Lost ‘Foreign’ Neighbourhood Discovered at Ancient Maya City of Tikal

Lost ‘Foreign’ Neighbourhood Discovered at Ancient Maya City of Tikal
Lidar image showing the citadel within the newly discovered complex outlined in white. (Image: T. Garrison/PACUNAM/Antiquity)

Archaeologists in Guatemala have uncovered a previously unknown structural complex next to the ancient Maya city of Tikal. But this district didn’t belong to the Maya, as it seems a foreign power was flexing its imperial muscles in the region.

Archaeologists have been exploring Tikal since the 1950s, but this ancient Maya city still has many stories to tell. New research in Antiquity details the discovery of a previously unknown neighbourhood within walking distance of Tikal’s famous pyramids.

For archaeologists, this discovery is notable in and of itself, but what makes it particularly interesting is how structures within this complex resemble buildings found in Teotihuacán, a Mesoamerican city near modern-day Mexico City.

Lidar image showing the newly discovered complex. The city of Tikal is shown at top right.  (Image: T. Garrison/PACUNAM/Antiquity) Lidar image showing the newly discovered complex. The city of Tikal is shown at top right. (Image: T. Garrison/PACUNAM/Antiquity)

For the first 500 years of the first millennium, Teotihuacán (pronounced tay-oh-tee wah-kan) was the largest and most powerful city in the ancient Americas. At its peak, the city hosted over 100,000 inhabitants, as it exerted its economic, cultural, and imperialistic influence over a wide region. Tikal, a Maya city located more than 1,200 km away in what is now Guatemala, was considerably smaller.

The area of Tikal where the complex was recently found hadn’t been explored until now, because archaeologists thought the rolling hills that covered the region were a natural part of the landscape. A research consortium known as the Pacunam Lidar Initiative used lidar, a laser-based sensing technique, to create 3D representations of the surface and detect structural features.

Filtered lidar image showing the structures at Tikal. (Image: T. Garrison/PACUNAM/Antiquity) Filtered lidar image showing the structures at Tikal. (Image: T. Garrison/PACUNAM/Antiquity)

A ground team led by Guatemalan archaeologist Edwin Román Ramírez then explored the site, which encompasses roughly 62 acres. The team found one major and enclosed district, with a pyramid along its eastern side. Several small buildings were found around these structures, including many that remain deeply buried, as Stephen Houston, an archaeologist with Brown University and first author of the new study, explained in an email. The lidar “surprised us mightily,” he wrote, as “very careful maps” had previously overlooked this district.

Evidence of Teotihuacán influence in Tikal has been discovered before, including a stunning sculpture. Contacts between the two societies were common, and they traded often. Maya elites and scribes even lived in Teotihuacán, but the centuries of peace didn’t last, as Teotihuacán conquered Tikal in 378 CE. According to Houston, some archaeologists thought that “contact between Teotihuacán and Maya kingdoms was light or only involved long-distance copying,” but the discovery of the new complex points to “a far more intense, tighter level of contact.”

That the structures within this complex were built in the Teotihuacán style, including a small-scale replica of the Ciudadela (the citadel) in Teotihuacán, is hard to deny.

“The layout is highly similar: an enclosure defined by buildings on all four sides and a larger building, a pyramid, on the eastern side,” Houston explained. “To either side of that pyramid are flanking platforms, all of which resemble closely — if at reduced scale — the great Ciudadela at Teotihuacán.” To which he added: “The front of the pyramid at Tikal has been found to have many incense burners that may have come from Teotihuacán,” while the “orientation of the precinct is very similar to that of Teotihuacán, in ways that contrast with Maya buildings nearby.”

Teotihuacan-style incense burner fragments found at the front platform of the citadel.  (Image: E. Román/PACUNAM/Antiquity) Teotihuacan-style incense burner fragments found at the front platform of the citadel. (Image: E. Román/PACUNAM/Antiquity)

The team also found human remains near the replicated Ciudadela. These bodies were surrounded by funerary items, like ceramics, animal bones, and projectile points. The ample presence of coal suggests this assemblage was deliberately set ablaze. This apparent death ritual was not done in the Tikal style but is similar to burials of warriors done at the actual citadel in Teotihuacán.

This all suggests a more intense level of interaction between the two societies than previously assumed. The Teotihuacán complex at Tikal implies that more was going on than just trade and cultural exchange — and that something potentially more ominous was transpiring. The imperial power of Teotihuacán, it would seem, was on full display in Tikal.

Tikal was conquered in 378 CE, and Houston suspects that the Teotihuacán complex was constructed around this time or slightly afterward, “at least according to present evidence,” he said. The complex may have served a purpose similar to a modern embassy or as a potent symbol to express conquest and a reminder of foreign occupation. Teotihuacán warriors, nobles, and diplomats may have even lived there.

Regardless, the discovery “suggests that parts of foreign cities could be replicated in Maya cities,” said Houston. The level of replication seen at Tikal was “unexpected,” and the new discovery “will lead to far closer study of this part of Tikal.” What’s more, “this redefines how people look at city growth, as it suggests “high-degrees of planning and intrusion by a few figures,” Houston explained.

Plenty of work remains to be done at the Teotihuacán complex at Tikal. The team would like to study the bones of the human remains to determine where these individuals came from and to continue excavations at the site. Incredibly, the story of these fascinating societies continues to emerge.