Measuring Xibalbá | In search of the Mayan metrics.

Flaked Effigies

Xibalbá is the name of the underworld in Mayan mythology. The mytho-historical narratives of Popol Vuh [the sacred book of contemporary Mayas] also make references to it. But unlike the Western conception of underworld as something associated to hell, in Mayan cosmology Xibalbá is not perceived as punishment but as sickness and death, that is something inherent to existence. Nowadays we can find endless interpretations pointing to December 21st, 2012 as the end of the world or change of an era; in all the Mayan region there are only two stelae that makes explicit reference to this data.

Mayan stelae are carved stones with inscriptions, dates and other stories that epigraphers are still deciphering. Appart from their intriguing content, we have always been fascinated by the extreme grade of precision in the sculpting of such pieces and by extension to the architectural achievements of Mayan culture characterized by the innovative use of the corbel vault, the pyramids and elaborate sculptural schemes to decorate them. When analyzing as an style we can see that the artistic and architectural manifestations in Mesoamerica reveals a series of common elements such as form, method of construction, materials, and regional character that could be only achieved if having a common measurement system for the region.

Decoration of Codz Poop at Kabáh. Puuc-Mayan Style. Yucatán, Mexico. Source

As architects we have been trained to design according to different standards. Some of these works such as Architectural Graphic Standars, Neufert Architects’ Data or even Le Corbusier’s Modulor have been widely used in architecture education. Now the standard measures are preloaded in drawing programs making more impercebtible the nature of their origin. When researching on Mayan style it can be found descriptions on typologies, construction systems, decoration elements, orientation, etc., but the references scarcely deal with the elements used to design, register and transmit such knowledge. Have you ever imagined how the Mayan priests’ drawing tools would look like?

That is why we were amazed when we get in touch with the work of Antonio Prado Cobos, a Guatemalan architect defying some academic interpretations and proposing a challenging hypotesis regarding Mayan measurement system and their drawing tools [1]. It is no easy to find academic references dealing specifically with the design tools used by the mayas from the point of view of a designer, and the realisations in sculpture and architecture, where it can be find the use of serial elements; led us think that they used fabrication methods with some level of “industrialisation” that allowed repetitions surprisingly found in a culture just leaving out from neolithic.

After a rigorous geometrical study Prado Cobos could determine similarities in measurements and proportions of a large sample of Mayan pieces often classified as daggers, axes or ceremonial weapons until concluding with a challenging hypothesis: What if the pieces usually identified as “axes, chilsers and polishers” were nothing but accurate drawing tools!


By digitalizing hundreds of pieces and clasiffy shapes, proportions and measurements, he could find a hidden and constant circular geometry and proportions that could be also found in the plastic composition of Mayan stelae. He called it Circular Design Methodology and started the task of sinthethize its logic with a reverse register of design process. Similar attempts have been made by Martínez del Sobral, but in her case she proposes a square shaped unit that can be used to trace segments based on golden ratio. Nevertheless in her case she states that she hasn’t been able to find a common measure to the whole Mesoamerican region. [2]


Gendrop and Heyden noticed that the main characteristics of Mayan architecture are the ability in laborious decoration and aesthetics with facadaes with complex mosiacs engraved. Under this line Stierlin was dizzled by the Governor’s House in Uxmal on the technics needed to complete the facade. He suggests the use of precise serial production where any difference in 1 or 2 cm could make the repetitive model to fail.


According to Prado Cobos, such precision was reached with the aid of stone measuring devices so carefully designed and fabricated with brittle materials as obsidian which hardly could be used as weapons or as tools for human sacrifices. The Length Measurement System Maya is the essence to understand the functionality of their works. After all the classification and analysis of the pieces, Prado Cobos has determined that the basic unit [UP] is something equivalent to 36mm in the metric system. This unit can be divided into thirds and fourths and such partitions could be used in the same artistic piece reaching a refined level of sophistication. The system also opens the door to rediscover Surface Systems, Capacity, Weight and Time [Calendar] and can be useful in the study of colonial pieces and architecture, where typologies of the colonizers were build by indigenous hands in most of the cases.

Pakal’s Tomb. Palenque. Source: Akeru

You can count that we’re going to describe in depth in further posts the challenging proposal and interesting discoveries of Prado Cobos. Our intention now on 13th Baktún is to pose a question for the day after the end-of-everything: How will our current realisations be perceived and mesured in the future? Are we facing constrains and developments that will demand diferent metrics?

Maybe we don’t need to go down to Xibalbá to know the answer.

Head pic: Flaked Effigies, (remnants of blue cloth) Mayan Classical 850A.D. National Geographic Images. Source

[1] Prado Cobos, Antonio. El Creador Maya. Editorial Galería Guatemala, 1999
[2] Martínez del Sobral, Margarita. Geometría Mesoamericana. Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000 Pp. 101.


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