Tikal: a Mayan City



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Tikal, the largest of the Mayan cities, probably had a population of between 50,000 and 70,000 at its peak.

Tikal, a city that boasted a population of perhaps 100,000, was highly structured and immersed itself in spiritual practice. The city flourished during the classic, and late classic periods, (AD 300-900). Many of the massive buildings that are visible today were constructed during this time. The monuments paid tribute to the rulers of the past, and were meant to please the deities. In addition to their obvious achievements in construction, the Maya also excelled in the arts, astronomy, and glyphic writing. Though little is understood, what is known is fascinating.

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Lords of Tikal by Peter Harrison

One example that reveals much about the Maya is the ball court. This game, similar to soccer, pitted two teams against each other in a stone court. The game was highly competitive, and there was much betting among the spectators and royal guests. Some of these games had serious implications for the losers. Often they were sacrificed. A disturbing facet of Mayan culture was the prominence of human sacrifice. In addition to its role in the ball courts, human sacrifice was used in burial rituals. Often, as in the burial of ruler Stormy Sky, a number of attendants were sacrificed and placed alongside their ruler in the burial vault.

Wooden lintels are found throughout the temples of Tikal. These decorative pieces were cut from the chicozapote wood. While still fresh, they were adorned with intricate carvings and art. Over time, the hardwood cured to an incredible strength. In fact the lintels that are visible today are the original ones that the Maya used in their construction. Often, these lintels weren't covered just with art, but also displayed pictures and glyphs that told anecdotes of the time. Some of what has been learned from this ancient people has been found in their expressions of pictoglyphs, and their complex writing. They were prolific in their description of life, religious beliefs, and customs.

Mayans used different forms of expression in recording life. They had a complex form of writing that was found inscribed on the stelae and altars that dot the site. Pictures depicted events and beliefs of the time. Carved in the lintels, etched in the stone steps, and covering various walls throughout the temples, the life, religion, and times of the Maya were documented.

The Maya were mosaic mask from Tikalobsessed with the idea of time. The fact that they employed the concept of zero in their number system helped them make great strides in this realm. They knew that the earth year was a little more than 365 days, and a complicated, incredibly accurate calendar predicted the solstices of the year. The Maya applied the same zeal to studying other worlds and were quite accurate in determining the average year on Venus, a planet that was millions of miles from earth! They named periods of time, (a twenty year span was known as the katun), placed great significance on these cycles by building temples and stelae marking the conclusions of these Mayan "katuns".

Though there is an abundance of information relating to Mayan life, there is much more that has yet to be discovered. Research continues to unearth new facts about the Mayan civilization, but many questions remain unanswered. Scores of structures in Tikal have yet to be explored, and their excavation could reveal many of the secrets that still puzzle both the casual visitor, and the dedicated scientist.


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