martedì 23 aprile 2013

Part II: The Road to El Mirador

March 19, 2013
Camino El Tintal - Mirador, Petén, Northern Guatemala

A small metal plaque along the ancient Maya road (Sacbè) between Tintal and Mirador marks the entrance of the Mirador National Park and the protected biotope of the Maya rainforest
We leave Tintal in the early morning, after a rich tortilla-based breakfast at the camp. Porters will take care of packing tents and food supplies and loading our equipment on the mules. We will be walking the 28 Km to Mirador mostly along an ancient Sacbé (pl. Sacbeob, meaning white road in the Maya language), a large raised limestone causeway used to connect distant centers. Even though the ancient causeway is now largely overgrown by the jungle, its straight line path is still clearly recognizable as it rises an average of 5 to 7 meters above the surrounding canopy, with a width reaching at times as much as 30 to 40 meters. This way the path was protected from flooding and still retains much of the original impermeable white plaster coating.
Several ancient settlements and fortified guard posts stood along the way. Each guard post had the shape of a vast quadrangle, surrounded by moats. Usually a small raised platform, similar to a truncated pyramid, stood in the middle to serve as an observation post. A Sacbé was clearly first and foremost a communication route connecting distant cities. Yet the scale and the amount of work involved by their construction is staggering even by modern terms. One wonders whether some other function was at play here, something that would also relate the Sacbeob to the stars.   
As we approach the great city of El Mirador, a large number of earth-covered mounds flank the way. A small metal plaque placed along the trail signals the entrance to the protected biotope of the Mirador Basin national park. Near a place called El Paraiso, the ancient Maya causeway reaches its highest elevation, at some 20 meters above the surrounding jungle canopy. Several ancient stone quarries are located in the vicinities of El Paraiso, with large trenches and pits dug into the soft limestone.
A few miles afterwards, the first ruins we encounter are those of La Muerta, once a suburb of the great capital of El Mirador.   

A thick Jungle covers much of the ancient Maya road between Tintal and Mirador. Still, the difference in elevation between the Sacbé and the sorrounding jungle can reach at points up to 20 meters and is usually between 5 and 7 meters. The scale of this ancient ceremonial network is such that it can be still clearly appreciated even from satellite pictures taken from Space.
Within the jungle, it is not unusual to spot a deer or a tapir, or the much more common wild turkey. An estimate of 400 jaguars, the largest population in Central America, live within the boundaries of the Mirador National Park, even though jaguars hardly ever attack humans.
Mules can also be used to ride for part of the trail, especially in the heat of the day  (here with our cocinera Dona Marta). Low branches sticking out of trees and the uneven terrain however require to pay constant attention to the trail ahead.

La Muerta

The ruins of La Muerta consist of a small pyramid and a building interpreted as a palace or temple. The pyramid is striking for its similarity to constructions in Tikal, especially those facing the Plaza of the Seven Temples (see this preceding article for a description of the ruins at Tikal). It has a short, yet very steep stairway, and a temple on top surmounted by a high comb – another characteristic typical of Tikal architecture. This small pyramid provides some interesting insight into the ancient Maya construction techniques. The fill that constitutes the core of the structure is largely made of smaller stones cemented together, while the outer casing has the appearance of finely dressed stone cut into rectangular blocks. Much of the stone required for construction was sourced locally, from large pits and quarries dug into the limestone bedrock. Cement was also made by heating limestone with the help of large quantities of charcoal and firewood.

The small pyramid in La Muerta, still partly covered by vegetation, was built in a style which is very much reminescent of similar constructions in Tikal. A short stairway leads to the first terrace, from where a second stairway climbs up to the temple on top, which may have once supported a large comb. The exterior of the building was covered in a fine limestone casing that was then stuccoed over and painted red. 
The other building, similar to a small palace accessed by means of a short stairway, has largely collapsed. The most interesting feature of this compound is a complex of subterranean chambers which still retain much of the original plastering and corbelled vaults. A short descending corridor leads into two interconnected chambers with traces of burials. Several niches or loculi were dug into the walls to host the bodies of the deceased, but they are now mostly filled with rubble. Light and breathable air was provided through some small square openings piercing the thick limestone walls and leading to the outside. Between the 7th and 9th Century, after centuries of abandonment, La Muerta was briefly resettled probably by people from the nearby city of Tikal, who turned most of the temples and pyramids into residential quarters for the nobility.

After passing La Muerta, we encounter one of the many ancient quarries in El Mirador, which is connected to the acropolis by means of a large ramp reaching a considerable height above the canopy. Not far from here a large rock-cut monument lies in fragments amidst the roots of giant trees. The gigantic slab measures more than 4 meters on each side and though broken into pieces still bear the clearly readable contours of a jaguar face and claws. A line of hieroglyphics, some of the oldest ever found at any Maya site, is especially notable for bearing the glyph of the Snake, “Kan” in the ancient Maya language, which associated with the ruling dynasty of Mirador gave its name to the entire kingdom – the Kingdom of Kan – and possibly to its great Capital – the City of the Snake –. 
Our guide Hugo points at lines of ancient hieroglyphics on the great stela of the Kingdom of Kan, which lies broken and scattered into pieces on the jungle floor. The stela is believed to represent a giant jaguar face with a claw ready to strike, possibly a dynastic attribute.

The Kingdom of the Snake

Very little is known on the early history of the Kingdom of Kan in the lowlands of Northern Guatemala. Its earliest capital, Nakbé, was already a major seat of power in the early Pre-Classic period, about 1000 BC. Mirador was probably founded shortly thereafter by people from Nakbé, with Tintal as a satellite city further to the South. No complete king list has been found to reconstruct the history of the Kingdom of Kan, which was apparently one of the most complex and sophisticated Maya states. A number of monuments bearing hieroglyphic inscriptions have been uncovered at Mirador itself and other archaeological sites in the Mirador basin.  A building located close to entrance of the Central Acropolis of El Mirador is of particular interest to the history of the Kingdom of Kan. It has the shape of a large stone platform where a number of stele bearing royal glyphs and stuccoed decorations were apparently encased in the outer masonry. Archeologists think this structure may have served as a coronation platform for the crowning and consecration of kings. They cite as a proof the presence of a large throne carved out of a plastered block of limestone in front of which traces of incense and other burnt offerings have been found. As of today, most of the inscriptions found at El Mirador, some of the earliest known in the entire Maya world, are yet to be deciphered and may yield important clues on the early history of the Kingdom of Kan.
This colossal uninscribed monolith is one of the largest stelae found at El Mirador, weighting several tons.  Being placed on raised ground near one of the entrances to the ancient capital, it was possibly used as an important marker for astronomical observations as it could have been clearly seen from the pyramid of El Tigre and the Central Acropolis.
Elsewhere, a large number of inscribed monuments have been found in various stages of ruin. Most of these seem to have fallen victim of a deliberate destruction, as they were clearly broken and scattered into pieces. Recently, archaeologist Richard Hansen believes he has found proof of a large scale battle fought within the ceremonial center of El Mirador and on top one of its largest pyramid, that of El Tigre. Over 200 obsidian tips were found scattered in various points on top of the great pyramid alone, hinting at a large scale battle fought between a local dynasty and invaders from the Mexican highlands. Analyses suggest that the obsidian came from a source hundreds of miles away in the valley of Mexico, close to the great city of Teotihuacan [1]. This seems to suggest that an alliance of Maya city-states led by Tikal under the influence of Teotihuacan may have been responsible for the sudden collapse of El Mirador in 150 AD. Traces of devastation on an unprecedented scale can be found everywhere in the gigantic site. The stelae and the carved stone monuments were deliberately overthrown and smashed to pieces, while a number of graffiti bearing the effigy of the rain-God Tlaloc are additional evidence of invasion from Teotihuacan. Not even the larger temples were spared: the giant stucco masks decorating the temple facades were broken and vandalized, as were the grand temple stairways and plazas. Entire buildings seem to have been systematically thrown down and destroyed with violence hitherto unknown in the Maya world. Yet hints suggest that Mirador was already a much impoverished city at the time of its collapse in 150 AD, with perhaps only a few thousand people living amidst the ruins of a city that might have been home to hundreds of thousands a mere century before. In the intention of the conquerors, nothing would be allowed to survive to perpetuate the memory of the Kingdom of Kan and its once great capital of Mirador. True to the intentions of its conquerors, Mirador never recovered; its ruins slowly forgotten and taken over by the jungle. Exactly what brought the Kingdom of Kan to an end is not known. There may have been decades of severe draught, or other environmental problems caused by excessive deforestation. Political causes and war with Teotihuacan and neighboring city states for the control over the region may have struck the death blow to the already waning power of El Mirador.   
With the exception of a brief reoccupation of some structures about 700 AD, probably by people from Tikal, Mirador laid abandoned for almost 1300 years until the time of its rediscovery.     


Our final resting point for the day, Camp El Mirador, located right below the Monos complex  at the margin of the great ruined city of El Mirador. No more than a few tents and hammocks. 

[1] Guatemala Mayan City may have ended in Pyramid battle, by Sarah Grainger, Reuters, Thursday September 3, 2009. Retrieved on April 4, 2013. Link:

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