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Ancient Maya Engineering

Ancient Maya Engineering

The Maya civilization was located in an expansive area that now encompasses the countries of Guatemala and Belize, the southeastern portion of Mexico, and the western areas of El Salvador and Honduras. Study of the civilization is divided into the Archaic Period, the Pre-Classic Period, the Classic Period, and the Post-Classic Period. The Classic Period, which lasted from about 300 A.D. to 900 A.D., is considered to have been its Golden Age.

The Maya were a bright and resourceful people. They developed a hieroglyphic script that was the only true developed writing system of its time. They also came to be known for their developments in architecture, art, and mathematics as well as for their calendar and astronomical system.

Modern efforts in archeology and anthropology have led to discoveries of amazing examples of the engineering prowess of the Maya. The Maya created elaborate structures and entire cities that proved to be far ahead of their time.


All engineering begins with knowledge of mathematics and, in the case of the Maya, with their number line. The Maya used a base-20 number system that likely evolved from the use of fingers and toes for counting. They employed just three symbols to represent all numbers: a dot, which indicated one, a bar, which indicated five, and another symbol, often a shell, that indicated zero. Adding and subtracting involved manipulations of the bars, dots, and shells. Numbers in this system could be written either horizontally or vertically. This mathematical system provided the Mayans with a definite understanding of the rectangular shape. This shape became the base shape of many of the pyramids and temples that they constructed over time. Their numerical system allowed mathematicians and astronomers to carry out complex calculations but also provided illiterate farmers and others with the means to engage in trade.


Simply defined, hydrology is the study of water. The Maya knew that water was a double-edged sword and that their survival depended on its effective management. Part of that management meant adapting to the different water situations in the different areas of the empire. Some areas, such as Puuc on the Yucatan Peninsula, have few natural water sources such as streams, lakes, or rivers. The Maya figured out that rainwater would be the key to sustaining life, and they created large rainwater collection systems to collect and store water. In other areas, streams and reservoirs had to be routed in ways that would protect cities from flooding by using tunnels and canals. The Maya used hydraulic principles of engineering in their design and construction. They would construct the channels with decreasing diameters, thus providing water pressure for applications such as fountains.

Structural Engineering

The fact that Maya structures still exist to this day is a testament to the ingenuity and intelligence of this civilization. They managed to build quite elaborate structures without tools that we would consider essential today. One example of the technology they used to create temples and bridges was the arch, such as the Corbel Arch. This arch employs an architectural technique called corbeling to create a span and distribute weight. The Maya used this technique to create temples and other structures with vast, open interior spaces.

Building and Culture

As with most civilizations, the culture of the Maya can be observed through their engineering feats. The buildings they created give us clues to the fabric of their culture. The peak of grand-scale construction occurred during the Classic Period. Study of classic Maya art shows us that this period was rooted in royal culture. The king was held in god-like standing, and the art of the time reflects this.

The architecture of Maya cities shared many commonalities, but there were also local influences that varied from place to place. Styles were influenced by available building materials and topography as well as local preferences. For example, the Usumacinta style used their hilly terrain as a part of the design style of their buildings. The hillsides were used as architectural support elements.

Religion had a major influence on Mayan building and culture. The Maya believed there was a deity-filled supernatural realm. They believed these deities needed to be appeased via ritual and ceremony. Burial rituals were also an integral part of Maya culture. For instance, Hanab Pacal, a Mayan ruler, created the Temple of Inscriptions as his final resting place, and the Maya believed the temple was the avenue to the spirit of this leader.