Using LiDAR data, archaeologists from Brown University, the University of Texas at Austin, the Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya and Proyecto Arqueológico Sur de Tikal discovered that what was long assumed to be an area of natural hills in the Classic Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala, was actually a neighborhood of ruined buildings that had been designed to look like the Ciudadela and Temple of the Feathered Serpent of the imperial capital of Teotihuacan, the largest and most powerful city in the ancient Americas.
Overlay of the Teotihuacan Ciudadela on the precinct at Tikal, showing the same orientation, flanking platforms, eastern pyramid, western enclosure and north-south corridor at the western entrance to the precinct. Image credit: T. Garrison / PACUNAM.
“What we had taken to be natural hills actually were shown to be modified and conformed to the shape of the citadel — the area that was possibly the imperial palace — at Teotihuacan,” said Brown University’s Professor Stephen Houston.
“Regardless of who built this smaller-scale replica and why, it shows without a doubt that there was a different level of interaction between Tikal and Teotihuacan than previously believed.”
Tikal and Teotihuacan were radically different cities: Tikal, a Maya city, was fairly populous but relatively small in scale, while Teotihuacan had all the marks of an empire.
Though little is known about the people who founded and governed Teotihuacan, it’s clear that, like the Romans, their influence extended far beyond their metropolitan center: evidence shows they shaped and colonized countless communities hundreds of miles away.
Anthropologists have known for decades that inhabitants of the two cities were in contact and often traded with one another for centuries before Teotihuacan conquered Tikal around 378 CE.
There’s also ample evidence suggesting that between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE, Maya elites and scribes lived in Teotihuacan, some bringing elements of the empire’s culture and materials back home to Tikal.
“The architectural complex we found very much appears to have been built for people from Teotihuacan or those under their control,” Professor Houston said.
“Perhaps it was something like an embassy complex, but when we combine previous research with our latest findings, it suggests something more heavy-handed, like occupation or surveillance.”
“At the very least, it shows an attempt to implant part of a foreign city plan on Tikal.”
Excavations following the LiDAR work confirmed that some buildings were constructed with mud plaster rather than the traditional Maya limestone.
The structures were designed to be smaller replicas of the buildings that make up Teotihuacan’s citadel, down to the intricate cornices and terraces and the specific 15.5-degree east-of-north orientation of the complex’s platforms.
“It almost suggests that local builders were told to use an entirely non-local building technology while constructing this sprawling new building complex,” Professor Houston said.
“We’ve rarely seen evidence of anything but two-way interaction between the two civilizations, but here, we seem to be looking at foreigners who are moving aggressively into the area.”
The team’s paper was published in the journal Antiquity.
Stephen Houston et al. A Teotihuacan complex at the Classic Maya city of Tikal, Guatemala. Antiquity, published online September 28, 2021; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2021.140