Posts Tagged ‘tikal’

A Visit to Tikal

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Study Leader Dr. Andrew R. Wyatt is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently he is working at Lake Mendoza in western Guatemala, studying the lives of the ancient Maya living in the far hinterlands of Maya society. Here, he shares a bit of Guatemala’s history and his reflections on a recent trip to Guatemala with Smithsonian travelers.

The city of Tikal, Guatemala. Photo: Daniel Loncarevic

In the 8th century A.D. the ruler of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, embarked on a massive building campaign resulting in the construction of two of the largest temples at the site, a large palace and residential compound, and much of the grand architecture that awaits visitors at the central plaza at Tikal. These stone temples would have been covered with a fine plaster made of limestone and painted a brilliant red, blue, and yellow, while the surrounding plazas would have gleamed a brilliant white. Temple 1, the most imposing structure in this central plaza and the eventual tomb of Jasaw Chan K’awiil, was topped by a large limestone and plaster image of the king himself looking down upon the assembled populace. At its peak, the population of Tikal would have exceeded 100,000 souls and the city itself would have been a colorful oasis in the unrelenting green of the Petén, itself dotted with small farms to the distant horizon.Our group walked the 2 kilometers from the entrance of the Tikal National Park in Guatemala to the central plaza along the same route that ancient travelers and visitors might have arrived when Tikal was a thriving urban center over 1,000 years ago. Now, rather than temples, houses, and gardens greeting the visitor, the path was lined with mahogany trees, breadnut trees, and chicle trees, the sap of which is still used to manufacture chewing gum. Howler monkeys growled in the distance, and the calls of chachalacas and motmot birds echoed through the high branches. Our guide pointed out a line of leaf-cutter ants carrying small leaf pieces back to their nest to later be used to grow a fungus that is the ant’s main food. Although less than ¼ inch in size, the relentless march of the ants created a visible trail that emerged from the dense underbrush on one side of the trail and back into the jungle on the other.

Drawing closer to the main plaza, more and larger temples and structures came into view as we approached the religious, political, and economic center of the site. Faces of gods gazed out from the limestone walls of the temples, moss-covered and silent. Some of the temples hinted at an early construction of the site. Although much of the visible construction at Tikal was from the 8th and 9th centuries, numerous temples appeared to have been built in the 4th and 5th centuries when the massive site of Teotihuacan, over 500 miles to the west in central Mexico, exerted its influence. In fact, settlement at Tikal began in the first millennium B.C. when small groups of farmers settled on the edges of the nearby swamps. The city grew to its height in the first millennium A.D., only to be abruptly depopulated after A.D. 900. Small groups of settlers continued to occupy the site over the years, including Lacandon Maya villages and chiclero camps, the temporary encampments of the men who harvested the chicle from ancient trees to make chewing gum. Even today, Maya still come to Tikal to take part in rituals hearkening back thousands of years.

The imposing 154 foot high Temple 1 appeared suddenly in our view as we rounded a bend in the forest; even the largest structures often materialize unexpectedly as the dense forest obscures many of the ancient remains until you are nearly right upon them. As we rounded the corner of the temple we emerged into the large central plaza, flanked on the east and west with pyramid shaped temples and on the north and south with the houses and governmental offices of the kings, queens, nobility, and priests. Now, rather than brilliantly painted plaster, the grey limestone walls, heavy with age, seemed to breathe with history.

In the year A.D. 692, Jasaw Chan K’awiil presided over a ritual marking the end of a k’atun, a roughly 20 year period of time that held great importance for the ancient Maya, similar in many ways to a decade in our calendar. At the completion of this and other k’atuns, temples were constructed and rituals were enacted to mark the end of the previous period as well as welcome the upcoming k’atun. Jasaw Chan K’awiil likely ascended the steps of these very temples, resplendent in his quetzal feather headdress and kingly garb, to perform sacrifices to the deities dwelling in the heavens.

We could only imagine what occurred here 1200 years ago. As it was, we witnessed a different kind of Tikal than the people who lived here in the past. Our Tikal was populated only by the ghosts of the past and visitors from the present, and bustling activity of an urban center was replaced by the flora and fauna of the ever-encroaching rainforest.

What do you think of Tikal? Click here to learn more about traveling to Guatemala with Smithsonian.

Q & A on Guatemala

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Dr. Thomas Garrison has been working in Mesoamerican and Maya archaeology for more than ten years. He is currently one of the directors of a multidisciplinary project in the area surrounding the Classic Maya site of El Zotz, Guatemala and has his project laboratory in the colonial city of Antigua. Tom is ably serving as Study Leader on our new  2010 Guatemala tours. Here he talks to us about his work there.

Ruins in Tikal, Guatemala

Pyramids and monuments in Tikal, Guatemala

Smithsonian Journeys: What sparked your interest and subsequent career in Mesoamerican and Maya archaeology?

Tom Garrison: I had always been attracted to archaeology since I was a kid. I grew up in a house that was built in 1720 and would always find old nails and pieces of horse hair plaster in my mother’s garden. After taking a couple of college classes I was pretty hooked on archaeology, but it was my six months studying abroad in Mexico and Belize that made me choose Mesoamerican archaeology as a career. I was overwhelmed by the mysteries of all those ruins and I remember thinking on my plane flight home, “I have to get back down there, SOON!”

SJ:  Mile high Panajachel (Gringotenango) sits on the shore of volcanic Lake Atitlan, known as the deepest lake in Central America and one of the most beautiful in the entire world. How did this area escape settlement until the middle of the Post Classical Maya era (c.1300 CE)?

TG: This is an interesting question given results that were just presented at Guatemala’s annual Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicos (in which I participated) in July. Recent underwater archaeology at the lake suggests that there actually is a much earlier presence in this area, but that changes in lake levels have obscured the previously undetected settlement. I think that we will see some very exciting archaeology coming out of Panajachel and Lake Atitlan in the very near future.

SJ:   We hear about the extensive area covered by monumental stone pyramids and other structures as well as plazas and causeways, including palaces. Where did ordinary people live? In extended “suburbs”? Or in discontinuous villages or on farms? And of what were their dwellings constructed?

TG:These “rural” areas are actually the focus of my current research. I spend my time tromping around the jungle in the areas between major sites. What we find would be almost unrecognizable to the untrained eye. A very low bump on the forest floor, when excavated, reveals itself to be a crudely made platform that would have supported a pole and thatch or wattle and daub perishable structure. Nearby there is usually one or two other platform remains, as well as a small quarry where construction material was excavated and one or two bedrock cisterns (chultunes) that may have held water or stored dry food. The impression that one gets is that of scattered family farmsteads.

SJ: We know that directional orientation of temples and observatories was key to their layout and arrangement. And we know that the earliest evidence of human occupation in Mesoamerica dates to about 10,000 BCE. Can archaeologists estimate when in their development people would begin to somehow record celestial observations and how long it took them to acquire enough observations to utilize these findings in their architectural creations?

TG:These sorts of cognitive developments are very difficult to trace archaeologically. In Mesoamerica the yearly cycles of the sun and stars would have become intimately linked once humans began living in Archaic agricultural villages following the domestication of maize, beans, and squash (6000-5000 BCE). In the Early Formative Period (2000-1200 BCE) we begin to see remains of a shared ideology, usually in the form of crude figurines found at sites like Tlatilco in central Mexico. The astrological and agricultural cycles were probably woven into this ideology at an early stage, so that by the time the Olmec arrive (ca. 1200 BCE) they are already orienting their public architecture and plazas based on celestial observations.

SJ:  What are the principle differences our Smithsonian travelers should look for from Pre-Classical to Classical to Post-Classical Maya sites?

Most of what we will get to see on our tour that will immediately stand out are the changes in architecture. Preclassic structures, such as the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) complex at Tikal,  are massive, with large bases and large stones. This is also a time period when the Maya placed large masks on architectural facades (some of which are exposed at Tikal) representing gods and rulers. Classic Period sites, like Yaxha and most of Tikal, are what people think of when they think “Maya” (which is why they are Classic!). You have soaring pyramids with multi-chambered vaulted temples on top. There are sprawling elite palaces as well. The Classic Period is also the time when the Maya erected stelae and made the most public presentations of their hieroglyphic writing system. The Postclassic presence in the Maya lowlands is minimal and we will be fortunate to see Topoxte, which was one of the largest sites, along with Tayasal (modern day Flores). There is a general decline in quality and monumentality of architecture. In the highlands, where there was a thriving Postclassic population, sites were chosen in areas that were naturally defensible. Mesoamerica was an extremely bellicose region from about 850 CE up until the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1521.

Intrigued by Mesoamerican culture? Join us in Guatemala  in 2010.

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