Located deep within the tropical forests of the central Petén of Guatemala, Tikal rose to prominence in the centuries around the turn of the first millennium A.D. Settlements in and near Tikal first emerge in the archaeological record at about 800 B.C., and they were to establish the boundaries of what would become Tikal’s urban core.

At that core was the Great Plaza, a large area of plaster-surfaced floor first laid down in the middle of the second century B.C. In time, the Great Plaza would abut some of the most important structures at Tikal—the North Acropolis, the Central Acropolis, and Great Temples I and II—and hold some seventy slender stone slabs, known as stelae, that were erected in a double row in front of the North Acropolis. The stelae, which were usually accompanied by low altars set in front of them, included some carved with hieroglyphs and images of rulers. The early rulers of Tikal established the North Acropolis as the ritual center of the city at the beginning of the first millennium. Fronting the Great Plaza on its other side was the Central Acropolis, 700 feet of long, low, many-roomed buildings that are often termed palaces, although their exact function is uncertain. Tikal eventually grew to cover an area perhaps as large as twenty-five square miles, where living areas were interspersed with sections of uninhabitable swamp, and where ruler and commoner alike were interred in subfloor burials. At the beginning of the tenth century, the Maya of low-lying tropical sites like Tikal were experiencing difficulties—perhaps war, famine, or disease—that led to the collapse of authority and the abandonment of the great culture centers.

Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001


Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Tikal.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/maya/hd_maya.htm (October 2001)

Further Reading

Coe, William R. Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1988.

Harrison, Peter D. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Sharer, Robert J., with Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. 6th ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006.