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Athena Review Vol.2, no.2


Maya Lowland Centers: Tikal


During the Middle Preclassic period (900-300 BC), ancient Maya farmers in the Petén region of northern Guatemala settled a series of low rainforest ridges at Tikal overlooking swampy bajos. After playing a secondary role in the Middle and Late Preclassic to neighboring Maya centers at Nakbé and El Mirador, Tikal became an Early Classic center in league with Teotihuacan, then peaked as one of several regional capitals in the Late Classic of AD 600-850 (along with Calakmul, Palenque, and Copán), before being abandoned for unknown reasons by about 900 AD.

Today’s visitor to Tikal sees impressive Early Classic structures such as the recently restored Lost World Pyramid and portions of the North Acropolis. The site's dominant character, however, comes from its Late Classic architecture in the Great Plaza and adjoining areas. Here tall pyramidal structures reach over the top of rainforest foliage (fig.1), flanked by extensive, lowlying palace structures of limestone with corbel vaulted rooms.

[Fig.1: The back of Temple I (built ca. AD 735), viewed through the Petén rainforest (photo: Athena Review).]

Excavations in the Great Plaza and surrounding structures, particularly the deep stratigraphic soundings in the North Acropolis by William R. Coe of the University of Pennsylvania during the early 1960s, have revealed a complex sequence of rebuildings. These began ca. 200 BC with placement of the earliest formal platform of about 2.5 acres. Here, a long series of rulers were buried with rich offerings, in tombs placed within the ceremonially destroyed platforms and temples of their own reign. These were then overlaid by those of their successors, whose names and dates of accession can now be read from various hieroglyphic texts. A total of 31 Tikal rulers from AD 292 to 869 have been identified (Harrison 1999).

After its early 10th century abandonment, Tikal vanished into obscurity for almost a thousand years. A series of early researchers included Gustav Bernoulli of Switzerland, the British explorer Alfred Percival Maudslay, Teobert Maler, and Alfred Tozzer from Harvard’s Peabody Museum. The first major excavations at Tikal began in 1956 when the University of Pennsylvania, in cooperation with the Guatemalan government, began its 14-year Tikal Project. The team mapped six mi2 of central Tikal, and about 50 mi2 of the periphery, recording thousands of structures. Ceramicist Patrick Culbert (1993) has defined ten ceramic complexes covering the whole occupation span from about 600 BC to AD 1000. Detailed comparisons have been made with other Petén centers such as Uaxactún, only 18 km north of Tikal, studied in the 1920s and 30s by the Carnegie Institute with the first detailed pottery sequence for the Maya lowlands (R.E. Smith 1955). Edwin Shook, first director of the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project, had also worked at Uaxactún, and provided a link between the Carnegie and Penn projects.

Studies of Maya glyphic texts by William Coe, Linton Satterthwaite, Christopher Jones, Joyce Marcus, Linda Schele, David Stuart, and other researchers have extracted considerable details on the history of Tikal’s rulers. The Late Classic now appears a time of continuing violence and armed conflict, contradicting prevailing views that Maya civilization was unwarlike, just as earlier views by Morley (1946) and Thompson (1950) that Maya writing was chiefly concerned with obscure calendrics have been largely outmoded.

Since 1979, Guatemalan archaeologists have continued to unearth hundreds of buried buildings in the long-term Proyecto Nacional Tikal. Among their main achievements has been excavation and restoration of the Lost World Complex, directed by Jean-Pierre Laporte who previously worked on the Tikal Project. The huge Lost World Pyramid (Str. 5c-54), begun in the Middle Preclassic, contained a royal necropolis and a massive, multi-tiered Early Classic pyramid now revealed for the visitor. Other areas SE of the Great Plaza have been excavated by Carlos Rudy Larios and Miguel Orrego. Guatemalan archaeologists have many years of work ahead in the 222 mi2 Tikal National Park.

Fig.2: Plan of central Tikal (after Carr and Hazard 1961).

Early Classic levels in the North Acropolis contained a royal necropolis with eight funerary temples built between AD 250-500. Tikal's first hieroglyphic texts (beginning with Stela 29 in AD 292), provide a basic historic sequence of most of Tikal’s rulers through the site’s Late Classic demise. Recent historical readings have clarified Tikal’s Early Classic relationship with Teotihuacan, as well as rival Petén centers. The first recorded ruler is Yax Ch’aktel Xok (“First Scaffold Shark”), who died around AD 200  when Tikal shows a distinct, growing influence from distant Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico and its nearer satellite in the Guatemala highlands, Kaminaljuyú. Another important early ruler, Chak Toh Ich’ak I (“Jaguar Claw I”), is named as the “9th ruler of Tikal” on Stela 31, which contains the most detailed list of rulers and historical events for Tikal’s Early Classic period.   After founding a ruling dynasty who resided in the Central Acropolis, Jaguar Claw I died in AD 378.

The same year, Tikal conquered its nearby rival Uaxactún, under the leadership of K’ak’ Sih (“Fire-born”) who appears to have been directly linked to Teotihuacan, possibly through Kaminaljuyú. He assumed leadership at Tikal as kalomte (supreme ruler) until his death in AD 402. The role of Fire-Born has been much elucidated by the 1983 discovery of an inscribed sculpture of pure Teotihuacan style in the Lost World Complex. The inscription says that in AD 379, a year after his military victory over Uaxactún, Fire-Born installed a new ahau (lord) named “First Crocodile,”also widely known in the literature as “Curl Nose." The Lost World Pyramid, besides an Early Classic palace and temple complex, has also produced ballcourt markers and Tlaloc (Mexican rain god) figures directly similar to those at Teotihuacan. Apparently, Fire-Born and other agents from the huge Mexican center (or its colony in Kaminaljuyú) introduced the concept of centralized rule into Tikal, whose Great Plaza became the locus of ceremonial-based control over a relatively scattered settlement with active trade routes. First Crocodile (aka Curl Nose) ruled Tikal until his death in AD 420.His North Acropolis tomb held a headless skeleton of a crocodile and a jade ornament of a crocodile head , plus  remains of three turtles, two pygmy owls, and several other birds, plus typical stingray spines (related to bloodletting rites) and spondylus shells, and three Teotihuacan-style effigy vessels.

The son and successor was Siyah Chan K’awil (“Stormy Sky”), 11th ruler of Tikal, whose elaborately dressed profile is on the finely-carved Stela 31. Stormy Sky died in AD 456. In his North Acropolis tomb (Burial 48) he is flanked by two young men as sacrificial victims, with 30 pottery vessels painted in Teotihuacan style, stingray spines, spondylus shells, and green obsidian from Teotihuacan. After Stormy Sky’s death, Tikal goes through a lengthy, 137-year period of warfare with the powerful northern Petén city of Calakmul. Inscriptions become rare, due to both military defeats and probable enemy sacking of Tikal. Of eleven rulers in this period, the names of only eight are known. Further details on this unhappy era for Tikal have been gleaned from inscriptions in other Maya cities. In AD 562 Tikal suffered a major military defeat at the hands of Caracol (a city 70 km SE of Tikal) aided by Tikal’s old rival Calakmul. An “ax war” or battle without astrological context occurred in AD 556 between Lord Water from Caracol and Double Bird of Tikal, perhaps precipitated by the defection of Naranjo, a dependent city of Tikal 40 km distant. Six years later in AD 562 Tikal (now ruled by Lizard Head II) lost a “star war” with Caracol, so-called because astrological portents were relied on for initiation of battle (Martin and Grube 1995; Harrison 1999).

By AD 588 Caracol and Naranjo forged a lineage alliance. A new city, Dos Pilas, is formed ca. AD 625 as an offshoot of Tikal, possibly by a defecting Jaguar Claw lineage member, since Dos Pilas adopted Tikal’s own emblem glyph. In 672 Tikal won a “star war” with Dos Pilas under a ruler named Shield Skull, 25th in the Tikal succession.

Late Classic resurgence of Tikal: The “dark age” hiatus of Tikal ends with the formidable 26th ruler, Hasaw Chan K’awil (682-734) also known as Ah Cacao  In AD 695 Hasaw achieved a decisive military victory over rival king Jaguar Paw from Calakmul, the huge lowland center which had aided Caracol in its prior defeat of Tikal in AD 562. Many of the structures now visible in the site center, including Temples I and II and the Central Acropolis in the great Plaza, and Temples III and IV, date from this era of active building by Hasaw and his son Yik’in.

At the east end of the Great Plaza, Temple I rises some 155 feet in nine tiers. Constructed after the death of Hasaw in AD 734, the pyramid was built over his vaulted tomb, containing jadeite necklaces and a jade-mosaic pot whose lid held a sculpture of the ruler’s head. There were also over 30 bones carved with inscriptions and drawings on his journey to the underworld, shown as a canoe voyage. Across the Great Plaza to the west is the slightly earlier, three-tiered Temple II built just after AD 700. A wooden lintel from Temple II shows the woman ruler named Lady Twelve Macaw, wife of Hasaw. Temple II may be a monument or cenotaph for Lady Twelve Macaw, who died in AD 704

West along the Tozzer Causeway is Temple IV, the city’s tallest structure at 230 feet (and highest of any PreColumbian building). Dated to about AD 740, the massive pyramid commemorates the ruler Yik’in (AD 734-766), the powerful son of Hasaw. Two carved wooden lintels from the pyramid’s temple (removed to Basel in 1877 by Bernoulli) have inscribed dates of AD 741, with portraits of the ruler and his father. Facing Temple IV in the southeast of Tikal is Temple VI, also called the Temple of the Inscriptions, which possibly contains Yik’in’s tomb. Temple VI is 80 ft tall with a huge roof comb containing further inscriptions on this ruler, possibly added after his death.

Temple III, dated to AD 810 by a stela and altar at its base, is the latest of the pyramid temples. Situated west of the Great Plaza, it has a carved wooden lintel showing a portly ruler named Yax Ain II (also known as Chitam, and Ruler C), dressed in a jaguar skin. Further south is Temple V, built as a shrine for an unknown ruler, and rising some 187 ft, making it second only to Temple IV in height.

Explanations for the site’s abandonment around AD 900 are varied. Single-cause theories such as famine or rebellion have been largely replaced due to data from settlement surveys of the 1960s and 1970s and from recent translations of Maya insciptions. Surveys showed that while Tikal’s ceremonial core lacked the grided layout of huge cities such as Teotihuacan in central Mexico, it was surrounded by a great abundance of housemounds, with up to 50,000 persons in the central 25 mi2 area. Since Tikal’s population was much larger than originally thought, more complex causes have been sought for the site’s development and demise. The site was subject to a combination of environmental stress, overpopulation, and intercity conflict (Shimkin 1973; Culbert 1973). Insciptions also clearly show that warfare played a decisive role in both Early and Late Classic developments at Tikal (Harrison 1999). After major outside influence from Teotihuacan  had helped establish a centralized dynasty at Tikal, the site underwent various setbacks, then rose again with a brilliant Late Classic flourescence under Hasaw and Yik'in, leaving the site's present spectacular architecture.

[Summary of the full article in Athena Review, Vol.2, no.2. GeorgeWisner made substantial contributions to this article.]


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