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

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.

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.

Perhaps the greatest Maya mystery of all is the cause of the civilization’s abrupt decline. The last dated stela erected at Tikal was put up in a.d. 869; the last anywhere in the Maya world, in 909. The causes of what University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Robert Sharer calls “one of the most profound cultural failures in human history” have been debated for a century. The stelae are no help—the collapse seems to have ended most of the carving. Most likely, researchers speculate, a severe drought devastated a society that was already suffering from overpopulation and famine.

Tikal still keeps some secrets. Scanning a map of the ruins laid out on his desk, Stuart points to an area of nameless, unexcavated mounds just south of the Lost World. “I’ve always been curious about this group,” Stuart says. “You can spend five or six years digging a site and not greatly change our understanding of Classic Maya civilization. What changes it is the fortuitous discovery of a new inscription.” His finger rests on the area. “Who knows what you might find there?”

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