Archeology in Tikal

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Archeology in Tikal


In gaining further understanding of the Mayan civilization, Tikal is well known archeological site that holds great secrets of the Mayan people. It is a complex located in the Northern Guatemala rainforests. According to historians, this location has over 3,000 structural ruins that signify the remains of Yax Mutal, a Mayan capital city of the ancient empire. Archeologists claim some of the building remains were constructed as early as the 4th century B.C. The city is now part of a national park that was institutionalized in 1960. In addition, it is also a Heritage Site was commissioned by UNESCO. With a museum within its premise explaining the history of the Mayan people, it has become a tourist destination. The revenue generated has been used in the maintenance and restoration of Tikal. Archeology plays a vital role in understanding the lost civilization of the Mayan people who have been described as extraordinarily brilliant and advanced. The Tikal has undergone numerous excavation with each event exploring different features of this evolution. This discourse examines the transition of archeological methodologies and techniques applied in obtaining better data and results in a bid to provide pertinent information of Mayan society.

Mayan Ritual Rites – Ceramic Analysis Techniques

Different methodologies have been applied in analyzing the Mayan way of life at Tikal. The first method is ceramic analysis used by archeologists in studying various cultures globally to comprehend approaches applied in the wide-ranging traditional settings. This analysis is based on the function and form focus of the vessels shape to denote its purpose (Paton n.p). In 2017, an article published by Laboratory Equipment details on cultural complexities of Mayan people identified from their burial rituals. The theory on death was that divine rulers were revered individuals hence treated as living beings even after their demise (Paton n.p). Previously conducted research at Tikal have led to the discovery of sacrificial offering burials and six royal burial groups dated from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries A.D.E. Other discovered offerings included crocodile shell pendant, jade ornaments, 22 ceramic vessels and a greenstone mask at a Mayan royal tomb in 1960 dated to the 1st century A.D (Paton n.p). Applying the ceramic analysis technique on the mask collected from the Mayan Royal Tomb, the first notable feature was the red cinnabar paint used. Secondly, hair decoration at the forehead section was indicative of the Mayan maize God (Paton n.p). This deduction is in line with the status of the buried individual who was a deified Mayan Kings. The third observation was symbolic motifs representing further association with these deity (Paton n.p). The third observation was the placement of 22 additional ceramic vessels in the tomb include spondylus shells, shell pendant, jade ornaments. This excavation adds important information pertaining to the ritual rites and reverence accorded to the elite Mayans.

Mayan Politics and Leadership on Carved Monuments-Iconography Technique

The carving and erection of Stelae monuments by Mayan people at the beginning of early classic period has been explained by archeologists being politically motivated. Research has revealed that with entry of each dynastic rule, a monument was erected to glorify the ruler in power and drive their political agenda and propaganda (Braswell 219). For example, in analyzing the stela formats, it was easy to denote using iconography on whether the political hypes were either communicative, personalized, flexible or mobile (Braswell 218). Additionally, another function includes the capturing the unique features of each rulership and its importance within the Mayan community. According to Laporter and Fialko (1990), political leadership depictions through use of costumers signified sacred and military power, characteristics important in serving a polity purpose.

The technique used by archeologists to study these structures was iconography in interpreting the symbols and images embossed on the stela structures with interest on the political and rulership messages relayed (Braswell 218).  In gaining understanding of these sculptural monuments numerous in the lowland Maya regions, iconographic programs were designed for explicit assessment in line with the Mayan tradition practiced in the Highlands and Pacific Coast. The program characterized by autochthonous elements aimed at understanding the purpose of this architectural framework in meeting the needs of the local rulers at the time (Braswell 219). For instance, eras of individual rulership were identified based on personalization of the imagery used in Pre-classic Tikal monuments. The archaeological mindset supporting the use of this technique entailed evaluating the consistency in use of images and symbols to maximize the effectiveness of message dissemination in driving political propaganda within Mayan political arena. The images were used to relay a clear message constantly to the onlookers and community at large (Braswell 219). Therefore by iconography, archaeologist were able to generate deductions by dissecting each image without jeopardizing delicate structure of the excavated remains.

Nature of Mayan Civilization- Study of Hieroglyphics Technique

Judging from the extensive research on the Mayan civilization, by the 20th century a substantive number of archeological experts led by Eric Thompson presented the argument Mayans were extra ordinarily peaceful people establishing communities keen on understanding celestial events in a bid to understand the cosmos and time (Roberts). In 1975, the theory supported by many archaeologists was Tikal was a ceremonial Centre where Mayan priests conducted far-reaching readings on the stars, planets and mysteries within the calendar system. The archaeological techniques supported of this deduction. However, this notion changed radically with technological advancement (Roberts). At the time, the decoding of the Mayan code by Michael Coe in his work, introduced the application of technology in deciphering hieroglyphs as a component in the study of the Mayan civilization.

In the 1960s, the study of hieroglyphs as a novel sophisticated writing system in the new world allowed for further exploration of excavations by archeologists (Roberts). There was a significant transition of the archeologically derived perception of this community (Roberts). The Mayan writings and artwork collected from Tikal revealed the Mayan people had the history of blood ridden warfare, sacrificial torture and blood offering to numerous deities. Additionally, the Mayans were warriors supported by leadership that propagated war and human sacrifice (Roberts). The cities established by the Mayan people including Tikal signified feudal system mainly operated on strategized combat aimed at increasing conquests of other surrounding communities. Archeological literature in the recent times are founded on this interpretation of artifacts collected at Tikal including Blood of Kings by Mary Miller. This collected works elaborates on carnage as a focal point on the Mayan ritual lifestyle. Hieroglyphs study were also applied in evaluating the Stella structures significantly visible at the Tikal (Roberts). At the North Acropolis, the tall carved stone showed clear depiction of bedecked Kings with hieroglyph covered monoliths. Subsequent interpretation clearly aligns with the newly established perception of the Mayan life.

Studying Differences of Mayan Population Based on Biological Differences-Dental Analysis Technique

Archaeologists have paid close attention to the examination of the structure and population history of Mayan locations in the classical period. A major observation is regional variations deduced from the differences in material culture collected from dissimilar archaeological zones (Scherer 141). In order to determine the association between the varying characteristics of classic Mayan population and biological differences, techniques applied include dental analysis conducted on human material collected. In analyzing these materials, different measures have been used in quantification including multivariate and univariate metric tests. Likelihood ratios are also applied in reducing the statistically significant differences between the populations and sites such as the Tikal (Scherer148). Judging from the dental analysis conducted on skeleton material collected from Tikal, in comparison with Calakmul, Mayans living within this location had stark biological differences in terms of their intrasite organic heterogeneity (Scherer 160). Additionally, some similarities were identified when compared to materials from other sites with limited closeness to one another. Therefore, from this study, it has become easier for archeologists to study immigration within Mayan communities. The differences between skeleton materials collected from Calakmul and Tikal cites demonstrates limited to no migration of people between these locations (Scherer 168). However, the likenesses between Tikal and Kaminaljuyu, Copan, Belize Zone and Seibal indicates people from Tikal region travelled to the highlighted locations.

Evaluating Tikal Settlement and Its Intricacies- Settlement Archeology and Mapping Technique

One of the major issues when analyzing the Mayan settlement area is the detail deficiencies in maps developed from earlier times. Core issues includes specific generalization observed in the Tozzler survey conducted in Petten in 1913 as well as the rough coverage display from Sanders mapping in 1962 of the Chontalpa region. Other important details missing includes good comparative data applicable in understanding distribution structures and features established by the Mayan in minor and major centers. A map developed by Richardson in 1937 is lacking in elemental value in portraying the southern Maryland and settlements the cities within this location pertinent in quantifying populations. In addition, in 1960, the maps developed by Bullard presented a very rough imagery of structural diversity. This issue is evident in maps developed in 1969 and 1971. Conclusively, major issues have been identified in mapping archeological methods applied in the past with the aim of studying the Mayan settlement population.

The transformation in this technique has focused the inclusivity of other techniques in collaboration with mapping necessary for prehistoric evaluations of excavated areas as demonstrated by the exploration of the Tikal settlement by Puleston. Firstly, aerial survey was used in assessing the diverse locations within excavation site. This technique has been applied globally in facilitating settlement surveys (Puleston 4). The development of aerial photography is currently at its advanced stage though similar technique were used including photogrammetric to analyze prehistoric settlements. Brechas development is another technique applied in developing a ground level datum. This method is a novel idea recently used by archeologist as a preliminary step prior to mapping. According to Puleston (4), it was introduced as an elemental component in developing comprehensive maps as opposed to the traditional ones for future archeologist in quest of studying the area (Silverstein, et al. 45). Once mapping commenced, the development of Tikal map, reconnaissance was incorporated by engaging manpower (Puleston 5). This technique is used in clearing any erratic coverage that might occur while performing multiple circuits of the area. From this earthwork exploration for mapping purposes, it has contributed greatly to understanding the Mayans ceramics were received dating to Manik and Imix eras (Silverstein, et al. 46). Other artifacts included ground and lithic ground stones as well as decorated wares. Puleston mapping technique also sectioned out the Tikal areas identifying located of defensive walls, as well as areas of polity amongst others.

Evolution of Mayan Culture- Ceramic Sequence Technique

In gaining a deeper perspective on the cultural changes occurring due to urban changes in Mayan settlements at the Tikal region, an effective technique applied is the ceramic sequence. It is notable to state that ceramics collected in Tikal have been considered as being more extremely varied thus providing better samples in creating chronological sequences which have been used by archeologists over the years. Culbert provides a groundbreaking analysis on ceramics recovered during the University of Pennsylvania Tikal project conducted between 1956 and 1970 (Culbert 50). Firstly, ceramic sequence is an older version of ceramic analysis. It constituted the process of developing chronological information for further research. The deposits evaluated in undertaking later research include mixed grab bag, middens, and fill deposits (Culbert 51). On analysis of these deposits were used in demonstrating different between small structure and larger structure groups in the usability of materials in building processes to identify periods which they were constructed. Secondly, special deposits collected from cache and burial artifacts inclusive of ceramics upon sequencing provided chronological information on the change in social status rites and ritual practices conducted. This analysis was categorized into different categories in evaluating ceramics inclusive of variety, vessels and shape analyses. The importance of this technique in archology has been attributed to the classification groups established for varied ceramics in order to identity their function and purpose, the era they were used and the particular designation of use in the Mayan culture practiced in the Tikal region.

Another technique applied in analyzing urbanism is LIDAR technique in evaluating ancient ruins. According to Haviland (1970), Tikal was larger in comparison to other location in the Mesopotamian regions. The estimated population was 40,000. However, with this new LIDAR technology studies show the region comprised of 60,000 houses therefore more people were living in these locations. Tikal experienced pre-Columbian civilization which was further interconnected further indicating the gross misinterpretation demonstrated by studies undertaken in the past. Digitized technology for archeological study has significantly improved allowing technique such as LIDAR to gather extensive information and data sets. Raised highways show to connect quarries and urban centers as well as complex systems applied in establishing terraces and irrigation point to intensive agricultural efforts performed by the Tikal Mayans in dramatically reshaping their landscape into an urban center. Another contribution made by LIDAR which overwhelms the archeological technique applied by Havilland, it depiction of interurban connectivity observed after analyzing the settlement pattern as well as Maya Lowlands militarization. From this analysis, this technique estimated 10-15 million people were living in Guatemala.


The assessment of different literature in a comparative quest on the change in archeological techniques have revealed informative details pertaining to the Mayan civilization. The data collected using varied technique and as they change in complexities indicate the ease of error in data collection experienced at earlier staged. Secondly, it is evidently clear technology elicits improved data processing in gaining accurate information on urbanization, population and culture traditions practiced by the Mayan people.

Works Cited

Braswell, Geoffrey E. “Images of Power and Power of Images: Early Classic Iconographic Programs of the Curved Monuments of Tikal.” The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction, U of Texas P, 2009.

Coe, William R. “A Summary of Excavation and Research at Tikal, Guatemala: 1956-61.” American Antiquity, vol. 27, no. 4, 1962, pp. 479-507.

Culbert, Patrick P. The Ceramics of Tikal: Vessels from the burials, caches, and problematical deposits. The Pen Press, 1993.

Haviland, William A. “Tikal, Guatemala and Mesoamerican urbanism.” World Archaeology, vol. 2, no. 2, 1970, pp. 186-198.

Paton, Callum. “Shibboleth Authentication Request.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, Newsweek, 15 Sept. 2017, Accessed 14 Nov. 2019.

Puleston, Dennis E. The Settlement Survey of Tikal: Tikal Report 13. U of Pennsylvania P, 2011.

Roberts, David. “Secrets of the Maya: Deciphering Tikal.” Smithsonian, 30 June 2004, Accessed 14 Nov. 2019.

Scherer, Andrew. “Dental Analysis Of Classic Period Population Variability In The Maya Area.” 2004. Texas A & M University, PhD Dissertation.

Silverstein, Jay E., et al. “Rethinking The Great Earthwork Of Tikal: A Hydraulic Hypothesis For The Classic Maya Polity.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, pp. 45-58.

Webster, David, et al. “The Great Tikal Earthwork Revisited.” Journal of Field Archaeology, vol. 32, no. 1, 2007, pp. 41-64.

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