John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's


UXMAL  (circa A.D. 750-900)

The ninth century abandonment of Tikal, Palenque, Copán and so many other city states in the central lowlands at the end of the Classic era was hardly the end of Maya civilization itself. To the north, religious centers throughout the Yucatán peninsula continued to thrive under the domination of kings, priests, and confederacies of noblemen. Although we lack extensive hieroglyphic texts detailing their dynastic histories, examples of a superlative architectural style called “Puuc”, from the Maya word for “mountain ridge”, are remarkably well preserved. Uxmal only emerged as a Puuc capital during Mesoamerica’s Terminal Classic between A.D. 850 and 950, yet it is widely regarded as the penultimate masterpiece of Maya engineering genius.

In contrast to their late contemporaries to the south, Uxmal’s designers were seemingly uninterested in creating wide open plazas rimmed with towering temples dedicated to the memories of the dead. Rather they favored corporate architecture, emphasizing great halls and habitations constructed around private courts for the pleasure of the living. To achieve the massive effect of each building’s ornamental entablatures, Uxmal’s architects also transformed many earlier practices. Instead of applying hand-modeled stucco reliefs to rough hewn facing stones, entire communities of workers were directed to carve small sections of limestone relief according to pre-determined forms. The technique allowed engineers to attach the facade directly to the concrete foundation, thereby creating enormous stone tapestries of bold geometric patterns framed by abstract masks of Maya gods. Though now in ruin, it is little wonder that even a millenium afterwards, Uxmal would continue to have a profound effect on such luminaries of 20th century architectural design as Frank Lloyd Wright.

Image - The Pyramid of the Magician

The Pyramid of the Magician combines elements of different Maya architectural styles. Temple V at the summit is more typical of the northern Puuc style, while Temple IV constructed below is more typical of the Chenes style of the south. Click on Image for more detail.

Image - Hook-Nosed Mask panels

Hook-Nosed Mask panels ornament the West Building of the Nunnery Quadrangle. Some represent the Maya storm god, Chaak; others may signify fantastic creatures such as macaws and bats. Mask panels were the hallmark of Maya architecture as far back as the Preclassic. Outstanding early examples were found to the west at the site of Cerros in the present nation of Belize. Click on Image for more detail.

Image - The Nunnery Quadrangle

The Nunnery Quadrangle, so named by Spaniards who thought it resembled a cloister, was built adjacent to the Pyramid of the Magician as an elite residence and ceremonial court. Upon entering through the vaulted passageway of the South Building, one is immediately struck by the vast size of the main plaza, an effect enhanced by the placement of the surrounding buildings at differing elevations. While the court appears to be perfectly rectangular in shape, in fact it is trapezoidal, leading to speculation that the Maya were experimenting with perspective correction. Click on Image for more detail.

Image - The House of the Governor

The House of the Governor is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Maya architectural form with its stunning arrangement of mask panels and geometric ornamentation. The palace is three hundred feet long, thirty-six feet wide, and twenty-four feet tall. It was constructed by creating a large anchoring mass at the western side to which double vaulted chambers were added. There are twenty-four rooms of varying sizes. An outstanding feature of the exterior is its negative batter, the slight but perceptible lean in the facade that lends the building such an imposing appearance. Click on Image for more detail.


Art historian Jeffrey Kowalski found that a few Uxmal monuments refer to a real historical personage named Lord Chac. This is significant because Puuc sites are notable for their lack of extensive hieroglyphic texts either because the few that survive are so ravaged by the elements that they are illegible or, more importantly, because the Yucatec Maya elite may have prohibited monuments dedicated to individual kings because they governed through councils of royal families called Mul Tepal or “joint rule”. Lord Chac was the exception and it appears that under his patronage Uxmal ultimately rose to power as the last great Maya capital of the Classic period.

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