Expert opinion
The Style of Maya Gulf Coast Architecture

Built on an alluvial plateau devoid of stone, Comalcalco is distinguished by its earth and brick architecture. The site’s inhabitants began building it with foundations of compacted earth covered with thick coats of stucco made using the lime from oyster shells. These staggered platforms were decorated with sculptures modeled in low relief with diverse mythological scenes, as can be observed in the decoration of Temples I, VI and VII.

Temple I demarcates the western side of the Northern Plaza, and it has a partial sculpture of a toad on its south-east wall face, followed by a bench decorated with aquatic elements with three people sitting on it (figure 1). The following scene shows a warrior who is holding a fat person by his hair, lying on a bank, while the next individual carries a staff of command and wears a short skirt which hangs from his waist. Who could the overweight character be who is subdued on his own throne? (figure 2). The final scene on the slope shows a squatting emissary handing over his prisoner, probably a governor of Comalcalco as he is accompanied by dwarves like the one standing to his left (figure 3). In the upper central staircase of Temple I, there is also a sculpture of a stone skull with a depiction of the goddess Ix Pakal Tuun, one of the patron goddesses of the site (figure 4). She may also be observed if we look at the first step of the upper central staircase.

Temples VI and VII are on the northern side of the Great Acropolis; the first has a stucco mask on its central staircase representing the god Itzamná, creator of the universe (figure 5). To the west of this building is Temple VII, with sculptural decoration modeled in stucco on the southern facade, showing a succession of people sitting as if they are making offerings. Some of them have sashes with celestial elements, which are marked by two crossed lines; on the upper slope it is possible to observe the head of a snake framing the sculptural composition (figure 6).

In its time of splendor, the site’s monumental architecture was lavishly painted with bright colors. The artistic ability of the specialized craftspeople allowed them to integrate painting and sculpture into the architecture, which made the buildings in the capital of the Joy’Chan Mayan estate more vivid.

The sculptural decorations found during the archeological excavations seem to be full of symbols related to the culture’s cosmogony, history and relationship with nature. However, above all, they show the relation of the elite leaders with the different celestial deities, such as Kin, Ah-Chicum-Ek’, Ixchel and Chaak, among many others.

All of this magic religious thinking was captured in the palatial architecture’s sculptural adornments in the Great Acropolis of Joy’Chan. This functioned as an important center for public events, where the exalted priestly class, the nobility and the divine gods of Joy’Chan welcomed emissaries from other Mayan cities. It is therefore possible to see, as well as the wide variety of aquatic animals, the stucco masks of important people from the city, deities and iconography fused with the gods and leaders of the site.

All of this archeological evidence recovered during the excavations has shown that the architectural style of Joy’Chan shared basic elements with other regions from the Mayan world, such as the use of corbelled vaults made using large bricks, sloping walls, roof combs found towards the center of the roof, and even the presence of a molded dripline on the cornice of the buildings, which prevented direct rain runoff onto the wall decorations. A similar feature is observed in the Palenque site, with which it also shares the central positioning of the roof comb and the temple design of double parallel spaces, under which there are sometimes other rooms used as funeral chambers.

However, the construction techniques and materials, the decoration, time period and location of this type of building in the region, now allows us to confirm that a particular style existed at Comalcalco known as “Mayan Architecture of the Gulf Coast.” It is characterized by the large scale of the vaults, the use of the compacted earth cores, the striking quality of its brick stonework (made in various sizes in accordance with the bricks’ placement in the construction), and decorative elements made from a fine mortar. This was done in low relief in the primary stages and in larger, more bulky sculptures during the late phase of the site, between the years 600 and 950 AD.

The bricks used on the site were made from local clay and did not have regular measurements like those from modern factories, which have standard measurements of 7 x 14 x 28 cm. In ancient times, both the length and the thickness of the bricks, as well as their shapes, varied. The builders selected bricks for the walls and roofs by their size (just like would happen with the limestone vaults in other sites) and to complete the vaults they must have used the largest, heaviest bricks, which could have measured up to four feet in length, as we can see in the middle wall (collapsed) which is found on the south side of the Palace in the Great Acropolis.

Another feature which characterizes the site’s architecture and peculiar style is the composition of the funeral enclosures. These were formed by a pyramidal base which had a frontal staircase, which closed the entrance to the funeral crypt erected in the middle section of the plinth, upon which its builders constructed a brick temple with a double interior space, as can be seen in the funeral buildings of Temples IV, V and IX of the Great Acropolis.

Another outstanding characteristic are the drainage systems used in the palace buildings, which are evidence that there was planning in the final constructive stage of this site, as the network of clay pipes of different thicknesses ran underneath the Patio Hundido ("Sunken Courtyard") and the south-east platform of Temple IV. Inside some buildings, ducts have also been observed which drained the internal spaces of the structures and the temples, as well as a system of pools and drainpipes in Structures 1 and 2, which were fed by the rainwater collector found between these and the Palace.

Study of the decoration has identified the presence of priestly scenes created in bas-relief, where important members of the royal family are depicted alongside animals which had great power in their world view. Natural elements also appear, related to water, earth, wind and fire, combined with the depiction of supernatural spaces like the underworld and various celestial gods, as we can see in the bas-relief decorations of Temples I, VI, VII and Structure 4. By contrast, the adornment of the brick stonework architecture was decorated with larger sculptures of figures, with those found to date all male. In keeping with their features and attire, these characters were placed alongside aquatic creatures such as reptiles, birds and amphibians, as well as representations of the gods of sun and rain on panels which offer lively scenes.

To protect the buildings at Comalcalco, it is important that visitors stay to the walkways and do not ascend the buildings to take photographs. This cultural heritage belongs to everybody.

Ricardo Armijo Torres
Batrachian near a bank with aquatic elements and the torsos of seated people
Ricardo Armijo Torres
Under translation
Warrior restraining a fat governing prisoner by his hair.
Ricardo Armijo Torres
Emissary handing over a prisoner to a governor accompanied by a dwarf.
Ricardo Armijo Torres
Representation of the goddess Ix Pakal Tuun
or Lady Protector of stone, patron goddess of Comalcalco
Ricardo Armijo Torres
Architectural sculpture from Temple VI
with representation of the god Itzamná, creator of the universe.
Ricardo Armijo Torres
Architectural decoration from the facade of Temple VII:
with representation of seated figures with celestial sashes and head of a snake.

  • Armijo Torres, Ricardo, 2016, Un Katún de investigaciones en Joy’ Chan (Comalcalco), Tesis de doctorado en Antropología, México, ENAH.
  • ____, y Miriam J. Gallegos Gómora, 2005, “Sistemas constructivos y materiales en la arquitectura de Comalcalco, Tabasco”, en Quaderni di Thule. Rivista italiana di studi americanistici, Atti del XXV Convegno Internazionale di Americanistica, vol. III, Perugia, Centro Studi Americanistici Circolo Amerindiano / Universidad Veracruzana.
  • ____, 2006, “El problema del impacto sociourbano en sitios prehispánicos de Tabasco: el caso de Jonuta y Comalcalco”, en Memorias II, Anuario de investigación sobre conservación, historia y crítica del patrimonio arquitectónico y urbano, Blanca Paredes (coord. y ed.), México, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán.
  • ____, 2009, “El patrimonio inmaterial de las provincias costeras de Tabasco y su entorno medioambiental: la producción artesanal de cal”, en Las artesanías mexicanas, Memoria del III Coloquio Nacional de Arte Popular, México, Consejo Veracruzano de Arte Popular / Gobierno del estado de Veracruz.
  • ____, 2011, “Excavaciones en la Gran Acrópolis: descubrimientos sobre su función, arquitectura, temporalidad y conservación”, en Los investigadores de la cultura maya, vol. 19, Campeche, Universidad Autónoma de Campeche.


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