General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Apr 2021/3 Alligator
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Article suitable for older students

Professor Jennifer Mathews

Question for April 2021

How did they carry the heavy stones to make their temples? Asked by Takeley Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Jennifer Mathews.

Artist’s reconstruction of Toltec workmen hauling a stone statue up a hill using rollers and ropes
Artist’s reconstruction of Toltec workmen hauling a stone statue up a hill using rollers and ropes (Click on image to enlarge)

This is an excellent question and one that archaeologists and engineers have asked not only about the Aztec and Maya, but about the monuments of the Olmec in Mexico, the giant heads (Rapa Nui) on Easter Island in South America, the pyramids in Egypt, and of course the site of Stonehenge. Several scientists have conducted experiments and while we may not know for sure how it was done, here are some ideas:-
1. Log rollers - they may have laid down a series of logs on the ground and rolled the large stones over the top of them. This is problematic because the logs often jam up with each other, so probably only used when absolutely necessary.
2. Rails and sleds - they may have laid down a bed of logs set up like a railroad and created a wooden sled that would have carried the stone and rolled over the rails. An experiment like this was conducted at Stonehenge, as you can see - in Links 1 and 2, below.

In Egypt, some scientists have said that there were also ramps that wrapped around the pyramids to help get the stones up to the top of the pyramic. Something similar may have been done in Mesoamerica.
3. Some argue that they may have moved large stones using a large team of people, ropes wrapped around the stone and rocking them back and forth to “walk them” along, like these scientists tried at Easter Island - follow Link 3, below.
I imagine that for the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica it was probably a combination of all of these techniques, depending on where they were trying to get the stone to and from.
Thank you for your question!

Picture source
From Mexicolore archives - source unknown.

Editor’s Note -
Recent experiments in the Orkney Islands off Scotland have shown that SEAWEED may have been used as a lubricant to help move heavy stones on rollers! Watch this -
https://brodgar.co.uk/2016/07/10/how-do-you-move-a-standing-stone/

Link 1: ‘Heave-Ho! Stonehenge Experiment May Show How Monument Was Built’

Link 2: ‘Building a Neolithic Sled | Prehistoric Technology’ (Youtube)

Link 3: ‘Scientists Make Easter Island Statue Walk | National Geographic’ (Youtube)

Professor Jennifer Mathews has answered 5 questions altogether:

Is the chewing gum tree only found in Mexico?

I’ve read that the ancient Greeks chewed gum too: who were first to chew gum, the ancient Greeks or the ancient Mexicans?

Were there any lady [Maya] rulers?

How many people lived in a house (2)?

How did they carry the heavy stones to make their temples?

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