Surprises at Tikal

Updated: Jun 28


The great Maya city of Tikal (in today’s Guatemala) has long been recognized as a major city-state and extensively excavated. However, airborne LiDAR scanning – with its ability to ‘see through’ the thick forests of the Maya homeland – has added a surprising twist to its story.


The LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) survey has revealed a pyramid buried under soil and thick vegetation; part of a neighbourhood surrounded by smaller buildings. Yet the shape and orientation of the buildings in the complex were quite different to those elsewhere in Tikal. In fact, close examination suggests that they are a half-sized replica of ‘The Citadel’, an enormous open space at the highland Maya city-state of Teotihuacán, some 800 miles west of Tikal.


You may recall that The Citadel at Teotihuacán includes the spectacular Feathered Serpent Pyramid. When archaeologist Edwin Román Ramírez tunneled into the mysterious complex, his team uncovered fourth-century AD pottery and weaponry typical of Teotihuacán. There was even an incense burner decorated with the image of the Teotihuacán rain god, and spear points made from green obsidian from distant Central Mexico.


We have long known that Tikal had significant ties to the highland city of Teotihuacán, a superpower in the volatile world of Mesoamerican civilizations. Now it appears those ties may have been much closer. It looks as though a group of people who were very familiar with the highland city had created a version of it in the heart of Tikal. But why? Were they living in a colony? A trading enclave? A diplomatic complex? Or was something else going on? Hopefully ongoing excavations will provide the answer.


Image: The extensively excavated main plaza at Tikal.

Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen