Thursday Salute to Originals: Ancient Mayan Buildings, Modern Acoustic Wonders

With our modern building techniques and technologies like computer design programs, tower cranes that lift over 100 tons, and underwater arc welding, we easily forget how human ingenuity allowed the ancients to erect amazing structures with innovative methods and results. From the Egyptian use of kites to lift massive, one-piece stone obelisks to the Roman development of water-proof concrete, these engineers originated designs that still marvel today. One of the most impressive, Chichén Itzá once held a central role in Mayan civilization and still displays incredible acoustic properties.

These Mesoamerican people built such large stone structures without the use of draft animals, metal implements, or even simple machines like the pulley. Astounding enough, the lack of these construction aids did little to deter Mayan engineers in accomplishing wonderful feats. The Great Ball Court allows conversations between people separated by hundreds of feet, the Temple of Kukulkan will actually “chirp” at visitors with the voice of a bird, and the Temple of the Warriors will “rattle” like a snake. Many of these effects draw their inspiration from the complex interplay between local religious beliefs and the Yucatán Peninsula’s environment.

Chichen Itza Great Ball Court

Above: The Great Ball Court

The Great Ball Court held games that held special religious significance. Measuring over five-hundred feet long by over one-hundred feet wide, this football field-sized playing area required teams to put a ball through a hoop without the use of their hands or it touching the ground, signifying the intricate balance possessed by all of creation. The end of the game involved human sacrifice but historians still argue whether it was the winning team or losing team put to death! The acoustics of the court’s sloping walls form a one-thousand year old whispering gallery, allowing for opposite players on different ends to hear each other talk in normal conversational tones. Even with one-tenth of a mile between teams, whispered strategies were no secret and competitive trash talking carried well.

Above: Temple of Kukulkan

The Temple of Kukulkan derives its name from Kukulkan, the Mayan’s chief deity and a major figure in other pre-Columbian Mexican societies such as the Aztecs who. Kukulkan assumed the form of a flying green dragon and was held responsible for earthquakes, rains, and victory in warfare. Now there just happens to be a green bird in the area called the “quetzal” whose name derives from the Aztec term for Kukulkan, “Quetzalcoatl”. Carrying very long and thin tail feathers, it appears like a flying serpent. This avian also makes a chirp that distinctly echoes through the surrounding forest. The temple signified Kukulkan’s interaction with his people and was also the site for human sacrifices.

Above: Temple of Warriors

The Temple of the Warriors obviously takes its name from the military might of the Mayans and their practice of sacrificing defeated enemies (do you see a trend?). One thousand columns stand in the vicinity and represent victorious soldiers. Enormous rattlesnake sculptures adorn the Temple in many places, bearing fangs and even supporting structural elements. The Mayans held rattlesnakes to be sacred because of their powerful bite and fear-inspiring rattle.

The builders of these two massive step pyramids used the acoustics of their shape to enhance religious ceremonies. Priests would stand at a particular spot and loudly clap their hands. First, the echo of their clap would return, then would come a “rattle” from the rattlesnakes on the Temple of the Warrior and its soldier columns followed closely by the “chirp” from Kukulkan’s own temple. Computerized sound wave analysis has shown that the sonic shape of this “chirp” perfectly mirrors that of the quetzal bird.

The thought and persistence the builders utilized to display these effects astounds. Is it any wonder that a society that erected such “responsive” structures came to dominate an entire region and even managed to actively resist European conquest up to the eighteenth century? How do the acoustical impacts of your spatial designs shape behavior and reflect culture?

Image credits: Squidoo, SpudTravels, Pbase,LimboMusicProduction