Maya architecture represents one of the most important elements within the archaeological investigation in Mesoamerica. Because temples, palaces, and ballcourts represent physical evidence, and some of them are of a large size, the impressive remains of Maya architecture attracted the attention of several investigators since the XVIII century. Maudslay, Maler, Stephens & Catherwood, and even Spanish conquistadores mentioned the temples and pyramids they saw in Mexico and Guatemala. Archaeologists today also study the architectural remains of Mayan civilization in Belize and Honduras.
In most published comments on Mayan architecture, there is a specific element in the construction and engineering that is of interest, the Maya corbel vault. This interesting type of architecture was used in many sites through out the Maya area. The following page on this Maya archaeology web site of FLAAR explains this interesting feature.
The Corbelled Vault in the Buildings of Ancient Cultures
Corbelled vault in Tikal's architecture
The one trait that distinguishes the Mayan architecture from their neighbors is the corbel vault (also called corbelled vault). A corbel vault (or corbeled / corbelled vault) is a vault-like construction method, which uses architectural technique of corbelling to span a space or void in a structure. The corbelled vault is defined as technique to support the superstructure of a building’s roof.
A corbel vault is constructed by offsetting successive courses of stone at the spring line of the walls so that they project towards the archway’s center from each supporting side, until the courses meet at the apex of the archway (often capped with flat stones). For a corbelled vault covering the techniques is extended in three dimensions along the lengths of two opposing walls. The best set of drawings of the diverse range of shapes and sizes of corbel vaults can be found in the Sylvanus Morley book “The ancient Maya”.
One might think that the Maya are unique in having a corbelled vault, but they are not the only ones to have this type of architecture. Other civilizations used this architectural method in their constructions like the Java in Indonesia. These corbelled vaults used by the Java civilization are almost the same in size and shape as those seen in the Mayan structures.
Some Comments About the Corbelled Vault Elsewhere in the World
The pyramidal constructions are born in the city of Mesopotamia, coinciding with the origin of writing and the use of copper. And it is known that they used the corbelled vault. But at the same time, in South America, in prehispanic times, there is also evidence that points out that they also used the corbelled vault, and had no relationship with the Maya culture. And you can also see the corbelled arch in the Mediterranean region, in megalithic structures. There is a vast variety of corbelled vaults around the world, that if you look up at any web navigator, you will find several examples across the planet and of several time periods.
In Greece the ancient Mycenae have several features in which you can appreciated the corbel arches and vaults, the “Treasury of Atreus”, being a prominent example. This structure is a tomb constructed around 1250 BC, and it is considered as the most monumental domed tomb or tholos in Greece. This tomb belongs to the art-crete Mycenae. This type of architectural feature spread through the Mediterranean region used in graves, but later it became used in corridors too. In this last case, they have two spaces, including the “false arch” of the largest of them.
In Ireland the Newgrange passage tomb has an intact corbel vault supporting the roof of the main chamber, dating from about 3300-2900 BC. It consists of enormous mound made stones that are carved by man. It runs inside a mound of 18 meters of passage that goes up to one third of the diameter and leads to a cruciform chamber. The burial chamber has a cantilever roof that rises abruptly to a height of about 6 meters.
In Egypt the Bent Pyramid located at the royal necropolis, is a unique example of early pyramid development in Egypt. One of the architectural features is the two burial chambers with corbelled vaults, accessible through two entrances.
Finally in the Maya Area, the corbelled vault has always been called “False Maya arch”, which is an erroneous way to call it, because of its construction it’s not really an arch but a vault (Villalobos; 2004). So in some cases you will find in certain literature the concept of “False Maya arch” and in others you will find the concept “Maya corbelled vault”. And if you are taking a tour to this area, you can see the most photogenic Maya vaults at Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Labna, and other 8th-10th century Puuc Maya ruins in Yucatan (reachable by tour from Merida). And also in other archaeological sites in Belize, Guatemala, and in Copan, Honduras.
Okay, so the Ancient Maya Had the Corbel Vault, and not the True (Roman) Arch?
Upps! Sorry! The Maya buildings were 99.9% corbelled (those that did not have a wooden roof or other kinds of acceptably typical Maya roof). But yes, the Maya did have round vaults, perhaps .1%. You find these in the Chenes-Rio Bec area. The Carnegie Institution of Washington first found them and then many architectural historians have visited these sites since then.
FLAAR and Mayan Architecture and Archaeology
FLAAR has decades of experience with Maya corbel vaults from Nicholas Hellmuth’s first views of Palenque at age 16 to his archaeological recording at Tikal for the University Pennsylvania at age 19, while he was a student of architectural sciences at Harvard. Nicholas then spent several decades photographing Maya structures throughout Yucatan, Campeche, Chiapas and Peten to create one of the largest photographic archives of Maya architecture in the world: probably larger than the photo archives of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) which repose at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. Another excellent photo archive of Mayan architecture is that of architect George Andrews.