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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Beginning in the 1880s, well before other glyphs yielded up their meanings, researchers began decoding the Maya calendar from glyphs on stelae at sites all over the Maya world. Most stelae include the date of their creation, written in a five-number sequence known to scholars as the Long Count, or the number of days since the beginning of this current era. This system is built on a base of 20 rather than 10 and is made up of glyphs and combinations of a single dot for “one,” a bar for “five,” and a glyph that translated to mih, or “zero.” Once scholars figured out this system, they were able to correlate it with the Gregorian calendar, revealing an astonishing sense of time: the Long Count starts in 3114 b.c. The earliest dated monument yet discovered in Tikal and all of the Maya lowlands, Stela 29, has a Long Count date of, which translates to a.d. 292.

Understanding this calendar was an important step in understanding the history of the Maya. Of all the dated stelae found at Tikal, not one is from between a.d. 562 and 692. This period of monumental silence is known as the Hiatus. For decades, scholars were at a loss to explain what happened during those years. But after the discovery of the Long Count, one of the next breakthroughs in deciphering the Mayan writing system was recognizing what experts call the emblem glyph—a unique hieroglyph that represents a specific city-state. Tikal’s emblem glyph is read as mutal, which is based on the word mut, meaning “bound” or “tied.” The glyph resembles how a ruler’s tied-back hair might look from behind (see stela, page 46), and appears on stelae in ancient Maya city-states as far away as Copán, about 180 miles to the southeast. But why?

As experts translated more glyphs, they learned that Tikal had lost a war with Caracol, a Maya city in present-day Belize. The evidence is a boast of the victory, in a.d. 562, inscribed on an altar found in Caracol. That crushing defeat must have hung over Tikal like a pall. Before the glyphs were read, no archaeologist would have dreamed that Caracol, though a substantial city-state, could have laid low the mighty Tikal. Other stelae at Caracol suggest that the key to its triumph was an alliance with Calakmul, another Maya powerhouse in present-day Mexico. For more than 100 years, then, Tikal may have been a conquered city-state, languishing in thrall to foreign rulers.

Somehow, Tikal recovered. In 672, the city launched a war against Dos Pilas, about 70 miles to the southwest. An upstart Maya city less than 50 years old at the time, Dos Pilas had the nerve to use Tikal’s emblem glyph, calling itself in effect “New Tikal.” In the war, Tikal was triumphant. Glyphcovered stone stairways at Dos Pilas record the city’s defeat.

So explicit are Mayan glyphs that archaeologists have by now compiled a chronology of 33 rulers of Tikal (including at least one queen) spanning 800 years. Scholars formerly named these rulers after the glyphs that signified them, such as Double Bird, Jaguar Paw and Curl Snout. As epigraphers learned to sound out the glyphs, they assigned phonetic names. The architect of the first phase of Tikal’s revival was Nuun Ujol Chaak, a warrior king also known as Shield Skull.

Nuun Ujol Chaak’s era was hardly peaceful. As a young king, he fled Tikal when Calakmul declared war in a.d. 657. But he returned to lead Tikal’s defeat of Dos Pilas in 672. Then, only five years later, Nuun Ujol Chaak lost again to Dos Pilas, which was most likely collaborating with Calakmul, probably the greatest Maya power at the end of the seventh century. Victory over Tikal’s rivals was finally achieved by his son, Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, on August 5, 695. A drawing on a building in the Central Acropolis shows Jasaw carried in triumph into the city on a litter, leading his captive— perhaps the defeated lord of Calakmul—by a tether.

Templeiv, erected about a.d. 741, is a dizzying pyramid that stands 212 feet above the ground, the tallest Maya structure ever built. Only the upper levels of TempleIV have been restored, but thanks to a pair of wooden staircases that surmount the rubble, visitors can climb nearly to the top of this structure for the finest view at Tikal. A seemingly limitless green expanse of rain forest billows into the distance like waves on a chlorophyll ocean. There is no sign of any other human settlement.

Yet hidden in the jungle below is another of Tikal’s mysteries. The Lost World is a complex of pyramids and buildings southwest of the GreatPlaza. It was excavated and restored between 1979 and 1985 by Guatemalan archaeologists working on the Tikal National Project. The area, according to Guatemalan epigrapher Federico Fahsen, served as an observatory from about 500 b.c. to a.d. 250. During the early Classic period, it vied with the North Acropolis as the ceremonial epicenter of Tikal and served as a royal burial ground.

Around the Lost World, architectural and artistic features suggest Tikal had links to Teotihuacán, a city in the highlands of Mexico whose culture flourished between a.d. 150 and 650, entirely separate from the Maya. Because Teotihuacán lies 630 miles from Tikal, many scholars originally doubted that the two empires were even aware of the other’s existence. Yet ceramic designs found at Tikal and other Maya sites seem to mirror the iconography of the Teotihuacán culture—especially its grim-visaged storm god, Tlaloc.

Only six years ago, David Stuart untangled a series of fourth-century glyphic texts from Tikal’s Stela 31 that helped connect the two empires. Remarkably, he was able to read the glyph that confirmed scholarly speculation pinpointing the day when a lord from Teotihuacán named Siyah K’ak’, or Fire is Born, arrived at Tikal: a.d. January 31, 378. It is probably no coincidence that the 14th king of Tikal, Chak Tok Ich’aak I, long known as Jaguar Paw, died the same day. The impact that other civilizations have had on the Maya is just beginning to be understood, researchers say.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus