blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

About Tikal and Mayan Culture

map.jpg (53481 bytes)
Map Source

Deep within the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala and extending into the limestone shelf of the Yucatan peninsula lie the mysterious temples and pyramids of the Maya. While Europe was still in the midst of the Dark Ages, these amazing people had mapped the heavens, evolved the only true writing system native to the Americas and were masters of mathematics. They invented the calendars we use today. Without metal tools, beasts of burden or even the wheel they were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety. Their legacy in stone, which has survived in a spectacular fashion at places such as Palenque, Tikal, Tulum, Chichén Itzá, Copan and Uxmal, lives on as do the seven million descendants of the classic Maya civilization.

The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., they rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.

Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings. This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A.D. 200-900.

Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers. It started to decline around A.D. 900 when - for reasons which are still largely a mystery - the southern Maya abandoned their cities. When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A.D. 1200, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centers continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century. (Source)


timeline.jpg (50622 bytes)


tikal.jpg (54503 bytes)



temple.jpg (41324 bytes)

Tikal, Temple IV, as seen from the front seat of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.  Maya architects were concerned with creating monumental ceremonial spaces, often astronomically alighed, within which ritual and political theater could take place. Photo copyright © Dr. Nicholas Hallmuth.


temple2.gif (49421 bytes)

Tikal Temple I and the Great Plaza. Temple I is the mortuary monument erected to commemorate Rular A, who is interred in Burial 116 beneath this pyramid.


jgu.jpg (87345 bytes)

Jaguar God of the Underworld in Venus Mode, Copan Maya Ruins, Honduras
Photo copyright © Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth



jgu2.jpg (183264 bytes)

Jaguar God of the Underworld, Copan stela, Honduras
Photo Copyright © Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth


Mayan Glyphs

glyph1.gif (31528 bytes)
Tikal Glyph

glyph2.jpg (14600 bytes)
Mayan glyphs at Palenque

The decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic writing has been one of the consuming detective dramas of the twentieth century. Since the celebrated writer/artist team of Stephens and Catherwood brought the ancient ruins to the attention of the world in the mid 1800's, the race has been on to break the code.

The breakthrough came from an unlikely source. In the early 1950's a Soviet scientist, Y.V. Knorosov, using Bishop de Landa's Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán as his Rosetta Stone, determined that the Mayan writing system was essentially phonetic, although glyphs could also be used to express morphemes (the smallest unit of meaning) and phonetic signs could be added to morphemes for clarity. His work was bitterly rejected by Eric Thompson and other prominent Mayanists which, combined with Cold War animosities, discouraged acceptance of his ideas for many years.

In recent years, however, Knorosov's work has become the foundation of research on the Maya. Starting with Tatiana Proskouriakoff, modern Mayanists such as Merle Greene Robertson, Michael Coe, Linda Schele, Floyd Lounsberry, Peter Mathews, Dennis Tedlock and David Stuart have brought us a clear understanding of the ancient Maya in a remarkably short period of time. That these floodgates were opened by a minor scientist working in a cramped office half a world away from the nearest Mayan ruin is ironic to say the least.

[Based on Breaking the Maya Code. by Michael D. Coe, published by Thames and Hudson. Available in paperback and highly recommended.]


Return to William Bronk