Corbeled Arches

The corbeled arch is found throughout the Mayan territory of Mezoamerica and now decors the Columbus Park in the downtown area of San Ignacio.  The corbeled arch is a very unique design that the ancient Maya used within residential and ritual buildings, and even tombs. This style of arch differs significantly from the roman arch and the later Gothic arch in the 12th century.  Despite the variation of appearances, all arches have the same principle and characteristics of assembled rock diverting weight and pressure to create an open space below it.

When creating the arch, the Maya did have some limitations.  This has mostly to do with the arch itself.  The walls must be very thick, about three feet.  This is so that it can support the weight from the rock above.  If it is too thin, then the roof would collapse before even being completed this also means additional limestone materials and labor is needed. The room cannot be too wide.  Today, we certainly like our rooms very spacious, and the Maya, although they could have dealt with the smaller size rooms, some of them possibly desired a larger room.  However, that meant that the building would take a thatched roof, an ancient art still practiced today, where the large leaves of the bay leaf plant would have been weaved onto the roof.

How the corbeled arches work:  The width of a room is of an average of 5 to 6 feet.  The two outer walls would then have to be built, and slowly, with every layer, the bricks would have been layed closer and closer.  As it nears to the apex, the keystone or capstone would then be put into place. As the roof is then completed, the weight of the lime stones above distributes the pressure downward around the arch, towards the walls, then to the foundation of the structure.

One of the best places to view this technological wonder is to visit the site of Cahal Pech on the hilltop of San Ignacio.  The site is one of the oldest Mayan cities, dating to 1200 B.C., and has been preserved nicely. The reason it may have been preserved so well is because at the time, the Maya did not know how much lime to put into its mortar mix, and so they put a lot, making the building one solid piece of rock.  Over the years, they learnt how to make it cheaper and faster, making the buildings more brittle.


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