El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya

Now overgrown by jungle, the ancient site was once the thriving capital of the Maya civilization

The peak of La Danta—one of the world's largest pyramids—pokes through the forest canopy. "All this was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago," says archaeologist Richard Hansen. "It's like finding Pompeii." (Christian Ziegler)
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“Wow!” said Joanna.

The summit was the size of a decent home office. There was a surveyor’s bench mark embedded in the limestone, a fence to keep you from tumbling off the east precipice and a big leafy tree that from afar stood out like a tasseled toothpick pinned to a club sandwich. After concentrating so long on the ground, verifying that roots weren’t snakes, it was a great pleasure to lift my eyes to infinity. It was boggling to think we were standing on the labor of thousands of people from antiquity, and to imagine their vanished metropolis, the business of the city such as it might have been on a day like this; the spiritual and ideological imperatives that lifted these stones; the rituals that might have occurred at this sacred spot—everything from coronations to ceremonies in which priests and kings would draw blood from their genitals to spill onto paper and burn as a sacrifice to the gods.

To the west loomed the forested silhouettes of the Tigre Complex, where high on the pyramid Hansen and his team have found skeletons with obsidian arrow points in their ribs, possibly casualties of an Early Classic period battle that wiped out remnant inhabitants of the abandoned capital. Also visible were the outlines of the Monos and Leon pyramids, which along with Tigre and La Danta and the administrative complex known as the Central Acropolis, made up some of the oldest and largest concentrations of public architecture in all of Maya civilization.

I asked Hansen, if he could have anything, what would it be?

“Fifteen minutes,” he answered immediately. “Fifteen minutes here when the city was in its glory. Just to walk around and see what it was like. I’d give anything for that.”

In Maya cosmology the underworld is ruled by the Lords of Xibalba (shee-bal-BA). In April 1983, his fifth season at El Mirador, Hansen nearly met them. He boarded Professor Matheny’s single-engine Helio Courier H395 with his wife, Jody, and their daughter Micalena; he was carrying the only two copies of his master’s thesis, which he’d been working on at the camp, and cash for the camp workers’ payroll.

When the plane cleared the trees it was suddenly running with the wind, not into it as a windsock had indicated, and struggling for lift. About two miles from the airstrip, the tail hit a tree, the nose pitched down, the wings sheared off, the propeller chewed through the canopy until it snapped and the plane cartwheeled across the floor of the jungle. The H395 crashed to a stop in a tree five feet off the ground, fuel leaking everywhere. Hansen sat in his seat thinking he was dead.“Get out! Get out!” Jody yelled. As they scrambled clear, they heard a tremendous whoosh and were hurled to the ground as a fireball exploded behind them, cresting high above the trees. Everyone on board had survived.

“People say, ‘Is your life like Indiana Jones?’” Hansen recalled as he showed us around the crash site. “I say my life isn’t as boring. He always jumps out of the airplane before it crashes.”

Hansen took us to see what is probably the most beautiful and significant artwork found so far at El Mirador: the Central Acropolis frieze. In 2009, an Idaho State student archaeologist named J. Craig Argyle unearthed two 26-foot carved stucco panels showing the hero twins of Maya cosmology, Hunahpu and his brother Xbalanque. They are the main protagonists in the Popol Vuh, a sacred book of myths, history, traditions and the Maya story of how the world was created. The Popol Vuh recounts the adventures of the supernaturally gifted twins, who resurrected their father Hun-Hunahpu (who had lost his head in a ball game against the evil lords of the underworld). The stucco frieze depicts Hunahpu in a jaguar headdress swimming with the head of his father.

“To find this story in the Preclassic period is beyond belief,” Hansen said, pulling back a blue tarp that covered the frieze. “For many years it was thought that the Popol Vuh creation story had been contaminated by the Spanish priests who translated it—that the Indians had been influenced by Christianity. This frieze shows that the Maya account of creation was vibrantly established for thousands of years before the Spanish got here. It’s like finding the original copy of the Constitution. I was stunned.”


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