Exhibits on the Plaza

The temple-pyramid

Probably the best-known visual feature of Mesoamerica are the pyramids which tower over the ruinous sites. The ceremonial complexes of Maya cities - plazas, pyramids and palaces - were designed to reflect, symbolically, the sacred landscape at its first creation by the gods. The stepped and truncated pyramids represented mountains, and the temples atop them represented caves leading into the heart of the mountains; both were places where sacredness was especially concentrated. It was from here that kings -- the human manifestation of the central axis linking the Underworld, Middle World and the Sky World -- used trance and ritual as the means to open a doorway into the supernatural world through which they could communicate with the gods. Each repetition of ritual accumulated energy which made a temple-pyramid increasingly sacred. Pyramids were also used to house royal tombs.

Temple-pyramids were part of a long cultural tradition in Mesoamerica; the Olmec had built artificial mountains a thousand years earlier. The form developed through piling rock and dirt and building a platform on the summit on which to raise a temple. A Maya innovation was the addition of sculpted and painted facades to pyramid and temple, which expressed political and religious messages. In fact, the whole pyramid would be covered in plaster and then painted red or other bright colours.

Pyramid-temples took many structural forms: some were tall and steep, some very broad, others squat. The temple itself was not large, generally comprising between one and three dark rooms, of which one would be the inner sanctum where the king performed his rituals. Some temples have facades representing masks of one or other cosmic monster and the Maya name for the temple door actually means "mouth of the house". The pyramid-temple erected on CMC's plaza is not based on any particular historical structure. The Witz ("mountain") monster depicted on its roof comb is a vulture.

Explore inside the pyramid: