Revisiting Mayan Mysteries

A traveler finds dramatic changes in layout and history on his return 32 years later

IN 1960, I boarded a decrepit C-47 airplane in Guatemala City, soared over the highlands of Guatemala, swooped low over the Peten rain forest, and marveled at the white tops of pyramids peeking from underneath overgrown hills.

We landed on a grass strip just a few hundred yards from an uncovered temple-pyramid in the 25-square mile area which constituted Tikal, the major Mayan center which flourished from around 600 BC to AD 600.

The official guide, Antonio Ortiz, greeted us - three tourists - and showed us to our cubicles in the dormitory called the Jungle Lodge, the only shelter available.

Archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania were digging in Tikal and tourists were expected to eat with them in the adjoining mess hall. There was excitement among them that night, for they had just uncovered a treasure-laden tomb deep below Structure 5D-34 near Temple One, the first time such a discovery had been made here.

The howler monkeys and chattering toucans punctuated the silence of the rain forest the next morning when I climbed the 15-story Temple One fearlessly, then - in near terror - descended. With Antonio, we climbed other hills which were actually overgrown pyramid-temples.

At that time it was believed that the pyramids simply had thatched huts at their base to house the priests who ministered to the rural, agrarian populations who came to the center plazas for prayer, market, and a mysterious ritual ball game in which the winners were supposedly beheaded. The Mayans, it was thought, rebuilt in 52-year cycles and had left no clues as to how to read the hieroglyphics on upright stones, called stelae, in cities throughout Mesoamerica.

Antonio explained that some of the scientists called Tikal the "New York City" of the Mayan civilization. The "Florence," he said, would be Copan in neighboring Honduras. That piqued our curiosity, so the three of us made Copan our next destination.

A few days later, we were in a chartered four-seater Cessna-180, zipping through a cloud-covered pass over the mountain range that separates Guatemala and Honduras. We landed on the grass right in the midst of Copan. An armed guard on horseback galloped over and trailed us as we wandered about the deserted site, stopping to admire the many intricately carved stelae and what was already the world-famous hieroglyphic staircase, a set of pyramid steps on the face of which were engraved thousands of only par tially decipherable glyphs. We bounded up the steps, marveling that nobody seemed to be protecting the carvings.Now, 32 years later, I was returning to Tikal and Copan with an American Museum of Natural History study tour, led by University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Christopher Jones. There were 18 of us on the tour (at $2,750 apiece, plus $453 airfare from Miami), spanning two generations in age and based from Seattle to New York City.

It was a nimble-footed, nimble-witted, intellectually curious group, wishing to learn something as well as enjoy an exotic vacation.

The voyage to Tikal was very different this time: The plane - a sleek, new 737 jet, landed in Flores, about 40 miles away. We took a bus over bumpy roads to Tikal, where I was amazed to discover the Jungle Lodge still existed, now managed by my guide Antonio and featuring rather comfortable thatched-roofed bungalows equipped with bathrooms, showers, and electricity (for at least part of the time).

INSTEAD of only the cleared Temple One, there were now six huge pyramids piercing the canopy of the rain forest. More than 3,000 structures and 200 stone monuments were scattered throughout the 25-square-mile area, once home to 50,000 people. Many of the pyramid-temples were about 150 feet high - 15 modern stories - with no ropes or bannisters to help climbers. Going up was a cinch. Coming down, again, was scary for many people - me included.

The return to Copan was also different: High Country Passage Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., who operates the trip for the museum, had arranged for a small bus to negotiate 50 miles of bumpy dirt road across the Honduran border. On the site, I found many more uncovered temples. And Chris Jones had arranged for the head of the University of Pennsylvania dig, Robert Sharer, to show us around the area where they were working. Professor Sharer took us deep into the bowels of the temple where we saw carvings and masks that had been uncovered in secret chambers.

The inevitable had occurred: The hieroglyphic staircase was now protected by a tent. So, while it was still possible to see the glyphs, it was no longer possible to view them in the open air in their pristine condition. It is now believed that the hieroglyphics constitute a dynastic history of the city-state.

In addition to Tikal and Copan, the tour visited the archaeological sites of El Baul, Bilbao, Quirigua, La Democracia, Sepulturas, Iximche, and Kaminal juyu. We trudged through sugar-cane fields to view half-buried huge stone heads, stelae, and ceremonial statues. We visited all the important museums enroute and lectures were arranged with experts in Guatemalan back-strap weaving and the musical traditions of the country. Wherever conditions permitted - in Guatemala City, Antigua, Chichicastenango, and L ake Atitlan we were housed in five-star hotels.

As members of the American Museum tour, we had been privileged to have as study leader Dr. Jones, one of the world's leading Mayan epigraphers as well as an experienced "dirt" archaeologist. (See accompanying story.)

But even more than our up-to-the-moment revelations about the Mayan civilization, at the farewell dinner, Jones articulated what we were all feeling: "Not only has this been a marvelous opportunity to learn more about the classic Mayan civilization and put into reasonable perspective, for all of us it has been much more. It has been a kind of pilgrimage of brotherhood - we learned a lot about the ancient Mayans but also a lot about contemporary Guatemala - and ourselves."

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