When we look at ancient structures that are loosely classified or simply referred to as “Roads”, it is often difficult to determine what the actual purpose of such usually large scale and labor intensive projects must have been.  In an earlier article in this blog series I addressed this topic in a general way and focused on the different ways this problem has been viewed in different prehistoric cultures around the world.  (NOTE:  See the earlier article entitled:  STONE ROADS TO NOWHERE:  Avenues of the Dead or Pathways to the Stars).  In this article I wish to address one specific classification of these often enigmatic ancient structures in more detail.  These would be the ancient causeway systems built in various locations by the ancient Maya of Guatemala and which are also referred to as the “Maya white roads”, or the more general term Sacbe.  On my recent trip to the northern Peten to look at early sites such as El Mirador and Nakbe I had the privilege (and at times, the outright good fortune) to experience these major construction projects on a more personal basis.  It was at this point that the sheer input of labor that must have been required to produce these roads (or whatever) struck me at a level giving rise to a renewed interest in them in terms of their original purposes.

However, before exploring some ideas on the Mayan road networks, which go back to their earliest major city building efforts, it might be helpful to briefly review the different types of structures we refer to generally as ancient roads and how they were constructed in different locations at different times.  I believe these prehistoric structures fall into three main types, each of which is sometimes called a road, but each of which should form a separate classification altogether. A video link featuring footage from the author's recent trip to El Mirador relating to this article and the previous blog entry:


STRAIGHT LINE ROADS:  This type of construction encompasses those road projects which are often the most easily observed (some of the Nazca “lines” for example), or ones more obscured until revealed by remote sensing or aerial photography (the now well-documented Chacoan Road system emanating from Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest is an example here.).  These constructions may have served the dual purpose of providing both ceremonial processional enclosed spaces or as marking distinct directional lines with the purpose of noting important celestial (mainly solar or lunar) events in a more permanent way—or even as both purposes at the same time.  These roads (or whatever we choose to call them) are usually laid out without regard to the terrain they must cross, only the direction they are heading regardless of any obstacles in the path.  Another common feature is that they seem to be “built” from the inside out rather than constructed from materials brought to them.  By this I mean that once a width is determined for the path then that path is cleared of all loose debris (stones, vegetation, etc.), which is then “swept” to the sides and formed into boundaries for the path (much like the white lines that mark the shoulders of our highways today).  The “roads” were then tamped down by human feet or whatever and the low boundaries maintained over time by what must have been regular maintenance crews or persons or groups assigned to keep their section clear (not unlike our “adopt a highway” program in many communities in this country today).

 There is also some precedent to believe that the construction and/or upkeep of sections of such “roads” (or all ancient roads for that matter) may have been the express responsibility of local villages, lineage groups, or other designated entities.  That these types of roadways seem to occur in extremely arid locales may merely be a function of the ease in creating, maintaining, and then following them more easily—or it may also be sampling error, and we just haven’t found any evidence of them in other, less visible locations at this time.  In areas such as ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley, where uninterrupted occupations over long periods has existed, many of this type of early road may have been obliterated over time or buried under shifting sands.

CAUSEWAYS:  Causeways are built most frequently to connect two specific locations, such as related urban or ceremonial centers.  They may be multi-purpose, serving not only for “official” purposes, but for economic use, to ease the passage over wet or other difficult terrain, or as general thoroughfares for ease of movement between two population centers.  They are generally very straight, although in some instances detours are constructed for what purposes we do not yet fully understand.  In general, these roads are distinctly elevated above the surrounding terrain and constructed from the outside in with fill, stones, or other materials, as opposed to the opposite technique for the above mentioned pathways.  The Aztecs, for example, were known for their magnificent causeways at the time of the Conquest.  However, those of their Mayan neighbors far exceeded these in their scope and the distances traversed, and also predated them by nearly two thousand years.

 The Romans built causeways, as did most other advanced civilizations in the Near East before them.   However, these roads—regardless of the purposes they might have served—were usually constructed in far less demanding terrain and often with the added benefit of bronze, and later iron, tools to aid in the quarrying and construction of these elevated roadways, tools that the Maya did not possess.  The Inca also incorporated causeway constructions into their vast road systems covering hundreds of miles when terrain circumstances dictated their use.  The obvious interpretation of many of these causeway systems, which were not purely functional as were the Aztec ones at their island capitol of Tenochtitlan, is that they were also used as “processionals” between important ceremonial sites, particularly at times of major events in the celestial calendar.  The orientation of specific temples or other structures at the terminus points of some of these causeways leaves little doubt of this interpretation.   These causeways of fill dirt could sometimes be paved with crushed limestone, as were some of the “white roads” of the Maya, or even with flint debris as was part of the elevated portion of the avenue connecting Stonehenge with other nearby observation points.

SPECIAL PURPOSE ROADS:  The most easily recognized of all ancient roads are those which were constructed over longer distances for specific purposes.  Perhaps the most famous of these are the elaborate Inca “highway” system roads, which cover several hundreds of miles.  These were built both for communication across a vast empire of over one thousand linear miles, as well as for the ease of movement over difficult terrain for the large armies maintained by the Inca.  The roadways included way stations for travelers and official messengers, as well as storehouses for weapons and food for the local populations when called-up for military service or the regular army when moving through distant territories.  The Romans employed a similar system of stone-paved roads for much the same purposes.  Just as these roads radiated out from the central hub in Rome, the Inca system was centered in the administrative complex at Cusco.  The early Chinese emperors also constructed special purpose roads, not the least of which was the road atop the Great Wall, which served not only as a barrier but as an elevated road for the rapid movement of soldiers to trouble spots on the frontier the wall protected.  Indeed, the width of the Great Wall was determined by the width needed for a four horse cart or chariot to pass along its road surface.  Many of these ancient roads in different areas were so well constructed that sections of them are still in use today, especially in Peru where they are often the only solid pathways ever built over the incredibly difficult terrain.

However, most ancient special purpose roads were built mainly to connect important ceremonial centers.  Usually, but not always, they connected two or more sites that were visible to each other or through a series of intermediate elevated towers or other marker points (the road north from Chaco Canyon for example).  Often, their primary purpose was to serve as “processionals” or parade routes to connect these important ceremonial locations.  However, since most of these locations were within the precincts of larger urban centers, they no doubt also doubled as a means by which important trade goods could be moved more rapidly from place to place.  Some, such as the long, straight Nazca lines and the flint paved roads in and around Stonehenge, seem to have been single purpose paths used only on critical ceremonial occasions—whether to mark astronomical events or major rites of passage for ruling figures possibly (since some at both locations appear to be associated with mortuary processions).  These are even referred to sometimes as “Avenues of the Dead”.  (NOTE:  In most ancient cultures the passage of the dead to the next world and the movements of the stars and planets are so closely intertwined that separating the two functions of such a pathway is unnecessary in any event.)  Most short roads that connect two visible sites of ceremonial importance, however, must have been constructed initially for the sole purpose of acting as one of these processional paths in some way or another.


The roads encountered in and around the great complex of el Mirador are generally classified as Causeways, mainly because they are elevated above the surrounding terrain and are apparently built to connect two or more major ceremonial sites in as straight a line as possible.  However, as with most Mayan urban centers, it is impossible to separate these large early sites from what were ceremonial functions and what were administrative and economic functions within the larger surrounding area they maintained and controlled.   The scope of these early roads/causeways are such that whatever their purposes they represent an enormous investment of time and effort by a people at the earliest stages of what would become a widespread network of continuous and closely related cultural heritage over a period of at least twenty-five hundred years.

The earliest major site in the region is that of Nakbe to the east of the later Mirador complex.  By 1,000 BC major temple and residential constructions had formed the first of the great urban centers it would give birth to nearby at Mirador, which would then send out their branches in all directions throughout the Classic Period beginning about 250 AD.  Beginning with major sites nearby at Tikal, Calakmul, and Uaxactun (perhaps the initial expansion), by 250 AD these burgeoning new urban centers had begun to take hold and start on their own paths to greatness.  Definable writing with lineage and event dates had also probably sprung from this same well-spring at approximately the same time.  Apparently, even though these first “colonies” may have been founded by related lineages from the Mirador area, they soon began to pursue individual expansionist policies which would lead to warfare and conquest in the Classic period.  Not surprisingly, no major roadways connected these important sites, although they were obviously related to the same ceremonial calendar as those at Mirador.

However, a clearly visible road connects Nakbe to Mirador at their earlier date.   From this center smaller roads and elevated causeways branch out in several directions to other sites in the immediate region.  Since the highest mounds of these sites are clearly visible to each other, despite being about seven miles apart in distance (coincidentally this is about the distance a person can go to and return from in the same day), it was not difficult to build a direct pathway between the two.  While the entire length is not as elevated or wide as later roads nearer the main center or those connecting other later sites it is still an impressive accomplishment for the time it must have been built.  At their grandest, the Mirador connecting causeways can be several miles in length, at least thirty meters wide, and four to six meters high.  El Tintal, a major center to the south several miles distant from the central Mirador complex, is connected by such an impressive road.

Was it really necessary to build these causeway/roads so wide in this terrain, which is fairly flat and dry except for the rainy season in most cases today?  If they were also built as processional highways and there were important stops or ceremonies conducted along the way, then perhaps such a width would be necessary to accommodate the many thousands of people who must have inhabited the region in order to construct the massive complexes at their center.   However, at this time there does not appear to be any direct archeological evidence for such a purpose.  It seems, that much like the impressive artificial mountains themselves, these wide causeways may have been produced by a newly risen elite class of leaders who simply wished to express their power in the most elaborate public works projects that had ever been attempted in that region before.  The great causeway system connected them with their past and the rise of their powerful lineages and served as a reminder to the populace, which was widely scattered in an environment where your nearest neighbor could be just a few meters away but still out of sight, that they were also connected to the great ceremonial centers that nourished them with their trade goods and the “lifes blood” of their leaders—just as the people nourished and built them with their devotion and labor.  Later in Classic and post-Classic times, the Maya would build equally impressive connecting roads and causeways, which the Spanish invaders—and even people today—would marvel at and ask the same question:  Why?

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