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Tikal is one of the preeminent Maya archaeological zones having a long settlement history going back to 1000 BCE. It was among the largest cities in the Americas. Tikal is located within the Tikal National Park, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Tikal is a modern Maya name which can translate to “City of Voices”. Its original, ancient name has now been deciphered as Yax Mutul.
Tikal is one of the most studied of the Maya Sites. A long succession of rulers has been deciphered from the glyphic inscriptions found there. It is comprised of several architectural groups, containing numerous pyramids, temples, palaces, ball courts, altars and carved stelae. A study has linked the layout of the city along astronomical lines of sight.
Tikal is located deep within the Peten tropical rainforest in the Tikal National Park, which in turn is situated within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Tikal is most easily reached by flying into Flores, an island city in Lake Peten Itza. From there take the CA-13 north. At Aldea Ixlu take the road to the left that leads through El Remate and to the site entrance, a total of about 40 miles/64 km.
Modern Flores, ancient Tayasal, was the last independent Maya Kingdom to hold out against the Spanish onslaught which finally fell in 1697. Travel to the site can also be made by road west from Belize, or north from Guatemala City to Flores.
HOURS: 6:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M. Daily
ENTRANCE FEE: $22 U.S./150 Quetzals. Buy tickets in advance if possible
GUIDES: Yes, both cultural and nature available on-site, and can be arranged at Flores
SERVICES: bathrooms, visitor center, handicrafts, restaurant, campground
ON-SITE MUSEUM: There are 2 museums at Tikal, open 8:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M., except national holidays-$4 US/30 Quetzals
ACCOMODATIONS: Food and lodging is located within the archaeological park, and at Flores. Tikal Park campground, $7 US/50 Quetzals
GPS: 17d 12’ N; 89d 38’ W
MISC: Tickets can be purchased in advance at Banrural Bank Agency or at the CHN Bank Agency. These are located at Flores Airport, Antigua, Guatemala City, Santa Elena, and Melchor de Mencos. Also available at the entrance gate.
HISTORY AND EXPLORATION
Tikal was a powerful, regional kingdom, whose influence extended throughout most of the Maya Lowlands. Relationships were also developed outside the Maya area, including the great central Mexican city/state of Teotihuacan.
Rulers commemorated victories, marriages and Katun endings on the numerous stelae, altars and lintels found throughout the site. These have helped to establish its rich history, including a long list of successive rulers starting with Foliated Jaguar (c.290 CE) through Jasaw Chan K’awiil II (c.889 CE).
Early settlement has been dated as far back as1000 to 800 BCE. Monumental architecture commenced by the 4th century BCE, and Tikal reached its zenith during the Early to Late-Classic (200-850 CE), Its core population has been estimated at 50,000 inhabitants, while LiDAR technology has provided new evidence of extended population densities of between 500,000 to one million. While there are some gaps in the historical record, Tikal was continuously inhabited through the early part of the Terminal Classic (850-1150 CE).
The powerful central Mexican city/state of Teotihuacan appears to have had a strong relationship with Tikal in the early part of the 4th century. Recent archaeological investigations have uncovered a Teotihuacan compound at the site, and would seem to indicate a peaceful period of economic and cultural exchange in the early 4th century. For reasons not fully understood, Teotihuacan warriors invaded and were most likely responsible for the death of Chak Tok Ich’aak, Great Jaguar Paw I, king of Tikal, on 22.214.171.124.12 11 Eb' 15 Mak January 16, 378 CE, a signature date in Maya history. The leader of this event was Siyaj K’ahk’, “Fire is Born”, an exceptional warrior and political strategist. It has been suggested that he may have been the disgraced brother of Great Jaguar Paw I, and who had possibly been exiled to Teotihuacan. Future epigraphic discoveries may clarify the relationship, if any.
Siyaj K’ahk” installed a new king in Tikal, Yax Nuun Ayiin I (ruled 379-404 CE), and he then apparently occupied and ruled from Uaxactun, with Tikal becoming an important ally and trading partner with Teotihuacan. Nuun Yax Ayiin I, identified as the son of the ruler of Teotihuacan, Spearthrower Owl, began a series of military campaigns one in which he conquered Rio Azul, close to the Belize border, and which became an important river/trade corridor to the Caribbean. Within just a few years, Siyaj K’ahk’ installed subordinate kings at several other important Maya sites including Holmul, altering the political landscape forever.
In 426 CE Tikal, under ruler Siyaj Chan K’awiil II (ruled 411-456 CE), intruded into and founded the important dynasty at Copan headed by Tikal prince K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo. Copan went on that same year to establish nearby Quirigua to control the trade along the Montagau River, a rich source of jade, both sites becoming strong allies of Tikal.
Tikal’s eternal rival was the great city-state of Calakmul, and along with Tikal’s former ally Caracol, led to constant economic stress and warfare beginning from the 6th century onward. These two forces fought a seesaw power struggle over the course of centuries with each side and its allies defeating the other at some point. This intense rivalry could easily be called “The Clash of the Maya Titans”.
Tikal attacked and defeated Caracol, a former ally, in 556 CE. Caracol joined with Calakmul and decisively defeated Tikal in 562 CE. At this point, most researchers contend that Tikal began a hiatus that lasted 120 years. As more texts are deciphered though, it seems that the hiatus was not as extreme as first thought. Its defeat, however, did adversely affect its allies who also saw their fortunes decline, though there was still regional interaction and politics in play.
In 629 CE, a king of Tikal, K’inich Muwan Jol II, founded the site of Dos Pilas and placed his son, B’alaj Chan K’awiil (ruled 629-692 CE) as ruler of a renewed kingdom. The intrusion into an already inhabited region was designed to exert direct control through force over the important river trade routes running through the area. The daughter of B’alaj Chan K’awiil, the famous Wak Chanil Ajaw (Lady Six Sky), later went on to found a powerful, new dynasty at Naranjo (ruled 682-741 CE).
Dos Pilas remained a loyal ally to Tikal until events in 648 CE led to a highly unusual outcome. By this time, Tikal and Dos Pilas were separately ruled by brothers of the same dynasty. Calakmul attacked and defeated Dos Pilas, but did not remove B’alaj Chan K’awiil from power, instead making him a vassal of that great kingdom. In 657 CE Dos Pilas attacked and defeated his brother at Tikal (talk about sibling rivalry!). Tikal later returned the favor by defeating Dos Pilas in 672 CE. So, back and forth it went. This act of treason was again orchestrated by Calakmul from the site of Quirigua against Copan in 738 CE, causing the defeat and death of the legendary Copan ruler Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awill (18 Rabbit).
In 682 CE Jasaw Chan K’awiil I (ruled 682-734 CE) continued a revived dynasty at Tikal that began under his father, Nuun Ujol Chaak (ruled 657-679 CE), and the city eventually turned the tables on Calakmul and completely defeated it in 695 CE. Tikal continued to expand under his rule and that of his celebrated heir, Yik’in Chan K’awiil (ruled 734-c.766 CE), and much of the architecture seen today was completed by these two rulers. Its economic and political influence extended throughout the Maya Lowlands.
Tikal, however, suffered the same decline as other cities of the Lowland Maya and by the end of the 10th century the site was mostly abandoned. The latest dated stela, Stela 11, recovered so far was erected in the Great Plaza by Jasaw Chan K'awiil II in 869 CE.
Due to the remoteness of the site it was not explored until the mid19th century. The first written account was that of Colonel Modesto Mendez and Ambrosio Tut in 1848, with illustrations by Eusebio Lara. In 1877 Gustav Bernouilli, from Switzerland, removed some of the carved wooden lintels from Temples IV and I, while on a botanical expedition. They are now housed in the Volkerkunde Museum in Basel, Switzerland.
Alfred Maudslay (1881) and Teobert Maler (1894) followed at the end of the century, and Alfred Tozzer and E. Merwin visited in 1910. Sylvanus Morley, of the Carnegie Institution, made five visits to Tikal in the years between 1914 and 1937. Further explorations and excavations were carried out by the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project under Edwin Shook and later William Coe from 1956-1970 with excavations and restorations of the main structures. The Guatemalan government introduced the Tikal National Project in 1979-86 under the leadership of Juan Laporte and Marco Bailey. Excavations and consolidations continue at present with specialized investigations such as the South Tikal Archaeological Project (PAST) directed by Dr. Edwin Roman.
There are a number of important architectural groups that make up the central core of the city. The Great Plaza is situated at the heart of the city which is oriented to the cardinal points. It is flanked by two large pyramid/temples that face each other about 210 feet/64 meters across the plaza.
Temple I, Temple of the Great Jaguar, is a nine-tiered pyramidal structure located on the east side of the Great Plaza and rises to a height of 154 feet/ 47 meters. It was constructed in the mid eighth century and is a mortuary structure for the great Tikal king, Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, also known as Ah Cacao (Lord Chocolate). His tomb contains a rich assortment of grave goods including jaguar pelts, jade, pyrite mirrors, shell, and carved bone. The jade objects included a fabulous necklace of over 114 pieces, and weighing 8.6 pounds/3.9 kilos. There is a temple at the top that contains three chambers, and is surmounted with a roof comb, common architectural features at Tikal.
Across the plaza from Temple I is Temple II, Temple of the Mask, another pyramidal structure which rises to a height of 125 feet/38 meters. Its base measures 123 feet/37.6 m x 135 feet/41 m. A wide stairway leads up three tiers to a summit terrace. Two large masks flank the secondary stairsteps that lead into the three-chambered, summit temple. Temple II was built to honor the wife of king Jasaw Chan K'awiil I, Lady Kalajuun Une’ Mo’/Lady Tun Kaywak of Yaxha, though no tomb has yet been found. Her image is carved into a wooden lintel found inside the temple. The summit temple is crowned with a 39 feet/12 m high decorative roof comb.
The Central Acropolis faces onto the south side of the Great Plaza. This was a residential area for the city’s elite built across different levels. At the core of the Central Acropolis is Structure 5D-14, the palace of Chac Toch Ich’aak, Great Jaguar Paw, a mid 4th century ruler. This is a single-story structure where four burials were excavated from beneath the structure.
The Maler Palace, Structure 5D-65, is so named for the location where Teobert Maler made his temporary residence while at the site. The structure has two levels. The lower level is entered between three doorways on both the north and south sides that open into several chambers. The remains of a frieze that appeared over each doorway is evident on the north side.
There are several other palaces, temple structures, and courtyards associated with the Central Acropolis and most of the visible structures date to the Late Classic (600-900 CE). Between this complex and Temple I is a ball court oriented on a North/South axis. To the south of the complex is the large Palace Reservoir.
The North Acropolis is located at the northeast corner of the Great Plaza, and construction commenced here around 350 BCE. This is a huge complex of about 2.5 acres/1 hectare, its platform base measuring 260 feet/80 meters x 330 feet/100 meters. It features over 16 structures, some superimposed over earlier ones, with steep broad stairways. There are 43 stelae and 39 altars placed in front of, and within the Acropolis. It is accessed from the Great Plaza by an extremely long stairway whose length is about 246 feet/ 75 meters and reaches a height of about 39 feet/12 meters. It became a large funerary complex for the city’s elite.
A large pyramidal/temple structure, Structure 5D-34, was built by Siyaj Chan K’awiil II (Stormy Sky) over an earlier temple containing a tomb of his father Yax Nuun Ayiin I (Curl Snout). The summit temple contains three chambers wherein an altar and a stela, Stela 26, were located.
Structure 5D-33 is a pyramidal/temple structure and contains the richly furnished tomb of Siyaj Chan K’awiil II. The interior of the tomb was decorated with painted glyphs and a calendrical date of 126.96.36.199.10 4 Ok 18 Kayab- March 18, 457 CE. Hundreds of imported jade beads and circular discs that once made up a semicircular breast collar was recovered along with jade ear spools. Also recovered were numerous richly painted or incised ceramics, and an incised alabaster bowl. Shell, sting ray spines and obsidian were also among the imported grave goods.
An early sub-structure of 5D-33 displays a very well executed mask. An important stela, Stela 31, was erected directly above the tomb. It contains a long glyphic text which has helped illuminate the dynastic history of Tikal.
Structures 5D-22-24 formed an early triadic complex which date back to the end of the Late Preclassic c. 250 CE. Structure 22 is the central structure displaying visible masks on either side of the central stairway. These structures are located at the rear of the acropolis platform.
The East Plaza is located behind Temple I and contains a ball court and an associated complex. A large, raised quadrangle of palace-type structures centered around a courtyard takes up the east end of the complex.
Temple III, Temple of the Jaguar Priest, was the last large pyramid constructed at Tikal, begun in the early years of the 9th century, and aside from the summit temple and roof comb remains unrestored at this time. It has a height of 180 feet/55 meters, and is the third tallest pyramid at Tikal. A wooden lintel was located within the summit temple entryway, and is one of the few lintels that remain in place at the site. The pyramid is located just west of Temple II along a sacbe known as the Tozzer Causeway. The major causeways/sacbeob that interconnect the city are named after the early explorers.
Temple IV, Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent, is located further west along the Tozzer Causeway where it intersects with the Maudslay Causeway. At the staggering height of 230 feet/70 meters it is the tallest stand- alone pyramid at Tikal, and possibly in all of Mesoamerica. The seven-tiered pyramid is built atop a massive platform base which measures about 213 feet/65 m x 289 feet/89 m. A date associated with this pyramid places its dedication in 741 CE by the ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil, and may be his funerary monument. A rare, beautiful carved wooden lintel, Lintel 3, commemorating a military victory in 743 CE by him over El Peru/Waka was recovered from within the temple superstructure. This and a second lintel from the same temple structure are now on display in a museum in Basel, Switzerland. The exterior of the temple structure displays three large mosaic masks.
Temple V, is located south of the Central Acropolis on the opposite side of the Palace Reservoir. It has a height of 187 feet/57 meters making it the second tallest pyramid at Tikal, and is the only structure to feature rounded, inset corners. It was constructed during the first half of the 8th century and is associated with the ruler Nun Bak Chak/Nuun Ujol Chaak, aka Shield Skull. A central, north-facing stairway approximately 63 feet/19.3 meters in width leads up to a single chamber temple. Three Chaak masks adorn the north façade of the temple. A roof comb measuring 41 feet/12 meters in height graces the structure. It is decorated with 11 masks, the largest of which are associated with Chaak, the rain god (6) and the smallest with the sun god. The first drawings of Tikal, including this structure, were made by Eusebio Lara in 1848.
Temple VI, Temple of the Inscriptions, is located southeast outside the central core area at the end of the Mendez Causeway. A west-facing stairway leads up to a two-chamber structure accessed through three doorways. It was dedicated in 766 CE. A thatch-covered altar and stela, Stela 21, are located at the foot of the structure stairway along with two other plain stelae. Its roof comb reaches a height of 39 feet/12 meters A long glyphic text is carved on three sides of the structure relating the history of the city. The text on the rear of the structure features the largest glyphs in the Maya World.
The Mundo Perdido is a large, semi-enclosed, ceremonial complex located due south of Temple III. It has its origins in the late Preclassic (500 BCE-250 CE), and is among the earliest groups at Tikal housing 38 structures. The complex houses the tombs of king K'inich Muwaan Jol and Chak Tok Ich'aak I in Structure 5D-86. At its center is the main structure with the fantasy name of the Great Pyramid of the Lost World, Structure 5C-54 set within a large plaza, Plaza Alta. This structure is a truncated, radial pyramid that rises to a height of 98 feet/30 meters, and was one of the tallest structures built during the Maya Preclassic. It was decorated with stucco masks of the Sun god, and featured stairways on all four sides. On the east side of the plaza is a long, low platform of about 406 feet/124 meters in length housing eight structures including Structure 5D- 87, Temple of the Skulls. Structures 5C-84, 86, and 88, together with the main pyramid formed an “E Group”. These groups appear at other Preclassic sites and have astronomical associations related to the equinox and solstices.
The next largest structure in the Mundo Perdido complex is the Temple of the Talud Tablero, Structure 5C-49, so named for the style of its Central Mexico façade. It is located in the northwest corner of the plaza, and has a base of about 121 feet/37 meters per side. This pyramidal structure exhibits a south-facing central stairway that rises up to a three-chambered temple for a total height of 72 feet/22 meters. The temple chambers still retain incised graffiti etched into the interior walls. Several burials were located within the structure. The 1979 earthquake destroyed what little remained of the roof comb. A palace complex is located to the east of Structure 5C-49.
Excavations south of the Mundo Perdido in 2021 revealed a new pyramid complex identified through LiDAR technology which is revolutionizing field archaeology. A complex known as The Citadel, 6C-XVI was uncovered. This complex bears a strong resemblance to its namesake in Teotihuacan, though on a much smaller scale, and has been dated to around 200 CE. Many artifacts, and one tomb show a strong relationship with that city/state, and it was most likely a conclave of Teotihuacan merchants and nobles.
Excavations of the façade of the small platform on the north side of one of four courtyards that make up The Citadel complex have uncovered the remains of a long, brightly colored mural that features several individuals. It is divided by a central stairway, and has been named The Mural of the Ball Players. The west side of the façade is the best preserved, and displays deities or deity impersonators garbed in ball game attire.
Another notable find is associated with the 6C-XVI Complex. A very impressive stone ball court marker known as the Marcador has revealed important glyphic information regarding the arrival of Siyaj K’ahk in 378 CE. It measures about 3 feet/1 meter in height, and is carved in a clear Teotihuacan style.
The Plaza of the Seven Temples is adjacent east of the Mundo Perdido complex. A series of structures ring a large plaza and includes 3 ball courts and seven small temple structures that gives the group its name. The ball courts are on the north side of the plaza, and are arranged in a unique, shared arrangement. The seven near identical temple structures are located on the east side of the plaza, with the central temple structure being the exception, and larger. The south and west sides of the plaza are taken up by one-story palace-type structures. Structures 91 and 92 are on the south side of the plaza with structure 91 exhibiting a nicely carved stone mask. Adjoining the east side of the complex is a very large, unexcavated acropolis known as the South Acropolis.
To the northeast of the Grand Plaza is located Complex Q and Complex R. Both of these complexes were built to commemorate Katun period endings (approximately 20 years), and feature twin pyramids. Complex Q is built around a central plaza and has a nicely restored, radial pyramid on the east side of the plaza rising up on five tiers. Central stairways lead up to a flat summit. Several stelae and their accompanying altars are set up in front of the westside of the structure.
On the north side of the plaza is a possible open-air structure known as the North Enclosure. This structure has a central entryway that houses a prominently displayed stela, Stela 22, and its accompanying altar, Altar 10. The stela portrays ruler Yax Nuun Ayiin II performing a Katun ending, scattering ritual dating to 188.8.131.52.0 13 Ahaw 18 Kumku, January 22, 771 CE. A range type structure is found on the south side of the plaza and exhibits nine entryways. A second pyramid on the west side of the plaza has not been fully restored.
There are a number of other groups and individual structures found throughout the cleared area of Tikal. Among them: The South Acropolis (unexcavated), Group G, Group H, the Bat Palace and Complex N (twin pyramids).
The city had a sophisticated water management system which included reservoirs, canals, dams, and a sand filtration system. The filtration system consisted of a mix of the mineral zeolite and crystalline quartz. It is the oldest known filtration system in the Americas, and the use of zeolite is the oldest known use for water purification in the world. Towards the end of Late Classic the Palace Reservoir became heavily polluted through the runoff of cinnabar, a red substance based on mercury that was used extensively to paint the sites structures and monuments.
There are numerous stelae that were located throughout the site. Some of the more important ones are mentioned below.
Stela 29 has the earliest recorded date at Tikal, and indeed of the Maya Lowlands. It has a Maya Long Count date of 184.108.40.206.15 13 Men 3 Sip, which is equivalent to July 6, 292 CE, and displays a ritual scene by the ruler known as Foliated Jaguar.
Stela 31dates to January 378 CE, and announces the accession of the ruler Siyaj Chan K’awill I at Uaxactun. It has glyphs on all four sides, and is the longest text to survive anywhere from the Early Classic Period (250-400 CE).
Stela 11was the last carved stelae to be erected at Tikal. It records a date of 869 CE, and was commissioned by the ruler Jasaw Chan K’awiil II.
updated February 2023
temple IV jorge perez de lara
jade mask burial 169 IDEAH
central acropolis dennis jarvis
central acropolis simon burchell
stela 31 greg willis
structure 5 D-73 tomb 196 nicholas hellmuth
north acropolis dennis jarvis
complex Q stela 22 simon burchell
group G ogwen
plaza of the 7 temples erick martin del campo
painted tomb structure 33 shook/kidder
citadel mural detail PAST
temple V avila
structure 34 north acropolis simon burchell
altar 5 hjpd
temple IV ogwen
mundo perdido site plan
temple II babakoto.edu
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mundo perdido tikal park
temple V ogwen
site map gifex
temple III c.1881 teoberto maler
temple I 1895 alfred maudslay
marcador janice van cleve
pyramid of the lost world erick martin del campo
complex Q east pyramid erick martin del campo
structure 33 tikal project penn museum
north acropolis elislicht
complex Q north enclosure erick martin del campo
grand plaza kimonBerlin
stela 9 deagostini
temple I raymond ostertag
mundo perdido structure 5C-49 steven newton
temple VI mtsrs
temple V 1848 eusebio lara
maler palace central acropolis erick martin del campo
temple IV lintel 3 jose fernando
temple I karl herbert mayer