While climbing Mesoamerican pyramids I'm frequently asked, "Why are the stairways so steep?", followed by “The ancient Mesoamericans weren't exceptionally tall people, were they?" In our modern architecture we think of stairways as routes to quickly ascend or descend. We expect them to be easy to climb when approached straight-on; with a hand-rail as an integral part of the stairway. Not so for ancient Mesoamericans.
In aswering the first question I usually refer to the Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajin, an archeological site on the Gulf coast of northern Veracruz. Besides being an important religious center, El Tajin was probably a staging area for merchants setting off on the daunting five-day trip from the coastal plain to Teotihuacan, gateway to the Valley of Mexico at 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level.
El Tajin's emblematic Pyramid of the Niches has 365 niches equally spaced around all four sides of the seven-tiered pyramid -- very probably one for each day of the solar year. However, in order to count 365, we need to imagine there are niches obscured by the stairs going up to the top of the pyramid.
With the passage of time portions of the stairway have collapsed, and sure enough there are niches underneath the stairs! These niches were never meant to be seen again once the stairway was built. It is as if the builders thought of the stairway more as a ladder leaning up against the building. Indeed throughout Mesoamerica the angle of the stairs on many buildings is similar to the angle at which a ladder would be leaned against the building.
It is not unusual for the steps to be higher than they are deep -- making for a strenuous climb. I find it more comfortable to climb or descend in a long zig-zag. An added benefit is that the steps above can become the handrail.
Renowned archeologist David Pendergast tells us "temples were . . . . sacred places to be visited and used by the priests and perhaps their retainers. The priests themselves almost certainly did not dash up and down the stairs, but rather used the steps almost as a stage for ceremonial processions, moving with great pomp and dignity upward a stair at a time." He adds, with humor, "Priests, and their retainers perhaps retreated from the altar much as visitors do today, stern first and slowly."
Occasionally you'll come across stairways that probably served a double duty as steps and bleachers -- with steps that are deep enough to sit on cross-legged while comfortably leaning against the riser as a backrest. On those stairways I like to think of priests and nobles gathered to listen to a speaker sitting on the ceremonial platform in the middle of the courtyard.
Jaime Awe, Belize’s Commissioner of Archeology, believes that steep stairways provide "architectural economy." They also preserve the maximum amount of space in the plazas in front of ancient Mesoamerican buildings. A few years ago he showed me a most unusual step at Cahal Pech archeological site, near San Ignacio, Belize.
The step blends in with all the others but it is a 20th century addition. He called it a "Queen's step" splitting a very high step into two. It was added for Queen Elizabeth II's visit to that site, allowing Her Majesty a more graceful entrance to a housing compound at the ruins. My mind took me back to Dr. Pendergast's reference to priests, with their retainers helping them up the stairways. Some things never change.
And what about that follow-up question about the physical stature of the Mesoamerican people using the stairways? In "Forest of Kings", Linda Schele writes about Aw-Cacaw who inherited the throne of Tikal in northern Guatemala in May of 682. Tikal's emblematic Temple 1 is built over his tomb. Dr. Schele writes: "Ah-Cacaw was a large man for his times. He would live into his fourth katun [a period almost twenty years long], and be over sixty years old when he died. At 167 cm (5 feet 5 inches) he was a veritable giant standing ten centimeters above the average height of the men in his kingdom."
Dr. Pendergast was certainly right. Given their relative stature it would have been a slow ascent and descent for ancient Mesoamericans who must have struggled even more than we do getting up and down the pyramids. However they probably weren't in as much of a hurry as we seem to be.