Cities and Architecture


The Maya built monumental architecture equal to any in the ancient world, but amazingly without the use of metal tools, the wheel and pack animals, such as the donkey, ox or elephant. 

Dr Diane explaining where the Maya lived.


The Maya civilisation collapsed around AD 900 and the Maya disappeared.

There was no Maya collapse, rather due to drought, people living within the rainforest area abandoned their cities and travelled north into the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico and the highlands of Guatemala. These people set up home building cities such as Chichen Itza or Mayapan, which was occupied up until the 15th century. 

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The ancient Maya lived in a region that today includes Guatemala, Belize, the Yucatan peninsula (Mexico) and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

The area was diverse including the coast, mountains (highlands) and the rainforest (lowlands). The rainforest area is where we see the beginnings of Maya civilisation.

Maya cities could be quite different in layout, but they generally contained a ceremonial centre where great pyramids, temples, palaces and ballcourts were built.

Many centres had causeways (roadways), called sacbe.

Listen to how the word is pronounced:


These cities also had stelae (stela singular); standing stones that contained both portraits of rulers and writings about them.

Stela & Stelae

The word for ruler was Ajaw / Ahau – listen to how it is pronounced:  


The Maya pyramids were stepped and had a central staircase and a small structure on top. The Maya rulers often built their pyramids on top of one another, so if a ruler wanted to celebrate an important event or if a new ruler came to power a building would be constructed over the old one.

The view from the top of the temples is pretty amazing as well!

View standing on the top of Temple IV, Tikal, Guatemala

Temples were sacred, places where the ruler (who was also the head priest), would have ceremonies for the gods.

Cities had large populations, for example Tikal had around 90,000 people living there at its peak and Chichen Itza had around 40,000 people.


How long would it take to build a Maya pyramid?

Well it depends on the size of the pyramid! It would take roughly 25,000 days for 1 person to build a Maya palace, so to build a pyramid which is it least 4 times the size – how many people/days would you need?

Examples of Maya Cities

El Mirador

Listen to how the city name is pronounced:

One of the earliest cities we find is El Mirador, in the Petén, Guatemala where around 300 BC pyramids of great heights were seen rising out of the jungle.  

El Tigre pyramid was over over 50 m high and La Danta was over 70 m high!

El Tigre
La Danta

The site includes several hundred structures distributed over a 6 square mile area.

What was going on in the UK at this time?

Tikal, Guatemala

Listen to how the city name is pronounced:


Another important site is Tikal not far south of El Mirador that also was an early site and by the Late Classic become a metropolis of over 60,000 people. Tikal had several large pyramids one rising 47 metres high! It is called the Temple of the Great Jaguar and housed the tomb of King Jasaw Chan K’awiil. 

Copan, Honduras

Listen to how the city name is pronounced:


Chichen Itza, Mexico

How to pronounce the city name:


Palenque, Mexico

How to pronounce the city name:


How to pronounce Pakal (famous king of Palenque):  


Iximche, Guatemala

How to pronounce Iximche

The Maya “Collapse”

As mentioned above there has been much controversy surrounding the collapse of the Maya civilisation in AD 900. What we actually see is an abandonment of cities in the rainforest and a move to areas where there was better access to water.


There have been various suggestions on what could caused the abandonment, some say that it was due to warfare as we see defence walls placed up around some cities and also evidence of fighting from the burials excavated – spearpoints stuck in bones! However, we only see this in a couple of cities.

Source: Mélanie Forné (illustrator) & MUNAE, Guatemala 2017

Another suggestion is over-use of the land and over-population. It is very difficult to live in the jungle and so as the population grew more of the land was used up and it got to a point where there was no land left for growing food. Again, there is only evidence of this happening, in a couple of cities.

Lady Six Sky holding obsidian, Nakum. Source: Mélanie Forné (illustrator) & MUNAE, Guatemala 2017

Some people have mentioned disease, but this was not the problem then, rather when the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s, to conquer the Maya. The Spanish, not realising, brought many diseases with them that the Maya were not protected against and so many died from disease rather than at the hands of the Spanish themselves.

Source: Mélanie Forné (illustrator) and Quai Branly Museum, Paris 2014.

Finally, the last suggestion and the one that is generally agreed to be the correct reason, is because of drought, that is a long period of extremely dry weather. It was very hot in the jungle and that there was little water. You can imagine if there was a very long period, for example 10 years without much rain, there would not be enough drinking water nor enough food for everyone.

We know there was a very dry period as archaeologists have taken samples from the nearby lakes and actually this dry period extended all the way down to South America, where we see many cities being abandoned!

Watch the National Geographic video supporting the evidence for drought.

Remember though, although the Maya civilisation finally declined in the 1500’s when the Spanish conquered them, the Maya did not disappear. 8 million Maya are living today, half the population of Guatemala are Maya and they still wear the traditional clothing and some even follow the ancient Maya calendar.

Why don’t you have a debate on this in class?

Children’s Activities

  • Cardboard Maya Pyramid
  • Sponge Maya Pyramid
  • Maya Cardboard Step Pyramid
  • Maya Pyramid

Fancy making a Maya pyramid? Have a look at the wonderful examples above that schools have sent in to Dr Diane.

Make your own City Emblem Glyph

The Maya had emblem glyphs for their cities, much as football teams have insignia or badges.

They also represented the titles of the rulers of these cities.  

Emblem glyphs consist of a central sign that represents the city and then two other signs on the top and the left that are read as divine/holy lord. So together the emblem glyph reads “the divine/holy lord of” and then the city that is mentioned. Why don’t you make an emblem glyph that represents your town/city?

Maya Emblem Glyphs Lowlands

Examples of Emblem Glyphs

Emblem glyph of the Maya city Quirigua, Guatemala

What you will need:

  • Clay
  • Rolling pin
  • Piece of cloth, – canvas is ideal – for rolling out clay; use this to prevent the clay from sticking to the table
  • Clay cutting knife, wood modelling tools if you have them
  • Pencil
  • Water, brush, and a small sponge
  • Paint, brushes, varnish
  • Strip wood guides 6mm thick – optional


1. Place the clay on the cloth with the strip wood guides at the sides if you have them. Roll out until clay is flat, turning it several times.

2. Cut out your glyph shapes, one larger than the other. Smooth edges with a damp sponge.

  • Alternatively, if you like, you can draw your design into a flat glyph shaped base with the pencil and modelling tools.

3. Roll balls of clay in your hand– 3 large, 3 medium size and 6 small. Make extras to practice with, they may get squashed into the wrong shapes at first!

4. Model the balls of clay into glyph shapes by gently squashing between your fingers.

5. Wet the base with the brush and some water and then stick the large clay glyph shape onto the base.

6. Then take the smaller glyph shapes and gently press them on, making sure you wet the base to make a good join.

7. With the pencil, draw into the glyph shapes.  Leave glyphs to dry a bit until hard, and then tidy up the edges with a damp sponge and your fingers.

8. If you are using clay, the glyph can be fired and then painted, or if using air drying clay then paint when dry.

Create your own Maya House

What you will need:

  • Cardboard – box, packaging, or craft card
  • Scissors, small blunt knife
  • PVA glue
  • Brown gummed paper tape or masking tape
  • Popsicles, a tray for glue
  • Pencil and ruler
  • Acrylic paints – white, yellow, brown
  • Paintbrushes, small sponge
  • Sand or semolina – for texturing paint
  • Brown wrapping paper, wool or string


1. Cut out your cardboard shapes for the house. Walls: 2 rectangles – 24 cm x 8 cm. Roof: main roof rectangle of 15 cm x 17 cm. Cut angles to make a shape as in the photo. Cut 2 triangles with a base of 10 cm, and sides 9 cm.

2. Score a line at 2 cm in from the short edge, and then measure another 8 cm and score another line. Bend the cardboard on these lines to form the walls.

3. Cut out a rectangle for the front door.

4. Put some glue on the 2cm edge and fix the walls together. Tape to hold if needed. Fix the triangles to the main roof with some brown gummed paper or masking tape.

5. Mix some semolina or fine sand with some white paint.

6. Paint the walls of the house. Leave to dry, then lightly brush on a very thin amount of brown and yellow paint to get an “old look” to the stucco walls.

7. Cut out a shape from some card or cardboard for the base; make sure it’s bigger than the house! Then paint the piece of card that the house will stand on with brown and white paints. Get a nice texture with the small sponge.

8. To make the thatch: cut long strips of brown wrapping paper about 3cms wide. Cut into the strips and take care not to cut right to the top but leave a bit of paper. You will then have a paper fringe.

9.  Glue these fringes on to the roof, starting at the bottom edge. Trim the ends to fit the sloping shape of the roof.

10. If you want to use wool or string for the thatch, put some glue on to part of the roof. Get your ball of wool/string and wrap it right around a few times.

11. Then put on more glue and do the same again until the roof has wool all round it. Make sure it is stuck down well if not, apply some more glue.

12. Turn the roof over so you see the underneath; cut the wool/string right across with scissors, then trim so it is about 1cm hanging down over the roof edge. Cut lengths of wool/string for the ends of the roof and glue on.

13. Tie a piece of wool around the top edge, then tape the inside of the house to the base, maybe use some glue too. Leave to dry, place your roof on to the walls and make sure the thatch hangs down a bit over the edge of the roof!

Wonderful examples of houses that schools have sent in to Dr Diane.

Make a Maya Stela

Imagine you are the king or queen of a Maya city and you are having a stela made for you to celebrate an important event in your life.

  1. First draw how you would like to be depicted. What clothes would you wear? Jewellery? Headdress? Would you be carrying anything?
  2. Using what you have learned about the Maya calendar add in a date – the day and the month of your celebrated event.
  3. Using what you have learned about the different sorts of glyphs and emblem glyphs mentioned above, add your name and title. What you are celebrating- a birth, the capture of an enemy, a ballgame. Perhaps wining at a game or doing really well on a test.

Have a look at the great examples below:

Resources to Download

These resources were written by teachers on a CPD trip with Dr Diane to the Maya area. You can download these below:

To understand the design of Maya cities and social order within:

Please note – you will need to use your personal, rather than your school’s email address to download these files, as most schools disable the ability to receive items from outside their domain. 

To debate and consider a range of theories for why many Maya cities were abandoned around AD 900.

You can access the complete scheme of work for a small fee, in the form of a donation to the charity Chok Education, which supports the education of Maya children.

Other Resources


This website has tours of Maya sites such as Tikal and Copan, photos and descriptions.
Access “Mesoweb”

Maya 3D

3D exploration of the Maya world:
Access “Maya 3D”

Mesoamerican Archives

Photos of Mesoamerican archaeological sites by David Hixson, a graduate student from the Anthropology Department at Tulane University, New Orleans:
Access the Mesoamerican Archives

Lost Kingdoms of the Maya

NOVA documentary

Including a tour around Copan, available on YouTube:
Access the documentary

National Geographic

Documentary (4 mins) discussing the drought theory
Access National Geographic

2 responses to “Cities and Architecture”

  1. Mathew says:

    How do I access the powerpoint presentations mentioned in the resources?

    • Diane Davies says:

      They are on the same page as the resources -if you are having trouble downloading them it is because you are using your school’s email address and your school has blocked 3rd party downloads- just use your own personal email address and it will work.

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