la danta                                             denis jarvis.

structure 313                             geoff gallice.

frieze detail                                              geoff galice

recently discovered frieze                              geoff galice         .

la danta                                                   geoff galice

stela 2                                      gregg willis

jaguar paw temple                              gregg willis

EL MIRADOR-Peten, Guatemala

El Mirador, a huge Pre Classic (1000 B.C.-250 A.D.) city, has been called by some “The Cradle of Maya Civilization”. It was, in its time, the largest city in the Americas. It is still the largest known Maya site encompassing an area of 15 square miles/25 sq. kms. The pyramid of La Danta is, by volume, the largest structure in the Ancient World. 

The ceremonial/civic center of the site encompasses 10 square miles/ 25 sq kms. The population of the city and its environs at its peak has been placed at around 100,000 inhabitants. There are a series of impressive sacbeob (raised white stone causeways) that run within the city and connect with outlying residential areas, and extend out to sites such as Nakbe (8 miles/13 kms), Wakna, and Tintal (12miles/20 kms). 

El Mirador is located deep within the virgin rain forest of the Mirador Basin, which is in turn a parcel of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Mirador Basin contains the largest concentration of Pre Classic sites, including Nakbe, La Muralla, and Tintal, among dozens of others.  The area borders on the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, with El Mirador being just 4miles/6.5 km from the frontier. 

The investigations and discoveries at El Mirador have changed the understanding and history of the cultural and architectural importance of the Pre-Classic period. It now appears that all of the components of Maya society were in place nearly a millennia before the advent of the Classic period (250-900 A.D.).

Travel to the site by land is fraught with difficulties, and is recommended for only experienced hikers (or those in good physical shape) as there are no roads into the site. Tour arrangements can be made from the town of Flores by trail via Carmelita or, for those with a fat wallet, by helicopter.  Flores is most easily reached by plane from Guatemala City, an island city in Lake Peten Itza. It can also be reached by car from Guatemala City north on Highway CA9 to Highway 13, or from Belize west on Highway 13. Modern Flores, ancient Tayasal, was the last independent Maya Kingdom to hold out against the Spanish onslaught which finally fell in 1697. 

HOURS: By organized tour only
ENTRANCE FEE: Included in tour price
GUIDES: Can be obtained in Flores
GPS: 17d 42' 55" N, 89d 58' 18" W
MISC: water, food and camping gear required 

The site appears to have been designed along astronomical lines. The earliest settlement dates from around 1000-900 B.C., and  monumental architecture begins to appear around 600 B.C. El Mirador reached its peak between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D., developing an advanced concept of architectural design, and ruled over the entire Mirador Basin. At the end of this period however, El Mirador and the other Mirador Basin sites were inexplicably abandoned. 

The site was reoccupied during the start of the Late Classic (600-900 A.D.). Structures on a much smaller scale were erected in and around the ceremonial center. During this time a beautiful, distinctive type of ceramic pottery was developed known as “Codex Style” in an area of the northwest portion of the site. El Mirador was abandoned for the last time around 900 A.D.  Little has been reported on concerning its rulers. 

El Mirador was not heard from again until 1926 and 1930 when aerial photographs revealed its existence. The first serious exploration was in 1962 by renowned researcher Ian Graham, who produced the first map of the site. Other explorations and excavations followed. 

Dr. Richard Hansen from Idaho State University has been leading the current investigations. He made a spectacular find in 2009 uncovering an exquisite frieze depicting the Hero Twins  swimming in the Underworld retrieving the head of their father, the Maize God. This frieze is dated to 300 B.C. and confirms continuity in mythological beliefs among the Maya as related in the sacred Popol Vuh recorded 1900 years later. 

There are two main complexes that define El Mirador. Located in the core civic area, these complexes are of an architectural style known as “triadic pattern structures”. They consist of large tiered platforms surmounted by three pyramids, with the largest in the center, and are located throughout the city. 

The East Complex is comprised of several structural groups arranged around a central plaza. The largest and most important is the pyramidal La Danta Group which rises to a dizzying height of 232 feet/73 meters. This entire structure when considered as a whole is thought by some to be the largest structure in the Ancient World.

The base platform of this group measures a massive 980 feet/330 meters x 2000 feet/609 meters. It covers an area of 45 acres and reaches a height of 33 feet/10 meters.

It has been estimated that as many as 15 million man-days of labor were necessary to complete the construction of La Danta. It would take 12 men to carry each one thousand pound block. A mammoth undertaking!

The second tier of the pyramid covers an area of 4 acres and has a height of around 33 feet/10 meters as well. The third tier rises to a height of 86 feet/26 meters and forms the summit for the pyramid.

The summit contains three temples arranged in a triadic configuration. This architectural style was prevalent during the Pre-Classic period. It is thought to represent the 3 hearth stones of creation which in Maya mythology was located within the constellation of Orion.

The pyramid reaches a total height of 232 feet/73 meters and contains an astounding 2.8 million cubic meters of fill. This is some 200,000 cubic meters more fill than the Great Pyramid at Giza, making it the largest pyramid by volume in the world.

The West Complex is nearly as large. The main group is known as El Tigre Group and its pyramidal temple rises to a height of “only” 180 feet/55 meters. This complex is centered around a large plaza with the El Tigre Group on the west end; the Central Acropolis on the south side; the Cigarras group on the East; and the Leon Pyramid on the north side.

 The El Tigre pyramid platform complex contains several structures. The platform measures 459 feet/140 meters x 442 feet/145 meters. Structure 34, Temple of the Jaguar Paw is located on south side of the base level of the platform. This structure measures 262 feet/80 meters in length and reaches a height of 48 feet/15 meters. A broad central stairway leads up to a summit containing a triadic configuration so prevalent within El Mirador. A secondary set of stairs flanked by deity masks on sloped panels leads up to the central temple. Within this temple an earlier structure has been discovered that has a beautiful mask with its original red painted surface. This structure has been dated to 600 B.C., contemporary with the Olmec, and has forced a new interpretation of this time period due to its unexpected sophistication.

The main pyramid is situated on the west side of the platform and rises up 5 levels to a height of about 131 feet/40 meters. The summit again is crowned with a triadic configuration. Recent discoveries have revealed skeletal remains with arrow points imbedded in their ribs, a sign that the beginning of the Classic period brought about an abrupt and violent end to El Mirador’s early history.

The Central Acropolis is composed of numerous structures on interconnecting, raised platforms. Structure 313 is located in the southwest portion of the acropolis. It is a small truncated structure with a central stairway flanked by deity masks that leads to a small summit that at one time held a temple made of perishable materials.

A water catchment system has been identified within the Central Acropolis. A stunning discovery was made in 2009 of twin stucco friezes that run 26 feet/8 meters along the retaining walls of the system. It features the Hero Twins of Maya mythology, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, swimming in the Underworld retrieving the decapitated head of their father, Hun Hunahpu. The frieze recounts the story told in the Quiche book, "The Popol Vuh", thousands of years later and clearly shows the continuity of Maya religion and mythology.

Recent excavations have revealed a new frieze on a lower level containing a serpent head glyph related to the site, and identifying it as the Kan Kingdom polity. This emblem glyph was also used by the great kingdom of Calakmul centuries later. 

The Monos Group is located just to the south of the Acropolis and is defined by a pyramidal temple that rises to a height of 157 feet/48 meters. The Cascabal Group is just to the north of the Leon Group.

There are many other smaller complexes and residential areas such as El Pedernal and La Muerta, that are located throughout the vast site.​

bedrock carving                                 gregg willis


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