Ancient Maya Houses

At Cauinal and Pueblo Viejo Chixoy el Quiche, Guatemala

By: Robert M. Hill, II

Originally Published in 1982

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The unique combination of Maya chron­icles, e.g. the Popol Vuh and Annals of the Cakchiquels, descriptions written by Spanish friars and officials after the Con­quest (ethnohistory) and archaeological remains allows a fuller, nearly ethno­graphic, reconstruction of highland Maya culture for the Late Postclassic (co. 1200­1524] than for any other period of Maya prehistory. Unfortunately, the Maya chronicles and most Spanish descriptions concentrate on the dynastic histories of the numerically small ruling elites, their religion, world view, and political and military machinations. Relatively little is stated explicitly about the other levels of Maya society. Similarly, archaeological investigations have focused on the centers and structures of the Maya rulers such as at lximché, Zaculeu, Utatlán, and Mixco Viejo. With the exception of the last named site, investigations have passed over the question of the conditions under which the other, lesser status inhabitants of such centers lived (Fauvet 1973). As part of a larger program, recent excavations at the Late Postclassic sites of Cauinal and Puebla Viejo Chixoy provide some insights into these conditions, particularly with regard to domestic architecture and associated remains (Ichon et al 1980).

The information presented here is based upon the excavation of twenty-one small residential structures and inspection of many more. Seventeen of the excavated structures pertain to Groups B and C of Cauinal, two of the three major and two minor groups into which the site was divided, following what appeared to be the ancient organization.

Cauinal occupies river terraces along both banks of the Rio Calk 2.5 km. from its confluence with the Rio Chixoy. As is normally the case in this part of Guatemala the Chixoy and its branches run through narrow, steep and high-walled canyons. The only relatively flat land occurs in the form of rounded promontories at the numerous bends in the rivers. In most case these promontories are small and many supported outpost settlements. Undoubt­edly the large flat river terraces along the Calá were a major factor in determining Cauinal’s location, At the same time, the precipitous terrain and poor soil combine to make farming precarious at best, How Cauinal’s estimated population (assuming six to eight individuals per residence) of between 2000 and 2500 was fed is not yet clear (Ichon 1979: 41). One possibility is that better farmland in an adjacent or near-by area was under the direct political control of Cauinal. Such a pattern is know] in the neighboring Alta Verapaz, from the period just after the Spanish conquest but before the Spanish had forced changes in traditional settlement patterns (Reina and Hill 1980). These naturally fertile areas were called comarcas by the Spaniards and were intensively cultivated.

Each of the three major groups at Cauinal follows the same basic pattern, Groups are composed of two precincts, ceremonial and residential. Ceremonial precincts consist of a temple pyramid and altar shrine along with several long struc­tures, boasting multiple stairways and entrances, arranged to enclose a plaza.

Some of these multi-stairway, long struc­tures are presumed to have been meeting houses or administrative offices, while others probably served as elite residences. Depending on the lay of the land, the residential precinct is adjacent to and some­times surrounds the ceremonial precinct. The number of houses per residential precinct varied. Group B contained 45 such structures. In Group C, the only area of the site where overburden was a serious prob­lem, 40 structures were uncovered before time considerations forced the excavators to shift their efforts elsewhere. However, no decrease in density was evident, indi­cating a total of some 100 houses when the unexcavated area is included. Group A contained the greatest number of resi­dences, 174. While similar in architecture and construction to examples in Groups B and C, many Group A structures appear to have been organized in units around small plazas. Group A investigations have been reported in greater detail elsewhere (Fauvet 1980). Except in the southeast portion of the Group B residential precinct (discussed below) no particular grouping of the com­ponent structures was evident. In fact, based on analysis of entrance placement, privacy appears to have been desired over convenient access.

The site of Pueblo Viejo Chixoy is located 16 km. east (downstream) from Cauinal on a knoll some 200 m. above the confluence of the Chixoy and Carchelá rivers. The location affords views to the south, up the Carchelá valley, and west, up the Chixoy. A high peak just north of the site provides excellent all-round vistas. The Chixoy bends north at this point and today forms part of the boundary between the Quiche Maya to the west and Pokom Maya speakers to the east. It appears likely this was also the case in pre-conquest times and that Pueblo Viejo Chixoy was an outpost of Cauinal, maintaining constant vigil against the potentially hostile Pokom.

Pueblo Viejo Chixoy is composed of four long, low, narrow structures and a single pyramidal substructure grouped to enclose a small, open plaza. This area presumably formed the residential and ceremonial pre­cinct for the highest status individuals (ruler? commander?) at the site. Excava­tions demonstrated the structures in this precinct to have been unfinished at the time the site was abandoned. As at Cauinal the ceremonial precinct was surrounded by small residences, numbering about 40 at Pueblo Viejo Chixoy.

The small residential structures them­selves are interesting in that they fall readily into types along a continuum based on the degree of elaboration of several elements. Primarily, these include platform construction and superstructure, though other elements such as benches, altars, floors, entrance flagstones (lajas) and hearths also vary in complexity and elaboration.


The major interior features of both excavated and non-excavated residences at Cauinal and Pueblo Viejo Chixoy were the interior platforms, designated benches. Two configurations existed. The “L” bench ran the length of a short side of a structure, and along a variable portion of a long side. The straight bench simply ran along the length of a short side, or along part of the length of a long side. All were filled with a mix of large and small river cobbles and were originally mud plastered. Presumably, they were used as sleeping platforms.


These constructions were present only when two benches or parts of benches ran along a long side. The space between the ends of the two benches might then be filled by an altar. These were of two types. The more common was the indented altar which was physically connected to both benches. It was probably more common because of the simplicity of its construc­tion. A small wall or line of stones was laid between the two benches, and the space behind it filled in. It was probably finished off at the same time and in the same manne as the benches. The other, rarer type, of altar was free-standing. Although it occu­pied the same position as an indented altar, there was no physical connection between it and the two flanking benches. The only physical connection the free-standing altar had was with the rear wall of the super­structure. In cases where masonry altars were not present, it is possible that simple clay or wood constructions were used.


Mud plaster floors were probably uni­versal in the houses at Cauinal. Though their occurrence is not regular in the excavated sample, this is thought to be due to differential preservation.


In contrast with structures at Pueblo Viejo Chixoy, hearths were only rarely identified at Cauinal. There were, perhaps, three types of hearths, the simplest con­sisting of nothing more than a patch of burnt earth. This was also the type known from Pueblo Viejo Chixoy. The most elabo­rate type was made of burnt clay laid upon a stone foundation in the shape of a ring, the resulting hearth thus being raised from the floor and slightly dished. An interme­diate type may have consisted of a ring of stones around a burnt clay base, or may just be a poorly preserved example of the elaborate type.


Evidently three types of superstructure were employed. The first consists of wattle­and-daub walls erected directly on the house platform; the second of a base wall of adobe, not quite a meter high, sur­mounted by wattle-and-daub walls; the third type similar to the second, except that the base wall is of laja masonry instead of adobe.


A question remains as to roofs and their support. At Cauinal no evidence was found of roof support posts. Conditions were not favorable for their preservation, and the dark color of the earth plus the rubble fill of the platforms made postmold location impossible. This is the opposite of the situation at Pueblo Viejo Chixoy, where, due to a number of fortuitous circum­stances, postmolds were easily identified. It seems likely that posts were used at Cauinal to support the roofs on those struc­tures with simple wattle-and-daub walls, on the same pattern as at Pueblo Viejo Chixoy.

However, the adobe and laja base walled structures present a problem. If posts were used to support roofs on these structures, their placement is unclear. ln no case was any evidence found of the posts being inserted in the laja or adobe walls. In any event, such placement would have seriously weakened the walls, It also seems doubtful that the posts were placed outside the platforms. Their placement inside the walls is a distinct possibility, by analogy to the residential structures at Pueblo Viejo Chixoy. However, one factor against such placement would be the resulting loss of floor and bench space.

Another possibility is suggested by the remains of a wattle-and-daub temple super­structure on a pyramid on Structure A-16 at Cauinal. There, small posts were placed at short, regular intervals along the walls, imbedded in a cap of adobe, and ultimately imbedded in the platform fill. The poles of the wattle were likely tied to this and daub applied. The numerous small posts would probably have been sufficient to support a thatch roof. This, in fact, appears to have been the case on the structure as no evidence of a Mexican style beam-and­mortar roof was found.

A similar system may have been em­ployed on the adobe or laja base walled structures. A cap of clay or adobe could have been placed over the top course of the base walls, and the small posts imbedded in it. The poles of the wattle-and-daub may also have been so set. When set in platform fill as in Structure A-16, the use of small posts probably resulted in a fairly stable configuration. It is not certain whether the same can be said for the technique outlined here for residences. Even numerous posts, imbedded in no more than a cap of clay or adobe, seem inherently weak. This would appear especially true in the earthquake-prone Guatemala highlands. Stability could have been improved, however, if a system of joists were used to tie posts on opposite sides of the structure securely together.

No direct evidence of the kind of roof employed was found. This in itself may be of significance. If a Mexican-style beam­and-mortar roof had been employed, one would expect some evidence of it in the form of collapsed roof coating. In fact, such roof collapse was not found in any struc­ture at Cauinal, residential or ceremonial. In addition, the wattle-and-daub super­structures or upper walls would not have supported much weight. We are thus left with the likelihood that roofs were of thatch, tied to a framework of poles.

Based on the investigations in Pueblo Viejo Chixoy and Cauinal Groups B and C, five types of small residential structures may be defined.

Type I structures are exemplified by Structure B-14. The structure is defined by large, water-worn dolomite cobbles laid out in a rectangular pattern 7.85 m. x 3.30 m., and constituting a rudimentary platform substructure. An “L” bench runs along the short north side and along the back wall, while a straight bench also followed the back wall. A large entrance laja was still in place midway along the west wall. A patch of burned earth near the angle of the “L” bench represented the remains of a hearth. Nearby were found hand- and grindstone (mano and metate) fragments used in grinding corn for tortillas. Fragments of burned wall daub (bajareque) indicated walls of this con­struction, supporting a pole-and-thatch roof.

The method of wall and roof support is illustrated by Structure 14 at Pueblo Viejo Chixoy. Also a Type I structure, Structure 14 evidenced a low “L” bench with an adjacent burned-earth hearth at one end and a larger hearth at the other end with associated mono and metate fragments. Other artifacts recovered included a spindle whorl used in spinning cotton thread, a bird effigy pottery whistle, two large projectile points, and several obsidian blades and cores.

A fortuitous combination of circum­stances allowed a characterization of the superstructure of this residence. A white pumice sand was the principal fill material in the small residential structures. When cut away at a corner of Structure 14, the dark post mold was clearly revealed. Stones, lacking in the pumice sand fill, were placed in with the post for bracing and further aided in defining the post area. By repeating the excavation process in the other corners, and by means of a trench through the platform, the post pattern for Structure 14 was revealed.

Structure B-9 at Cauinal typifies Type II constructions. The platform substructure is more elaborate, consisting of large dolo­mite cobbles (similar to those used in Type I construction, two courses sometimes present) capped by a single course of lajas (usually schistose). No entrance lajas were present in Structure B-9, though they do occur irregularly in other Type II residen­tial structures. This one measured 6.40 m. x 3.90 m. Both “L” and straight benches were again present, with same original clay plastering still in place on the “L” bench. Fragments of clay plaster flooring were also found. Several whole and fragmentary manos and metates were found off the front and rear walls of the house, while the remains of several cooking pots (alias) appeared on the interior during excavation. Although not preserved in Structure B-9, burned bajareque fragments from other Type II residential structures indicate walls of this construction and pole-and-thatch roofs.

Type III structures, represented by Structure C-22 are initially set off from Types I and lI by the more elaborate plat­form substructure masonry. This consists of one or two courses of dolomite cobbles, capped by several courses of lajas, forming a platform measuring 6.80 m. x 3.50 m. Superstructures are also more ambitious, formed of low (perhaps 75 cm.) adobe base walls supporting bajareque upper walls and a pole-and-thatch roof. Adobe blocks are also used to face the benches. The blocks, even when used for bench facing, contain a chunk of dolomite as a core, around which the adobe was added in a mold. Dolomite thus encased was turned from gray to white, and the presence of white dolomite chunks in the house excava­tions was a sure sign of adobe use even when the original material had eroded away. Another feature of adobe use was the employment of small lajas as a base and between courses. This provided another indication of adobe use in structures less well preserved along the rear of the struc­ture and to a lesser extent along its east wall. White dolomite and lajas indicated adobe facing of the east straight bench, while no such signs were present on the west. Lajas also indicated a small inset adobe altar connecting the two benches. An area of mud plaster floor was also uncovered.

The same theme is most fully elaborated in Type IV structures of which only one example, Structure B-46, exists at Cauinal. The platform measures 9.80 m. x 3.70 m. and is composed of two courses of dolomite cobbles capped by several courses of lajas. On top of this, meter-high base walls were constructed of lajas laid up in mud mortar. Based on the still more elaborate ceremonial constructions at Cauinal, we believe that two square pillars of laja construction (not preserved) supported beams spanning the wide entrance. While the masonry pillars may have been capable of supporting a considerable load, evidence for other massive supports was lacking. Again, this suggests a relatively light roof of pole-and-thatch construction. On the interior, twin “L” benches were separated along the rear wall by a small, free-standing altar. All of these interior features were constructed of small rubble fill, faced with laja masonry, and mud plastered. This last material was also used as flooring and to make a shallow, dished hearth in the angle of the south bench. Remains of metates, manos, ollas and comales (clay griddles) demonstrate that this structure, despite its elaboration, also served a domestic function.

Structure B-47 is somewhat out of the continuum of elaboration evidenced by Types l-lV, though it shares many compo­nents with them. Although only this one example is known, we have tentatively called it Type V. The main differences between Structure B-47 and the other Types are the presence of a narrow terrace run­ning the width of the structure on its front side, and the composition of its platform substructure masonry. One course, or in some places two, of dolomite cobbles forms a base, surmounted by a course of face-dressed talpetate (fine-grained, compacted volcanic material). This in turn was capped by a single course of lajas, originally including entrance lajas. Exclusive of the terrace, the platform measured 7.85 m. x 4.15 m. The terrace was constructed of large dolomite cobbles with a cap of lajas enclosing rubble fill. The terrace and interior floor surface were mud plastered. White limestone fragments along the “L” bench indicate adobe facing, though such evidence is lacking for the straight bench. A rough square of limestone fragments containing burned earth in front of the bench may be the remains of a mud-plastered hearth as in Structure B-46. Comal fragments and a mano fragment again indicate a domestic function, though the base of an hourglass-shaped censer suggests ritual activities. This need not be contradictory, far, as was seen in Struc­tures B-46 and C-22, altars are frequently part of the residential assemblage. Again, white dolomite stones in the collapse around the platform indicated low adobe base walls apparently supporting upper walls of bajareque and a pole-and-thatch roof, as in Type lV structures.

Plaza Units

Although more common in the Group A residential precinct, the only plaza group­ing of residential structures identified at Cauinal outside the Group A precinct, where they were more common, occurred in the southeast portion of Group B. Here five houses, including Structures B-46 and B-47 (the only Type lV and V structures), were arranged around a small, open plaza containing a crude altar shrine of large dolomite cobbles. The significance of this plaza unit, its repeated occurrence in Group A, its singular appearance in Group B, and its seeming absence in Group C is not clear. Conceivably, such plaza units developed over a period of time when, like the contemporary Maya, sons came of age, married, and set up house­holds next to their father. Other units of two structures opening onto a common yard occur at Cauinal and may represent an earlier stage in the process.


With the exception of Type V, the small residential structure Types clearly repre­sent little more than a progression in the elaboration on a common theme. This elaboration depends mainly on the increas­ing use of lajas (entrance, cap course, base walls) and adobe (base walls, bench fac­ings), and on the decreasing use of wattle­and-daub. The same overall configuration was evidently desired, however, as Types II and IlI (and V) houses had their super­ structure walls slightly indented from the edge of their platforms as in the Type IV example. Presumably, this was the case with the Type I structures as well.

The presence of a continuum in house structures invites extrapolation to an even simpler residence not represented at Cauinal or Pueblo Viejo Chixoy, in which the majority of the Maya peasant popula­tion may have dwelt. Projection of this sort does not in any way demonstrate the existence of simpler structures in the past, but rather provides us with ideas about what such a structure may have been like and what may be preserved in the archaeo­logical record.

As reconstructed, the hypothetical peas­ant residence probably had no platform, this hypothesis being based on the very rudimentary character of the platforms in Type I structures. The superstructure may have been of wattle-and-daub construction, though simple, undaubed pole walls are a possibility. In either case, it is fairly certain such a structure would have had a thatch roof. lnterior features would probably have consisted of nothing more than a burnt-earth hearth. Rubble-fill benches and clay floors were likely absent, their place being taken by pole-framed beds (tapescos) and/or rush mats (petates). Altars, if present at all, would have been of very simple construction, perhaps of wood. Taken together, this supposed peasant house is strikingly similar to traditional Maya houses of the Rio Chixoy valley and other areas today. One exception here is that the modern inhabitants along the Rio Chixoy take advantage of terraces made by the ancients as locations for construction.

From the above reconstruction it is evident that the possibility of identifying a peasant house archaeologically is remote, except in unusual circumstances of preser­vation. Such a structure might be detected through the presence of anciently burned bajareque fragments. The actual living sur­face would probably be impossible to identify, save for the occurrence of a hearth. Lacking these, only the presence of domestic trash (sherds, obsidian, bone, shell, broken metates and manos) would signal the presence of a peasant dwelling to the archaeologist.

Small Residential Structure Type Proportions

One interesting feature is the relative proportions of the different types of houses in the two groups. In Group B there were 21 Type I’s, 17 Type lI’s, 3 Type III’s, 1 Type IV, and 1 Type V. The Type I figure may be slightly exaggerated as structures on the northeast may have been robbed of their lajas by the modern inhabitants to construct walls, hearths, etc. This may have caused possible Type II’s to appear like Type I’s. Thus the majority (88%) of small residential structures in Group B are nearly evenly divided between Types I and II, while the five examples of the other three types account for only about 12% of the total. In Group C, where 29 structures were uncovered in the north and northeast por­tion of the residential precinct, the follow­ing proportions existed. There were 7 Type I’s forming about 24% of the total; the 13 Type H’s formed almost 45% of the total, while the remaining 9 Type III’s accounted for some 31%. When compared to Group B, one immediately is struck by the far greater proportion of Type III’s in Group C, and a correspondingly lower proportion of Type I’s. In contrast, all residences at Pueblo Viejo Chixoy were Type I’s.

Explanations of these differences and their significance have yet to be developed. The increasing elaboration shown by the small residential structure types is certainly suggestive of status gradation among the inhabitants of the residential precincts. However, the basis for such gradation is not explicit from the archaeological data. Ascribed or achieved position, age, and wealth may all have played a part. Unfor­tunately, study of contemporary highland Maya houses has not progressed since Wauchope’s innovative study which focused on regional differences among gen­eral types of houses (Wauchope 1938), Details of variation among houses in one community, and the reasons for such dif­ferences, remain a significant gap in Maya ethnography. Hopefully, the combination of ceramic and artifact analysis with study of ethnohistorical documents less con­cerned with the Maya elite (such as Colo­nial Spanish-Maya dictionaries) will pro­vide the answers, at least until ethno­graphic studies provide more information. Ultimately, this combination of archaeology and ethnohistory will allow a better ethno­graphic characterization of highland Maya life during the Late Postclassic.

Cite This Article

II, Robert M. Hill,. "Ancient Maya Houses." Expedition Magazine 24, no. 2 (January, 1982): -. Accessed February 28, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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