lunedì 29 aprile 2013

Part III: The Great Pyramid

March 20, 2013
El Mirador

After spending the previous night at the camp close to the main ceremonial center of El Mirador, we finally headed off to explore the rest of the gigantic site. Watching sunrise on the morning of the Spring Equinox from the top of the great pyramid of El Tigre, we were surprised to observe the sun rising a few degrees to the left of the pyramid of La Danta. For some reason, we expected to see a somehow exact alignment on the day of the Spring Equinox, which however did not occur. We had no instrument to measure the angle that the sun formed with the pyramid of La Danta as seen from El Tigre, yet it could have been somewhere in the order of 4 or 5 degrees. Certainly further research will be needed on the point of solar and astronomic alignments at El Mirador. 
The sun rises over the jungle on the morning of the Spring Equinox. The great pyramid of LaDanta, shrouded in the morning mist, lies a few degrees to the South from a perfect alignment with the rising Sun as seen from the pyramid of El Tigre
A reconstruction drawing at the bottom of the pyramid of El Tigre illustrates the complex layout of structures and plazas sorrounding the great triadic pyramid in the middle. All the pictures that follow were taken from on top of the uppermost platform circled in the diagram. The Orion correlation theory is also illustrated above, both in the general layout of the structures on the ground and by the angle formed between the three triadic pyramids on top. 
The first rays of the Sun hit the tip of the main triadic pyramid on the uppermost truncated platform of El Tigre.  Recent excavations have revealed a well preserved stone stairway beneath the centuries old structure, now covered with plastic sheets as a protection from the weather. 
Two smaller pyramids rise on both sides of the main pyramid on the uppermost platform,  forming the usual triadic pattern believe to represent the sacred triangle of the constellation of Orion - the place of Origins. Recent excavations have exposed much of the original stonework and part of the stuccoed decoration of this smaller pyramid. 
The three triadic pyramids rest on a gigantic truncated platform forming the complex of El Tigre.  This platform, more than 50 meters high, is the third largest in El Mirador after that of La Danta and the Central Acropolis, and the second highest. It could easily contain the whole Grand Plaza of Tikal. 
A map and panel welcomes visitor at the entrance to the main ceremonial center of El Mirador.
        Short after descending from the pyramid of El Tigre, we encounter Structure 34, also called “Templo Garra de Jaguar – Jaguar’s Paw Temple” because of the stuccoed decorations on the outside. It is one of the most iconic structures at El Mirador, and one of the earliest discovered and to be cleared of vegetation. In spite of its relatively small size, this temple must have played a very important role in royal rituals at El Mirador. Construction of the structure was probably started in 300 BC, even though the temple bears traces of having been built on top of an earlier structure. This temple reveals the full complexity reached by Pre-classic architecture, almost 1000 years earlier than it had been previously thought possible in the lowlands of Guatemala. The upper platform consists of a large temple that must have had a corbel ceiling, and two smaller altar-temples forming a triadic structure (one of the earliest known examples of this arrangement). The stuccoed decoration consists of large glyphs in the shape of a Jaguar’s paw and giant masks, possibly portraying rulers. Traces of red paint can still be seen on top of the stucco. Evidence suggests that a ruler by the name of Yok'noom Yi'ch'ak K'ak or "Great Flaming Jaguar Claw” was responsible for the construction of this temple as a dynastic shrine. At some point, probably around 100 BC, the whole structure was buried underneath a new masonry fill and re-oriented on a North-South axis following the re-arrangement of the grand plaza facing the pyramid of El Tigre. Excavations carried out near the base of the monument have revealed traces of much earlier structures. Archaeologist Richard Hansen found the remains of a wall that must have been buried some time after 200 BC. According to Hansen, “It's a triadic structure 17 meters high that is burying an even older building. […]This is an exposed wall. This has not seen the sun's light since 200 years before Christ. But when they buried it [the Maya], it was already in bad shape”. [1] At the time of our visit, a tunnel could be seen cut into the bedrock at the base of the monument, bearing all characteristics of ancient construction. According to our guide, archaeologists believe this tunnel, whose excavation is still undergoing, may lead to a royal grave deep within the structure, possibly that of the same king “Great Flaming Jaguar Claw” recorded in glyphs found inside the Temple. In 2008, conservation experts at the Mirador National Park erected a large metal and polycarbonate structure to shelter the temple and its fragile stucco decoration from the heavy rains that frequently occur in the region.  

Temple 34, originally facing a large plaza adjoining the pyramid of El Tigre and the Central Acropolis, dates to the pre-classic period and contains some of the earliest and best preserved stuccoed decorations in the Maya world. The giant glyph, repeated on both sides of the entrance stairway, is in fact a depiction of a Jaguar's claw, probably a dynastic symbol of the rulers of Mirador. 
On each side of the stairway, two stone and stucco masks, each over 3 meters high, depict perhaps  a deified ruler or a God with feline traits and protruding teeth and nose. The jaguar's claw glyphs to the left and to the right of each mask are placed in such a way as to resemble giant ears. 
Temple 34 as seen from the uppermost platform, which also contains two smaller pyramids. A modern  polycarbonate structure was built to shelter the delicate stuccoed decorations from the heavy rains.
        As we move further to the East, we approach the great Central Acropolis. Massive mounds covered by dirt and vegetation, some as much as 30 meters high, signal the location of buried pyramids and platforms. The whole Central Acropolis rests on a gigantic platform some 15 to 20 meters above the ground, measuring over 400 meters on its longest side and enclosing an area of some 85,000 m2 comprising over 15 structures.
Structure 313 shares the plaza with two smaller structures (Structures 314 and 315) flanking the main building in the typical triadic pattern. This structure is notable for being one of the few to be partially excavated within the Central Acropolis and for its complex stuccoed decoration. This building, whose earliest layers of occupation date to the early Pre-Classic, seems to have been used as a palace by the aristocratic elite. Several large stone masks decorate the exterior, many of which bearing traces of intentional destruction. 
Structure 313 was a palace for the ruling class, facing the grand Plaza on the central acropolis. It rises in several terraces up to a series of interconnected rooms on the upper platforms. With the exception of the water system, it is the only structure that has been at least partially cleared of dirt and vegetation in the area of the Central Acropolis. 
A large stuccoed stone mask, some 2 meters high, decorates the exterior of Structure 313 on the Central Acropolis.  The mask is again notable for the protruding nose and teeth. During the late pre-classic period, this section of the palace was apparently walled up for no apparent reason, covering much of the original stuccoed decoration that was therefore preserved under the fill. 
        A short distance from Structure 313, on the Central Acropolis, excavations revealed extensive remains of a Water System dating to the Pre-classic period, circa 300-200 BC. During the 2008 field season, excitement mounted as a large stuccoed panel began to emerge from the side of a stairway in a building on the Great Acropolis. The uncovered portion of the panel measures 8 meters long by 6 meters high, and contains depictions of aquatic monsters, fishes, together with an enigmatic figure identified as the "Old God" of Maya mythology and two characters which look as though they were swimming. A large part of the frieze was covered by a stairway built shortly thereafter, probably no later than 200 BC. The two swimming characters were no other than the hero twins of the Popol Vuh, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque. The finding served as a further confirmation of the extremely ancient origins of the Popol Vuh and the Maya myths of creation. In the scene, the twin heroes leave from the Underworld after defeating the Lords of Xibalba, while one of them is carrying the head of their father, Hun Hunahpu. The twin heroes are depicted in the moment of their victory over the Lords of Death, after vindicating their father and about to emerge from the Underworld to turn themselves into the Sun and the Moon. Archaeologists have also uncovered a set of pools complete with locks and drainage channels next to the mural. In the words of Craig Argyle, the archaeologist who first discovered the frieze, “there are no words to describe the beauty this building must have had with its frieze when a part of it was submerged under water, which flowed into the pools below, and where the flow of water allowed passers by to capture the movement of one of the hero twins as he swam upstream”. Other figurations contain an image of the “OId God”, portrayed with the body of a bird and a long beard, and several other images of rain and water deities. According to our guide, an additional layer of the mural, more than 5 meters high, still lays buried beneath the Pre-classic floor, containing a giant Jaguar face mask of which only the upper portion is currently visible.   

The famous frieze of the Twin Brothers from the Popol Vuh decorated the exterior of what must have been a pool of fresh water inside the city's water system. This magnificent relief contains a very complex iconography, with representations of a giant snake and several lesser gods and water creatures. 
        As we leave behind the Central Acropolis and proceed towards the Lion Pyramid, our attention is caught by a number of fragmentary stelae lying on the ground. All of the stelae must have been clearly smashed and broken into pieces as a result of a violent attack. It is still possible to see the scars left on the broken surface of the stelae by some kind of club or weapon. Some of the fragments contain depictions of warriors and a princess making offerings to the effigy of a God or King, which must have originally stood some 2-3 meters high. The few glyphs encountered on the stelae are largely insufficient to reconstruct the history of the rulers depicted. Archaeologist believe that several graffiti found on the stelae, consisting of a couple of round circles connected by lines, are in fact a stylized depiction of the God Tlaloc, the head God of Teotihuacan, probably brought here by invading Teotihuacan warriors - the same who were likely responsible for the stelae desecration.
On the northern side of the Acropolis, a platform built of large flagstones placed in a square arrangement marks the likely coronation spot of the Kings of Mirador and the Kingdom of Kan. From there, the King would have appeared in front of the crowd gathered in the underlying plaza. A large altar with traces of burnt offerings placed in front of a stuccoed throne must have served as the royal seat during the ceremony. Based on the traces of plaster found on the outside of the large flagstones composing the platform, it is likely that each flagstone served as a stela commemorating a specific ruler.   

Shedding light on an ancient mystery. Some of the stelae lie in rows forming a platform that was likely used for the consecration of the kings of Mirador or for public sacrifices. The delicate glyphs can only be seen under particular conditions of light and are barely legible. Still largely undeciphered, they may one day tell the history of this forgotten city and of its kings. 
        From there we moved to the next complex of buildings located next to the Lion Pyramid. This massive structure, more than 50 meters high, is now heavily ruined and still remains unexcavated. The large plaza in front of its Eastern stairway is surrounded by buildings and platforms on all sides. It is believed these structures served as Solstitial and Equinoctial markers, which would make the whole complex a gigantic solar calendar. The very ruined state of these structures does not allow for further speculation until a comprehensive excavation of this compound is carried out. A modern Maya altar was built in the middle of the plaza, where ceremonies are still carried out on specific days of the year - according to our guide.
To the East of the Lion pyramid, several pyramids and mounds comprise the Cascabel Group. The pyramids in this group appear to be steeper than the pyramids in the other groups, and of much more sleek construction. In some places the original stonework is still visible and one can easily make out the contours of the large temples on top from beneath the trees. Many of the walls seem to be built of cemented limestone fragments and smaller stones. However, there are also large limestone walls made of carefully fitted blocks of stone, some of which more than 1 meter long. The most notable pyramid in this group is called the “Little Danta”, because of its similarity to the much larger pyramid of La Danta further to the West. The structure, rising some 35 meters on top of a large platform, has also a triadic temple on top and is accessed by way of a very broad stairway which has been partly cut into the underlying bedrock. Some trenches have been dug at the base of the monuments to uncover the original level floor of the plaza. As of today much of this vast compound remains unexcavated and is still largely covered by vegetation.

The "Little Danta" is in fact a large pyramid approached by a broad stairway resembling that of La Danta. The original masonry consists of large limestone blocks, some of which as much as 2 meters long, carefully arranged in rows and plastered over. 
The pyramids in the Cascabel group are unusually steep and massive. Although still largely covered by dirt and vegetation, traces of the original stonework and limestone masonry are visible near the top and in trenches dug close to the base of the monuments. 
Some of the other pyramids in the Cascabel Group show a different style of construction consisting of massive  retention walls that were later filled with dirt and smaller pebbles. Much of these retention walls still survive intact underneath the jungle canopy.
        The Monos complex, located to the South of the Tigre pyramid, and the Pava group, closer to the great pyramid of La Danta, have been scarcely investigated, even though both pyramids reach an elevation of over 50 meters and face large plazas.
As the heat grows in the afternoon, we take some rest at the Camp eating wild oranges and other fruit gathered along the trail. Shortly thereafter we will be heading to the great pyramid of La Danta, some 4 Km to the East of the Camp and of the main ceremonial center.
Giant entangled tree roots along the ceremonial way to the pyramid of La Danta. Some of these trees can reach as high as a 15 storey building - hiding even the tallest structures from sight. 

The Great Pyramid

The most notable feature along the 4 Km stretch of the trail that separates the main ceremonial center and the Central Acropolis from the pyramid of La Danta, is a large defensive wall pierced by what must have been a fortified gate. The gate is directly connected to the Sacbé leading further East to the pyramid of La Danta and to Nakbé. The defensive wall was apparently surrounded by a moat and possessed several raised platforms serving as towers or observation posts placed at a regular distance from each other. This is a rather unique feature of this site, as very few other Maya cities possessed defensive walls, and almost none possessed towers along the perimeter of the wall. After a further 15-20 minutes’ walk, we finally approach the giant artificial platform supporting the pyramid of La Danta.

The approach to the Great Pyramid of La Danta as seen from below the first terrace. Even from a few hundred meters away, nothing can be seen except the thick jungle canopy hiding the monument from sight.
A very large stairway was partly built and partly cut into the natural bedrock on the approach to the great pyramid of La Danta. 
        The pyramid of La Danta can rightfully claim to be among the largest, if not the largest building in the ancient world by volume, standing at over 2.8 million cubic meters. The dimensions of these monumental complex are impressive: The pyramids itself rests on top of a gigantic platform measuring some 600 by 300 meters, forming a large plaza surrounded by temples and ceremonial structures. Much speculation surrounds the exact nature of this platform, whether entirely artificial or partly natural. If proven to be artificial, it would rank amongst the largest feats of engineering in human history. Accordingly, a similar level of debate surrounds the exact height of the pyramid of La Danta. While prudential estimates put it at 72 meters, this measurement does in fact only refer to the uppermost platform consisting of a giant triadic structure. If the whole four (or five) underlying terraces and platforms are considered, the total height of the monument would surpass 180 meters, making it not only the largest, but also the highest structure in the entire ancient World. Not surprisingly, archaeologist Richard Hansen, referring to the pyramid of La Danta in an interview released to CNN, calls it “An investment of labor unprecedented in the Ancient World”.

Exposed stonework on the sides of the pyramid of La Danta. The massive stone blocks employed in its construction have allowed the uppermost of the three triadic pyramids to survive almost intact over two thousand years of abandonment and weather erosion. 
From the uppermost terrace of La Danta, it is possible to truly appreciate the massive size of the largest triadic pyramid rising some 72 meters above the jungle canopy. The base of the pyramid lies buried over 4 meters below the present day jungle floor. Smaller chamber were added at a time when much of the monument had already collapsed and its base lie covered in a thick layer of debris.
The lower terrace of the pyramid contains further evidence of the massive stonework, together with remains of the original sculptured decoration, here in the shape of a giant mask with the familiar protruding teeth and nose. 
A much poorer quality masonry fill was added to the original limestone core of the pyramid  when new chambers were added to the lower terraces to accomodate a small residential community after the collapse of Mirador and the site abandonment. The contrast with the neatly fitted stones and layers of masonry in the background is striking and testifies to the advanced building techniques already in use during the Pre-Classic period. 
        The largest of the triadic pyramids on the top platform, still partly covered by trees, rises majestically over the jungle canopy. Again, giant stuccoed stone masks decorate the exterior of the pyramid, some of these clearly bearing the marks of violent destruction. The steep stairway that once led to the top of the pyramid has largely collapsed and is too dilapidated to climb. In its place, a wooden scaffolding was built by archaeologists on the opposite side of the pyramid, from which it is possible to reach up to the top of the monument. The view from the top is breathtaking, stretching over literally hundreds of miles of pristine rainforest.  From this vantage point, the contours of the ancient Maya roads and the profile of the distant ruins of Nakbé and Tintal can be clearly made out, fully revealing the true extent of this vast ruined network. Unlike most Maya structures, consisting of relatively small cemented stones, the casing stones of the pyramid of La Danta are massive, some reaching more than 1.5 meters long and very finely fitted together. The beauty of the ancient stonework can be fully appreciated in those parts of the monument that are relatively free from dirt and vegetation.

Again, the sun sets one more time over this city of the dead.          

Long way up. The impressive view over the treetops from the Pyramid of La Danta, possibly the largest in the world.  The pyramid projects a huge looming shadow over the sorrounding jungle, stretching far away as a giant green carpet.
A closer view of the upper terraces of La Danta. Without the protection of the original limestone casing, much of the interior fill has collapsed uncovering the masonry core of the pyramid.
The sun sets over the jungle from the pyramid of La Danta

[1] Mirador National Park website:, retrieved on April 19, 2013.

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