Re-evaluation of the Earthworks at Tikal, Guatemala, Phase 2

Project: Research project

Project Details


War is so widespread that it is, for all practical purposes, a universal human behavior, especially among complex societies. Until quite recently the Classic Lowland Maya (AD. 250-900) were perceived to be an exception to this rule. A major blow to the 'peaceful Maya' perspective was the 1966 discovery of impressive earthworks associated with the huge center of Tikal, located in the forests of northeastern Guatemala. These earthworks were many kilometers in length, and along with flanking swamps were interpreted as fortifications that defended an agricultural hinterland some 120 sq km in area. More importantly, they represented a blatant (and unique) statement by the Maya themselves concerning what parts of the ancient environment were important to them.

Inscriptions and art have since confirmed that intense forms of Maya

warfare existed, and archaeologists have documented many other defensive systems. For almost 40 years, however, the Tikal earthworks were ignored. Much was assumed about them and their significance, but very little was known. Generous NSF support enabled Dr. David Webster and colleagues to return to Tikal in 2003 to properly map the earthworks and search for missing sections. They discovered new parts of the system, which now is almost 26 km long and forms a rough polygon that plausibly encloses at least 200 sq km. The team also mapped a 250 m wide and 12.8 km long corridor of ancient settlement associated with the earthwork. The research in part constituted a test of new GIS/GPS technologies and their usefulness in rugged tropical forest conditions, where they worked extremely well.

The current 2005 project will build on these discoveries by mapping large blocks of settlement associated with the new earthwork segments, as well the earthwork itself. The work will extend the eastern side of the perimeter, and find the hitherto missing southern boundary. In all, it is suspected that the earthwork system might be 50-60 km long---one of the biggest single construction projects ever undertaken by ancient Mesoamericans. Of critical importance is dating this system, which was likely built in the mid-6th century. Detailed mapping will allow assessment of suggestions that the earthwork had non-defensive functions (such as an irrigation

channel) and will also increase understanding of how such a perimeter could have been built and defended by a local population that probably numbered only 20,000-30,000 people. Innovative methods of soils analysis will provide chemical signatures of the agricultural production used in and near Tikal. The research will also constitute a purely archaeological test of Tikal's dynastic and military history as recorded in inscriptions.

This project has both culture-historical and theoretical implications. It will allow construction of labor estimates that contribute to an understanding of the scale of political centralization of a major Maya polity. If the earthworks are in fact fortifications, they will reveal much about ancient Maya military strategies and tactics. The research will integrate recent remote sensing imagery produced by a joint NASA/NSF (AIRSAR) project. The imagery will be used to search for missing parts of the earthwork, but the results will test the potential of such remote sensing in forested tropical environments. The ultimate payoff, once the chronology is secure, will be the ability to apply GIS models of land use, agricultural production, and demography as a new generation of remote sensing provides unparalleled topographic and environmental information.

Effective start/end date2/15/051/31/07


  • National Science Foundation: $172,494.00


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