They Built Their Own Demise: Lime Mortar, Render, and Plaster: What Role in the Decline of Classical Mayan Civilization?

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Chitzen Itza, west facade of the temple called “El Castillo” constructed c. 600AD. Constructed of hewn limestone blocks and whitewashed in lime plaster, the original plaster render has not survived the centuries.

A flat shelf made from the structures of ancient animals, the Yucatan was uplifted from the seabed around 10 million years ago. With its emergence from the seabed, plants arrived. Around 2500BC it is believed that the people destined to become the Maya arrived on the peninsula.

Through many generations, the Maya became the builders of cities. Each city-state of the Maya was centered at its core upon the focal buildings, the edifices signifying the status of the city, the focal point of rulership, and the city’s relationship to the gods. In the Mayan city the focal buildings generally included temples, observatories, and ballcourts. The temples served as the structures dedicated to communication with the divine, the observatories were dedicated to communication with natural cycles, and the ballcourts were associated, among other roles, with resolving internecine rivalries between city-states.

Rendering, west facade, Temple of the Descending God at Tulum depicting the painted lime plaster render typical of Mayan edifices.

Rendering, west facade, Temple of the Descending God at Tulum depicting the painted lime plaster render typical of Mayan edifices.

Each city-state had its own quarry from which the massive blocks of limestone, buildingblocks for the edifices, were hewn. More significantly, every important edifice was apparently whitewashed, as it were, with a keen layer of lime plaster and then painted in vibrant colors. Once fitted together and assembled, the building’s presentation relied on lime plaster to achieve the desired effect. The very laying up of the blocks themselves depended on lime mortar to hold them in place. Thus the architecture of the Maya depended on limestone and lime plaster for their very viability.

The conversion of limestone into either mortar or plaster relies on availability of the raw material (limestone), a ready source of fresh water, and heat. In the Yucatan the stone was readily available, and freshwater also readily available from the cenotes, the underground chambers of the Yucatan where water naturally collects. But for heat, the Maya could only rely upon the burning of forests, and the resulting deforestation is thought by many to be perhaps the ultimate reason for the collapse of Mayan civilization.

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West facade, Temple of the Descending God at Tulum. Photograph by the author, July 9th, 2013.

The Maya harvested the forests around their cities to produce the heat sources necessary to the conversion of raw limestone into the mortar and plaster needed for their building projects. For plaster render, it is estimated that many square miles of deforestation were required to produce each square foot of rendered plastered surface area.

Multiply these estimates by the many thousands of building structures erected by the Maya and one can see that the baseline impacts of Mayan architecture upon the ecology could not have been slight. Add to this impacts resulting from internecine rivalries between rival city-states, and one can perceive what may have been a tipping point in the ecology of the Maya.

Competition between the Mayan city-states is well known. For example, the 60 mile causeway from Coba in the south to it’s sister-city Yaxuna in the north is understood to have been constructed for purposes of military defense of Yaxuna, ally of Coba, against the aggressions of city-state of Chitza-Itza and it’s allies.

Each Mayan city itself could be seen as the focal point for competitive interaction between rival states. As each city-state grew and naturally sought to aggrandize its own interests, other city-states sought to aggrandize theirs. Objectifying the legitimacy of the city-state required the construction of monuments, and the construction of monuments demanded resources: the quarrying of stone, harvesting of water, the deforestation of trees.

Thus, even as trees were burned to fuel the construction programs necessary to the city-state – the edifices, monuments, the roads – upon whose efforts the citizens were focused, the resources themselves were stretched beyond their carrying capacity. As the forests became overharvested, competition for the resources essential to the Mayan city-state grew commensurately, even as the carrying capacity of the land was diminished.

At the time of the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadores according to most accounts the Mayan cities were apparently by and large mostly abandoned. Tulum, on the east coast, remained among the viable Mayan cities, most others having been abandoned by the time of the arrival of the Spaniards.

Environmental degradation leading to war in turn fomenting increased competition for natural resources is not, of course, the only theory available to explain what became of the Mayan city-state – other theories abound. Having said that, the amount of environmental degradation necessary to the construction of the architecture of the Mayan city is quantifiable. What have not been quantified are the internecine and political factors which fed into their architecture, and consequent demand for resources which may have led to their demise.

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