creek from the Early Classic to the Late Classic. They use their data to draw conclusions about changes in social structure. James Ambrosino's chapter is a very thorough analysis of the artifactual material associated with a palace structure at Yaxuna. He points out the need to examine the formation processes of material deposits before interpretations of Maya palace function is advanced.

The remaining four chapters discuss formal elements and possible uses of palaces and elite residences at multiple sites. Edward Kurjack presents a general hierarchy of houses in the Yucatan and explores function from an anthropological perspective, addressing numerous forms of cultural behavior, such as defense, economic production, and migration between villages. Jeff Kowalski analyzes form and reconstructs domestic and political functions of several specific Maya palace buildings in the Yucatan Peninsula. He identifies possible Council Houses or Popol Nahs at Dzibilchaltun and Uxmal which beg for a revised definition of the Late Classic Maya institution of kingship. Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo investigates access patterns in royal compounds by means of graphical analysis employing space syntax models. His results demonstrate differences in access and layout between Classic palaces in the southern lowlands and Early Postclassic structures in the northern Yucatan. Liendo Stuardo also discusses what the changes in elite architecture might reveal about the political organization of Postclassic centers. My chapter looks at a very common tripartite floor plan in Maya residences. Her approach is structural and the interpretation is based on principles of Maya cosmology and worldview as these are represented in iconography and in the inscriptions.



“The volume provides insightful discussions and basic data on Maya palaces that will be devoured by Maya archaeologists in their quest to interpret, explain, and just describe the vast array of large stone buildings at Maya sites referred to generically as palaces. The papers in the volume make one think and ask more questions about power, authority, and their architectural expression in the ancient world.”
The Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“This volume will become a standard reference in the literature of Maya studies and, more broadly, Mesoamerican archaeology. . . . Collectively, the articles touch on a wide range of epistemological, theoretical, and historical issues that have been recently raised concerning Maya palaces.”
David Freidel, Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology, Southern Methodist University


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