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Secrets of the Maya: Deciphering Tikal

After decades of intense research, the ancient ruins of Mexico and Central America are yielding new insights into the pre-Columbia culture

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Tikal’s great plaza, at the heart of what was one of the most powerful city-states in the Americas, is surrounded by monumental structures: the stepped terraces of the North Acropolis, festooned with grotesque giant masks carved out of plaster and masonry; a steep pyramid called Temple I, whose roof comb towers 145 feet above the ground, and its mate across the plaza, TempleII, soaring 125 feet above the grass; and a complex of mysterious buildings called the Central Acropolis. At the peak of its glory, around a.d. 750, Tikal was home to at least 60,000 Maya and held sway over several other city-states scattered through the rain forest from the YucatánPeninsula to western Honduras.

Though magnificent, the ruins of Tikal visible today represent but a fraction of the original city-state. During its heyday, archaeologists say, “downtown” Tikal was about six square miles, though research indicates that the city-state’s population may have sprawled over at least 47 square miles. Yet most of Tikal—the heart of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park, about an hour’s drive northeast of the modern city of Flores—has not even been excavated. And until recently, the same could be said about the nature of the Maya themselves.

For much of the 20th century, Maya experts followed the lead of Carnegie Institution of Washington archaeologist J. Eric Thompson, who argued that the Maya were peaceful philosophers and extraordinary observers of celestial events content to ponder the nature of time and the cosmos. Thompson, who died in 1975, theorized that Tikal and other sites were virtually unpopulated “ceremonial centers” where priests studied planets and stars and the mysteries of the calendar. It was a beautiful vision—but nearly all wrong. “For all of Eric Thompson’s important findings in many areas of Maya studies,” writes anthropologist Michael Coe in his 1992 book Breaking the Maya Code,“he singlehandedly held back the decipherment [of Mayan hieroglyphs] for four decades” and, consequently, the study of the Maya.

When, in the 1960s, the hieroglyphs—the most sophisticated writing system created in the New World—were at last beginning to be deciphered, a new picture of these people emerged. Mayan art and writing, it turned out, contained stories of battles, sacrificial offerings and torture. Far from being peaceful, the Maya were warriors, their kings vainglorious despots. Maya cities were not merely ceremonial; instead, they were a patchwork of feudal fiefdoms bent on conquest and living in constant fear of attack. “Blood was the mortar of ancient Maya ritual life,” wrote groundbreaking epigrapher Lin-da Schele and art historian Mary Miller in their 1986 book The Blood of Kings.

It is one of the ironies of this view that evidence for it has long been in plain sight. At the base of Tikal’s North Acropolis stands a row of tall carved stones, or stelae. Each stela depicts a sumptuously bedecked king, and the monoliths are covered in hieroglyphs that, once deciphered, illuminated our view of Maya life.

During the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, the Catholic Church’s Friar Diego de Landa supervised the burning of hundreds of Maya codices—fig-bark books rich in mythological and astronomical information. Only four Maya codices are known to have survived. And one key to the glyphs from that time was saved: a manuscript that Landa wrote in 1566 about his contact with the Maya. It recorded what he mistakenly thought was the Mayan alphabet. Although parts of his manuscript were first published in 1864, nearly a century would pass before epigraphers understood that Mayan hieroglyphs are actually a combination of symbols using both logographs (words) and syllabic signs (units of sound). However, it was not until the 1970s that the full meaning of many hieroglyphs was understood. Today at least 85 percent of known Mayan texts have been read and translated.

The descendants of the ancient Maya, who long ago lost the ability to read their ancestors’ writings, have been in the midst of a cultural revival. Having weathered the Catholic Church’s suppression of their culture during the 16th and 17th centuries and later endured a string of brutal dictators, including the notorious Efrain Ríos Montt—responsible for the murder of more than 100,000 Maya in the early 1980s— some Maya have begun openly to celebrate their heritage with pilgrimages to Tikal and other sites.

Abandoned by its original inhabitants more than a thousand years ago, the city remained unknown to outsiders for almost a millennium. In 1525, Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés passed within a few dozen miles of the place without learning of it. Likewise, in 1841, the American diplomat, journalist and explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the British illustrator Frederick Catherwood reported with great fanfare their “discovery” of ruins in the Maya region, but they missed Tikal. Guatemalan archives mention that local people lived in Tikal in the 18th century, but the first official expedition to the ruin wasn’t until 1848. Even “Tikal” is a relatively recent name, derived from the Mayan word ti ak’al, or “at the water hole.”

A leader in the field of Mayan epigraphy is David Stuart, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984 at age 18—the youngest recipient of the so-called genius award—for his several publications and papers about deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs. He defined some previously unknown glyphs and refined the spelling rules of the Mayan writing system. Now 38, Stuart is the curator of Mayan hieroglyphs at HarvardUniversity’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. He has a special fondness for Tikal. “It’s the atmosphere of the place,” Stuart says. “Tikal is simply one of the most overpowering archaeological sites in the world.”

Though Tikal may have been settled by at least 600 b.c., most of the city’s edifices were built during what is called the Classic period of Maya history, from a.d. 250 to 900. It was a time when the Maya created great artwork and amazing architecture across the region (see “Of Majesty and Mayhem,” p. 49). Recent finds may yet force scholars to redefine the beginning of this period. This spring, archaeologists working at the nearby city of Cival uncovered evidence that distinctively Mayan art and writing may have developed as early as 300 b.c., and a wall painting dating to about a.d. 100, the oldest known intact Maya mural to date, was discovered in an 80-foot-high pyramid at the ruins of San Bartolo, a ceremonial site in Guatemala. Still,Tikal stands out. “The buildings at Tikal are particularly well built, and they have stood up quite well against the onslaught of the jungle,” says Stan Loten, an architectural archaeologist and retired professor who conducted surface surveys of Tikal’s standing structures from 1964 to 1970.

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