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The site of Tikal is located in the rainforest environment of the Petén region of modern Guatemala and was occupied continuously from approximately 900 BC until the Terminal Classic period. Tikal first rose to prominence during the Late Preclassic period, 300 BC - 250 AD. During this period, building construction was focused on the North Acropolis, which would become the standard burial place for rulers at this site.

Photo of a Greenstone Mask and a link to Dr. Linda Schele's Biography page Evidence from Burial 85 in Temple 33 from the North Acropolis indicates that, already by the Late Preclassic period, Tikal rulers were participating within a standard, Maya vocabulary of rulership that would persevere throughout the Classic period. In this burial was a greenstone mask that depicts a face wearing the crown of rulership, with central trefoil shape and two side celts, which identified the wearer as an ahaw or "ruler." This crown could also be depicted in a personified version known as the "Jester God" headband, as on this jade pectoral from Dumbarton Oaks. drawing of the Dumbarton Oaks jade verso and a link to FAMSI

Drawing of Structure 5D-33-2nd By the Early Classic period, architectural sculpture from Temple 5D-33-2nd indicates that Tikal continued to employ iconographic conventions that would have been easily understood by many audiences. This façade depicts a conflation of two important motifs, Sustenance Mountain and Snake Mountain. Together, these symbols identified Tikal as a place of creation that also had the divine right to perform acts of warfare. Such iconography also compares closely to that found at other sites, such as Waxactún.

Photo of Structure 46 corridor and bench

Cache photo

In the 4th century AD, a powerful ruler named Chak-Tok-Ich'aak or Great Jaguar Paw, acceded to the throne. His palace, constructed on the Central Acropolis of Tikal, appears to have been revered as an ancestor house by later Tikal rulers who preserved it for centuries. It exhibits many standard features of Classic Maya palaces, including interior benches upon which the ruler would have sat to conduct business and ritual affairs, attended by his retinue of officials, scribes, and other members of the court. One can imagine that scenes similar to this one from a Classic Maya vessel took place within the confines of Chak-Tok-Ich'aak's palace. Stairways on either end of the palace, which led to the second story, contained caches. One cache included a vessel that depicts Maize God imagery and includes a hieroglyphic text naming Chak-Tok-Ich'aak. Photo of Structure 5D-46

Photo of Maya vessel with court scene

Photo of of North Acropolis Chak-Tok-Ich'aak was eventually buried in the North Acropolis at Tikal like his predecessors before him. In fact, he was buried along the central axis of the North Acropolis, directly in line with Burial 85, which contained the greenstone mask and remains of an earlier Tikal ruler.

Drawinf of Vessle showing arrival of Teotihuacanos
The Influence of Teotihuacan

The demise of Chak-Tok-Ich'aak appears to have been directly related to a series of events that transpired at Tikal, and at other sites throughout the Maya heartland, at the end of the 4th century. Recent hieroglyphic and iconographic evidence suggests that a group of foreigners, bearing titles and insignia associated with the site of Teotihuacan, arrived in the year 378 AD. A blackware vessel from Tikal may depict the arrival of just such a group at a Maya city, presumably Tikal. Several iconographic details on this vessel suggest very strongly that the six individuals are Teotihuacanos. This arrival event in the late 4th century seems to have been linked directly to the death of Chak-Tok-Ich'aak and the implementation of an iconographic and stylistic scheme that bears great affinities to that of Teotihuacan.

Drawing of Tikal Stela 31 front and sides This same Teotihuacan influence appears on Tikal Stela 31, a later monument that dates to the middle of the 5th century and retrospectively recorded the events of 378 AD. Stela 31 depicts the Tikal ruler, Siyaj Chan K'awiil II ("Stormy Sky") on the front, who acceded to the throne in 411 AD. On either side of the stela are portraits of his father Yax Nuun Ayiin I ("Curl Snout"). Yax Nuun Ayiin I is shown wearing a Teotihuacan costume closely associated with warfare at that site. Although the front of the stela depicts a very Maya rendition of Siyaj Chan K'awiil II, it still subtly references Teotihuacan: the headdress that the ruler holds aloft carries the "Spearthrower Owl" symbol which is related to warfare at the site of Teotihuacan.

drawing of Group 6C-XVI shrine The influence of Teotihuacan was also seen in the architecture of Tikal. In a residential suburb of Tikal a shrine was constructed with a distinctly Teotihuacano talud-tablero façade. The stone effigy banner erected on top of the shrine bears the date 416 AD and, like Stela 31, retrospectively records the arrival events of 378 AD. Importantly, marking the center of the banner's feathered fringe medallion is the "Spearthrower Owl" motif that carries distinct references to Teotihuacan-style warfare. Ddetail photo of battle banner and link to CHAAAC

Late Classic Tikal

The years 500 - 700 AD are not well understood at Tikal, as few monuments have been found that date to this period. What is known, however, is that in the year 562 AD, Tikal appears to have been attacked by the site of Calakmul. Following this defeat, Tikal plunged into a long 130-year period, known as the Hiatus, in which no monuments appear to have been erected.

drawing of Structure 5D-57 frieze

This Hiatus period came to an end under the reign of a new Tikal ruler, Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil, whose sculptural and architectural building campaigns helped to restore Tikal to its former glory. The most significant event of Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil's reign was his defeat of Calakmul in 695 AD. He celebrated this victory over his arch rival in a stucco frieze on Structure 5D-57. Interestingly, in this architectural decoration, Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil departed from standard Classic Maya conventions and instead reverted to the Teotihuacan style of 4th and 5th century Tikal. On the stucco frieze, Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil depicts his captive in a typically Maya way, bound by a rope with hands tied back in a posture of humiliation. However, Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil chose to portray himself in a very rigid, rectilinear, and frontal style that recalls Teotihuacan conventions. It is interesting that the victorious Tikal ruler chose to invoke, albeit awkwardly, a style associated with Teotihuacan despite the fact that this Central Mexican site had collapsed by this point in time. By using this style, Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil was undoubtedly associating his victory with the great political achievements of his 4th and early 5th century ancestors.

Photo of Temple I Carved bone with transportation of Maize God/link to FAMSI
Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil is also famous for constructing Temples I and II, which face each other across the Great Plaza at Tikal. Temple I was constructed as his mortuary monument, and upon his death he was buried beneath this towering pyramid. Included in the rich burial were jades, pearls, shells, an array of jewelry, vessels, and a series of carved bones, one of which depicts a passage from the Classic Maya creation story in which the Maize God was transported to the place of his resurrection.

Temple I, like Temple II, contains carved wooden lintels that managed to survive the rigors of time and termites. Lintel 3 from Temple I depicts a celebration that took place following the defeat of Calakmul, in which the victorious Tikal ruler is seated upon the captured Calakmul palanquin or litter. Behind him looms an enormous jaguar, the patron deity of Tikal. photo of Temple I, wooden Lintel 3

Photo of Temple II
Facing Temple I at the opposite end of the Great Plaza is Temple II. Its carved wooden lintel depicts a royal woman, perhaps Jasaw-Chan-K'awiil's principal wife.


Freidel, David, Linda Schele and Joy Parker. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, pp.73-74; 244-246; 263; 296-303; 310-317; 323-324. New York: William Morrow.

Harrison, Peter D. 1999. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. London and New York: Thames and Hudson.

Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. 2000. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya, pp. 24-53. London: Thames and Hudson.

Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews. 1998. The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, pp. 63-94. New York: ScribnerÕs.

Stuart, David. 2000. "'The Arrival of Strangers': Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History," in Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Great Aztec Temple, edited by Davíd Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions, pp. 465-513. Boulder: University of Colorado Press.