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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Experiencing Maya Palaces: Royal Power, Space, and Architecture at Holmul, Guatemala

  • Author(s): Mongelluzzo, Ryan
  • Advisor(s): Ashmore, Wendy
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates Classic period (AD 250-900) Maya palaces as experiences. As unique built environments, these palaces were created to engender and facilitate specific experiences for those who interacted in and around their bounds. These experiences were inextricably tied to the rhetoric of rulership which made constant claims of power based on legitimacy, status, and authority. The research focuses on Group III at Holmul, Guatemala, which is compared to other palaces in the Maya region. My approach builds upon multiple theoretical perspectives, informed by the work of de Certeau, Foucault, Hall, and Soja. In the process, I examine palace architecture to explore how the Maya state expressed power through architectural design features. These features were parts of strategies to affect the experience of those in and around the palace. I examine how the movement and sensory perception of both royal and non-royals persons were affected by palace architecture by concentrating on the spatial layout of morphological features.

To understand these experiences, I set out a rationale on the relationship between the built environment and people. It is termed the archaeology of experience and it explicates how architecture acts as more than a backdrop to social engagements and directly affects behaviors. Experiencers are first treated as bodies, simply the array of their human senses. Once the built environment is perceived and understood, the experiencer reacts. These responses are considered to fall within one of three categories: conceptual, behavioral, and emotional.

Ancient Maya palaces were places where rulership enacted their strategies of self-preservation. Demonstrations of divine power, the exhibition of blood ties to important ancestors, and exhibitions of military prowess were constantly enacted. Yet, palaces were more than a setting for these activities. They were designed to facilitate these activities, but more than that they were created in ways that communicated the same themes of qualitative difference, legitimacy, strength, and authority in completely different ways. By affecting human sensory perception and bodily movement, palaces contributed to the social claims of the ruler. Palaces were a rhetoric made material, but one that worked subtly and symbolically on both the brain, body, and heart.

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