General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Temple 1 at Tikal, the highest ancient building in Mesoamerica

RESOURCE: Maya buildings that resisted earthquakes

According to official figures, 1,821 Mexican historical monuments suffered some sort of structural damage in the earthquakes that hit Mexico in September 2017, 242 of these being severe. Intriguingly though, THE OLDER THE BUILDING THE LESS DAMAGE IT SUFFERED. In fact, only FIVE ancient archaeological sites suffered, and these only from minor damage. As far as we know, not a single pre-Hispanic construction has ever collapsed in an earthquake or hurricane. What was the secret of the ancient pyramid builders that made sure that 2,000-year-old buildings would remain earthquake-proof for so long? (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The ruins of Tulum on Mexico’s Atlantic coast
Pic 1: The ruins of Tulum on Mexico’s Atlantic coast (Click on image to enlarge)

The main picture above shows the rear view of ancient Mesoamerica’s tallest building, Temple 1 at Tikal, standing 154 feet high in the Guatemalan jungle. The expert Maya architects knew from experience and intuition that to build anything higher than this would risk its collapse in a major earthquake. At the same time simple common sense told them to build their monuments on high ground to avoid floods (being in a notorious hurricane zone, the Yucatan peninsula has always suffered badly from storm flooding). They also had learned, from centuries of developing new techniques (follow the ‘Ideas...’ link below to learn more) that pyramids - shaped to imitate sacred mountains - were more stable if erected on broad, solid bases, using blocks of stone mortared together to increase the elasticity. But there has to have been something else behind their success, beyond these basic principles...

Pic 2: Limestone carvings on the northern palace at Uxmal, Yucatan
Pic 2: Limestone carvings on the northern palace at Uxmal, Yucatan (Click on image to enlarge)

Indeed there was, and it comes down to a profound knowledge of the natural raw materials in their environment and of their in-built qualities... The key factor? Lime(stone)! Sylvanus Morley set the scene many years ago in his classic work The Ancient Maya (1947): ‘The local limestone was one of the best building materials in all pre-Columbian America; not only was it easily quarried with tools of stone and wood (the only ones at the disposal of the ancient Maya builders), but it also hardens on exposure to the elements; further, on burning, it easily reduces to lime. Finally, throughout the region there are beds of coarse, limey gravel (zahcab, a kind of natural lime cement); in short the three essential elements for a primitive, durable stone-and-masonry architecture were present: easily worked building material, lime, and gravel for making mortar.’

Pic 3: ‘Tezontlalli’ - Florentine Codex, Book 11
Pic 3: ‘Tezontlalli’ - Florentine Codex, Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica (Aztecs) of central Mexico followed the same principles, but in addition to limestone they had access to tezontle, a porous volcanic rock with a reddish tinge - ‘it is black, chili-red, rough...’ - which they shaped into blocks and also broke up and crushed to form mortar - tezontlalli. Maya and Aztec builders used lime mortar as stucco or plaster, that could be painted on.
Nahua (Aztec) scribes specifically referred to its qualities in Sahagún’s encyclopaedic work the Florentine Codex: ‘Its name comes from tezontli and tlalli [earth]. This is pulverised tezontli. It is made into fragments, broken up, roughened, sticky. It hardens, It is mixed with lime; thus it becomes sticky, thus it becomes adhesive; thus it hardens.’
Lime itself receives separate mention in the Codex: ‘The seller of lime [is] a shatterer of rocks, a burner of limestone, a slaker of lime. He places the limestone in the oven, places the firewood, sets the fire, burns the limestone, cools the oven, slakes the lime, carries the lime on his back. He sells limestone rock...’

Pic 4: Pyramid construction, Florentine Codex Book 11
Pic 4: Pyramid construction, Florentine Codex Book 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

So isn’t lime (commonly known today as quicklime, builders’ lime, or slaked lime when mixed with water) used today? It is, but it’s more expensive, harder to apply and can burn the skin (‘exceedingly burning’ as the Aztec informants of Sahagún put it). Modern cement is cheaper and quicker to prepare and use, but is much less elastic and tends, on breaking, to peel away parts of the original stonework, causing damage to ancient monuments that have been repaired with cement.
Lime has, for some 3,000 years or more in Mesoamerica, been used to soak maize seeds in overnight to add valuable calcium to the diet and to make it easier to remove the skin from the kernels. Good stuff!

Picture sources:-
• Main: photo by Simon Burchell (Wikipedia, Tikal Temple 1)
• Pic 1: photo by Dronepicr (Wikipedia, Tulum)
• Pic 2: photo by Wolfgang Sauber (Wikipedia, Mesoamerican architecture)
• Pix 3 & 4: mages from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

References to the Florentine Codex come from Florentine Codex: Book 11 - Earthly Things, translated from the Aztec into English, with notes and illustrations by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, School of American Research and University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1961.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 18th 2018

emoticon Q. What would a Maya or Aztec architect say to the designer of a modern tower block that has collapsed in an earthquake?
A. ‘Don’t bLIME me!’

Ideas for exploring temple design...

The main source for this article (in Spanish) from ‘El Mundo’ (Spain)
‘Mesoamerican architecture’ (Wikipedia)
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