Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 28, 2000
Peter Harrison The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City Thames and Hudson, 1999. 12 color ills.; 127 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0500050945)

As anyone who has seen the 1977 film Star Wars can attest, the ruined Maya city of Tikal in northern Guatemala presents a dramatic spectacle. Stephen Spielberg used the image of the site’s massive temples poking above the forest canopy to portray the secret rebel base. Tikal is Guatemala’s most visited tourist attraction, and has fascinated both the general public and Mayanists since its discovery in the 1850s. Thanks to the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project in the 1950s and 1960s, and to the Guatemalan national project in the 1980s, Tikal is also one of the best known Maya cities, archaeologically speaking. Peter Harrison’s Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City is an important addition to the literature on this site, written by a veteran of the Penn Tikal Project.

Lords of Tikal is the latest installment in Thames and Hudson’s popular New Aspects of Antiquity series. As in other volumes in this series, Harrison’s presents a general treatment enlivened by discussions of the latest theories and archaeological discoveries. The book is well-made and features excellent photographs, line drawings, plans, and dramatic reconstruction views. Harrison’s clearly written prose includes many comments aimed at the visitor, such as the best spots at the ruins to observe the rising sun. Even a cursory visit to Tikal requires two days. At its eighth-century apogee, Tikal covered more than 65 square kilometers and supported a population of about 100,000. Considering these statistics, it is surprising that no comprehensive site guide has yet appeared. In the 1940s, the great Maya archaeologist Sylvanus Morley planned a Tikal guide modeled on his 1935 guide to the ruins of Quirigua. Unfortunately, Morley’s guide remained unwritten at his death in 1948. More recently, Tikal Project director William Coe published a short guide in 1967 (revised 1988) and Nicholas Hellmuth released a thin volume in 1978. None of these guides ever reached the audience normally targeted by commercial presses like Thames and Hudson. Lords of Tikal was even featured as a monthly selection in the History Book Club.

Professional Americanists will also find much to recommend this volume. Pre-Columbian art history is so closely linked to archaeology that advances in iconographic studies often go hand in hand with the latest discoveries. And since the 1960s, many projects at larger sites include professional art historians and epigraphers, experts at reading Maya hieroglyphs. So perhaps the most important contribution of Lords of Tikal is its summary of the findings of the Penn and Guatemalan Tikal Project archaeologists in an easily accessible text. Otherwise those interested must wade through dense archaeological reports or hunt down thirty year old issues of Penn’s Expedition Magazine or of the National Geographic Magazine (e.g December 1975).

Harrison relates the history of Tikal in thirteen chapters, beginning with the earliest occupation of the site around 800 B.C. We arrive at the threshold of written history in the fifth chapter and with Early Classic Period Stela 29, securely dated by its text at A.D. 292. The arrival of envoys at Tikal from the far off Central-Mexican city of Teotihuacan in A.D. 378 was easily the signal event of this period. Harrison reviews the most recent theories of epigraphers David Stuart, Nikolai Grube, and Simon Martin that Teotihuacan may have sent a prince to Tikal to refound or perhaps usurp the existing dynasty. These new interpretations confirm the initial hypotheses presented decades ago by Tikal Project archaeologists. For two or three generations beginning at the close of the fourth century, elite Tikal tombs contain ceramics and other goods which either originated at Teotihuacan or are so similar in form and decoration that they could have been made there. The stelae (nos. 5 and 31) and tombs (nos. 10 and 48) of the rulers Curl Snout and Stormy Sky form the focus of the Tikal-Teotihuacan story.

Harrison addresses the question of the Tikal Hiatus in the eighth chapter. Not a single dated inscription survives at Tikal for some 120 years beginning in A.D. 562. Early archaeologists like Morley found this silence so compelling that they hypothesized that all Maya cities suffered a mini-collapse during this interval. Recently discovered inscriptions in nearby Belize and Mexico explain that Tikal’s silence was the result of repeated conquests by rival cities during the Hiatus. No texts survive from this period because destruction of a site’s monuments often followed defeat on the battlefield.

Tikal’s Hiatus also allows Harrison to introduce what could be called “superstate theory,” one of the more interesting advances in studies of Maya realpolitik. Earlier writers hypothesized that Maya cities were comparable to Classical Greek city-states, with all of their internecine warfare and constantly shifting alliance structures. Now the epigraphers Grube and Martin have convincing evidence drawn from the inscriptions that a few super-states dominated the Classic Maya political geography (see Archaeology Magazine 48(6), 1995, and their forthcoming monograph Chronicle of the Maya Kings). Massive cities like Tikal and Calakmul controlled dozens of smaller sites and often conducted military campaigns against one another through these subordinate centers. The reconstructed scenario bears a superficial resemblance to the Cold and Hot Wars of the twentieth-century Soviet Union and the United States.

By the end of the seventh century, an energetic king named Hasaw-Chan-K’awil (or Ruler A for short) extricated Tikal from the defeats and enforced silence of the Hiatus. Ruler A figures prominently in the second half of Lords of Tikal as Harrison’s “Great Man.” He acceded to the throne in A.D. 682 and by the time of his death some fifty years later had renovated both Tikal’s international image and its internal architectural configuration. Rather like Augustus’s feat of transforming Rome from a city of mud to one of marble, Ruler A left a city of palaces and established the pattern of the Great Temples. In the Main Plaza, he commissioned Temples I, II, and 5D-33, the first built to house his own tomb. The kings who followed Ruler A in the eighth century built four additional Great Temples, which together with the prototypes created Tikal’s distinctive skyline.

Harrison presents his own latest research in the penultimate chapter, where he continues the discussion of Tikal’s architectural history begun earlier in chapter seven. This chapter develops his theory that the ancient Maya planned their cities using a method of triangulation from existing structures. Briefly stated, after surveying every major structure at the site, Harrison argues that the Tikal Maya sited new buildings by projecting one of several kinds of triangles from the central points of principal facades of two carefully selected earlier structures. The resulting triangle apex determines the placement of center point of the facade of the new building. Some examples using clearly attributed structures demonstrate that later buildings were sited with reference to important ancestral shrines. So triangles drawn on the Tikal site plan could allow researchers to attribute previously undated structures to specific rulers known from the hieroglyphs.

What kind of evidence have archaeologists discovered to support Harrison’s contention that the ancient Maya cared about triangulating and surveying their structures? The inscriptions are silent on this topic, and previous writers have argued for alignments only in a general way. Mary Miller suggested in 1985 that the physical placement of the Tikal Great Temples likely reflected the progression of the dynasty through the eighth century. Each new king built a Great Temple with reference to those of his ancestors. Thus the son’s and grandson’s temples would be framed by his parents or forebears much as some Maya sculptures portray kings seated between parents. More generally, Vincent Scully and Mary Miller have noted that many Precolumbian peoples often oriented structures toward clefted mountains. Many other researchers have argued for astronomical orientations. And finally, most recently, several Mayanists presented discussions of how triads of closely associated structures may replicate the all-important three stones of the Maya hearth. Modern-day Maya view the hearth as the sacred center of their world, and can even find a cosmic hearth overhead every night in the constellation Orion. Good evidence suggests that these associations are ancient in the Maya region. Returning to Harrison’s discussion, if he is correct in his discoveries and in their interpretation, they could prove useful in attributing the vast majority of structures at every Maya site without associated inscriptions or convincing archaeological stratigraphy.

Lords of Tikal is ultimately a valuable addition to both Maya studies and to the more general literature of American art and archaeology. Although this is not a study which undertakes serious iconographic analysis of the art of Tikal, its role as a detailed summary of the current state of archaeological knowledge about this site will be applauded by experts and amateurs alike.

Khristaan D. Villela
College of Santa Fe, New Mexico