EL MIRADOR: MAN MADE MOUNTAINS THAT TOUCH THE SKY
My recent trip to visit el Mirador and several sites related to this enormous complex of pre Classic Maya sites in northern Guatemala was the fulfillment of a longtime desire to add these critical locations to the many other sites in the region I had seen earlier. This was the final preparation I wanted before beginning my new novel of what I hope will become a three part series on the rise, flowering, and decline of Mayan civilization through the Classic and post Classic eras.
To say that the scope and scale of the el Mirador complex of related ruins can be fully appreciated without being seen in person is a little like saying that the Grand Canyon can be fully appreciated by looking at a good painting of it. The six day walking and mule pack trip that was involved was well worth the usual hardships of tropical forest and some actual jungle travel and whatever weather, insect, and other manageable factors of inconvenience were encountered. The circular route our party of four (plus our excellent local guide) took to include the early site of Nakbe amounted to about sixty-five miles travelled. Shorter five day trips directly to Mirador and back are also available for those less interested in the total picture of early Mayan cultural developments in the Peten region. Unfortunately, many of the more casual visitors there are often struck by the apparently slow progress of excavation and restoration at the sites, especially when they have previously seen the wonderful artists’ reconstructions of what the sites must have looked like when occupied. However, the nearly overwhelming task of excavating and restoring such an enormous site in such a remote area (Work must be done mainly during two months of the rainy season because of water limitations at other times.) continues to result in incremental progress and multiple lifetimes of work for more than one archeological team.
Before discussing some specific aspects of the sites relating to previous information and topics expressed in earlier articles in this blog series, I will make just a couple of overall observations and comments. (NOTE: There will be video links posted later in this article directing the reader to specific elements that were recorded on my recent visit. Other videos are also currently posted on YouTube that are illustrative of the site in general, including some excellent recently shot drone footage.) Firstly, the size and sheer scope of the construction and occupation of these sites almost defies belief, especially when one considers their location and the early time period during which they were mainly constructed and fully utilized (from about 1,000 B.C. at Nakbe to around 250 A.D.. at Mirador). In fact, the sheer size of the two main structures, el Tirgre and La Danta, are such that their initial discovery from the air was delayed until the early 1960’s because they were thought to be too big to be artificial mountains and must have been extinct volcanoes. Much like the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Mirador pyramids were built very early in what was to become a longer, Classic period that covered a far greater area and timeframe.
Secondly, the complexity of the already fully developed astronomical capabilities of these early Maya peoples is readily evident in looking at the layout, orientation, and ceremonial functioning of these sites. The early observation platform and associated temples at Nakebe in particular are quite sophisticated, even when compared with later sites like Uaxactun, Calakmul, and Tikal. The exacting orientation of the large complex platforms of el Tigre and La Danta also had to have been exactly established at an early date before such massive construction could have been undertaken and gradually expanded.
Lastly, the Peten tropical forest where these sites are found must have been profoundly different and less isolated from the surrounding occupied areas on both east and west coasts and populated areas to the highland south during pre-Classic Maya times. This difference could only have been achieved and maintained by densely concentrated populations of farming and trading communities capable of being organized and controlled by a powerful central authority. That it was done in a marginal, tropical environment rather than the usual arid one and at such an early prehistoric date is as remarkable as any comparable achievement anywhere else in the ancient world.
In this initial blog entry on these sites, I will focus primarily on the two largest structures to be found in the complex, both of which are at el Mirador. These are the north-south oriented twin multi-platform, stepped pyramids of el Tigre (the jaguar) and La Danta (the tapir). The subsequent entry in this blog series to appear shortly will focus on the amazing road system that was engineered and constructed to join this huge complex and network of associated sites over an area of many square miles.
TWIN MOUNTAINS OF EARTH AND STONE: WHY SO HIGH AND SO LARGE?
It would be both tempting and easy to draw comparisons of these two great structures with the only remotely comparable constructions in Mesoamerica. That would be the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon and their associated structures at Teotihuacan in Mexico. However, even those great pyramids would be dwarfed by either el Tigre or La Danta if placed side by side. In fact, it is a good thirty minute walk on an easy, flat trail from the base of one of these two giants to the other (made easy by the elevated road the Maya built to connect them). The complete structure of La Danta alone contains a staggering 2.8 million cubic METERS of earth and stone fill with a minimum of three distinct ascending platforms, each with its own smaller temple complex. There is even a small, artificial lake (a little larger than a pond) on the second platform with the classic triadic temple arrangement of two facing east/west oriented temples framing a linear plaza below a north/south temple reached by a stone-stepped ramp. The height from first platform base to apex for el Tigre is about 55 meters, while that of La Danta is a staggering 77. It is at present still not completely clear that the lower most platform for the larger La Danta is actually not part of an even earlier artificial elevation still beneath part of it. The fact is that on its own La Danta represents the single largest prehistoric man-made structure, not just in the Americas, but in the world. Even the great pyramid of Cheops in Egypt would be swallowed whole in its mass. However, in their current state of excavation and minimal reconstruction, particularly at the lower levels, both pyramids can only be viewed with perspective in small segments as one walks around them and peers up through the trees surrounding and covering much of them, or--more dramatically--by climbing each in turn and peering at the summit of the other across the nearly mile and a half distance that separates them from each other and the lesser structures that still lie mostly hidden in between.
All of this begs the question: Why would the ancient Maya at such an early stage in their development as a distinctive culture invest the time and labor to create two such giants in such an isolated place, so close together, and yet so advanced in their design and ceremonial complexity when compared with later, similar undertakings in the same locale? We must not lose sight of the fact that these were, in the Mayan reality, not just temple locations but were also artificial mountains. The view from atop both these giants in any direction forms a breathtaking panorama of many miles to a virtual flat horizon. The mountain figured prominently in Maya origins myths, particularly those associated with the volcanoes far to the south and invisible from most of the Peten and certainly the Mirador region. Here, at least, it was necessary to construct such high places that would tower above the distant jungles, perhaps, to maintain some connective link to the place of origin where the peoples who built them may have migrated from to enjoy the obvious agricultural benefits of the lowland forests and swamplands.
Additionally, recent excavations at el Mirador not far from the base of el Tigre have begun to uncover the spectacular and hugely significant temple of the “Hero Twins”. This excavation alone may turn out to be as important a discovery as any of recent memory in the overall picture of Mayan cultural development. (Note: There is an interesting short video on YouTube featuring noted actor Morgan Freeman sitting in front of this on-going reconstruction, speaking about the importance and magical aspect of this site. Google: YouTube/el Mirador/Morgan Freeman video). The Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh—the great story of Maya (and even older) origins first recorded in post-contact times in a Quiche Mayan dialect by a native writer—has now been pushed far back in time and given even greater regional significance than many had considered. Once these amazing panels are cleared and the reconstruction is complete, a truly major site will have been added to the historical connection of the Mayan people over a period of several thousand years, extending even into the unwritten regional past of the Olmec and earlier cultures possibly.
MOUNTAINS TO TOUCH THE SKY: WHY SO IMPORTANT?
The Maya built their artificial mountains to touch the sky and for the elite who built them to be able to call forth their ancestors to intercede on their behalf with the people who literally looked up to them for leadership. They offered their own blood and the blood of conquered enemies as an offering to summon forth these ancestors from the heavens where they resided. Such was the source of their power, made visible to the masses whose labor and loyalty they commanded but could only maintain for as long as their unbroken lineage line to some mythical ancestor of great power could be maintained and witnessed as continuing to perform in the people’s interests. This would always turn out to be a shaky and changing relationship as cyclical time went forward in the Mayan world.
These lowland cities rose and fell time and again over a nearly two thousand year time span. The more labor a great lineage could command, the higher the mountain they could build to reflect the power of their ancestors back to the people, who themselves had a vested interest in seeing the visible reflection of that power. As time would go by, the artificial mountains would grow smaller. The duration of the rule of a particular lineage or elite group would be more difficult to maintain over extended periods due to shifting alliances, warfare, and outside influences, especially from Mexico to the north. The ability for a single extended family with generations of strong individual leaders to keep building new temples (and tombs) on top of existing ones to maintain their connection with a past buried in the mists of memory would diminish as new groups came to power and new temple complexes were started—or entire cities were abandoned for long periods or altogether (except for some small, localized reoccupations). The many structures of Tikal are striking examples of how this process must have worked in Classic Times.
Even the great pyramid complex and city that was Mirador, a name of course the Maya themselves never used, suffered this same fate. We have no actual “city glyph” for such an early site. It was part of a larger “kingdom” now referred to as the Reino Kan, or kingdom of the serpent. The city would be mysteriously abandoned in the third century AD, as the power of the stone mountains must have been lost at some point and the people left or gravitated to new cities arising in the area at Uaxactun, Calakmul, Tikal, and other areas with more dependable water sources. Perhaps, it was a result of lineages of equal power competing for the services of the farmers and merchants who maintained them that resulted in no single family or elite group being able to dominate the others in the manner of previous generations. In any event, the great stone mountains were abandoned for good, and even though many others continued to be built in other locations for a thousand years more, the sheer size of those at Mirador would never be rivalled again.
As I stood on the summit of La Danta at sunset and peered off in the direction of Nakbe, a site we were going to visit the next day, another possible explanation for the height of the pyramid struck me. Nakbe was the earliest of the large sites in the area. Its sophisticated celestial observation platform and solstice and equinox viewing temples must have formed the models for the construction of many later ones, most notably the only other nearly identical one known at nearby Uaxactun, several hundred years later perhaps, as well as other constructions at Mirador, no doubt. This site is approximately seven miles from La Danta. However, its highest temple structure can be readily discerned from atop the Mirador pyramid. Additionally, a typical, if more narrow, causeway connects the two sites, which would have made travel between the two sites much easier than the three plus hours it now takes, especially while much of the first construction phase at Mirador was underway. The seminal relationship between Nakbe and these others sites may not be fully understood at this time, but the possibility of the early builders retaining some significant visual connection between the two sites cannot be discounted either.
Another, more obvious, possibility is almost inescapable when standing atop these highest platforms. If Mirador became the model for later sites, which included among other factors efforts to lay out central plazas as close to the same north/south baseline as at Mirador as possible, then precise sunrise and sunset observations at critical junctures were essential (not to mention Venus and other “star” risings and settings, which were of almost unique interest to the early Mayans as well). < NOTE: For more information on the critical importance of what I have chosen to call this “Mayan Meridian” proclivity for cities being built as close to the 90th degree of longitude as possible, see the earlier entry in this blog series titled: STONE MARKERS ON THE HORIZON: Ancient Astronomers in the Americas and What We Are Missing. Mirador itself sits almost precisely on this meridian and many later cities north and south appear to be oriented within one degree of time of this location—something that can only be achieved by precise measurements of the sun at specific times (noon, for example) on specific days such as an equinox.> In order to accurately achieve most celestial measurements a clear, even distant, horizon is absolutely necessary. In the tropical forest the high canopy is such that unless one clears an enormous area or “gets above it” these calculations are both difficult and imprecise. The terrain is virtually flat for some distance around Mirador. Also, the ancient practice of slash and burn agriculture (which still exists in the area) insures that at some key dates—such as the Vernal Equinox—that horizon at ground level will be mostly obscured, for sunrises especially. However, from the highest platform levels of both major pyramids a clear horizon is plainly visible in all the cardinal directions. Perhaps, such an explanation is an oversimplification, at best. Still, sometimes the obvious answer can simply be as much a possibility as any more involved explanation.
Perhaps, we will never know for certain why these earliest experimenters in what would become the later model for Mayan kingship and city/state building, which would last for over 1500 years, chose to begin that experiment in such a unique location as the Mirador site complex. Their obvious ties to the earlier Olmec Culture, which migrated into Guatemala from two directions, certainly cannot be discounted. Nor can we ever know for certain why these earliest “kings” chose to build the largest and most ambitious structures that would ever be attempted by their descendants as they expanded their vision of social and institutional organization outwards in the centuries that followed. However, we will continue to learn more and more as time goes by and these amazing structures continue to be slowly revealed with many new surprising discoveries to follow. No doubt, the central place of el Mirador and its truly amazing man-made mountains will continue to grow in importance and amaze those of us who are fortunate enough to peer up at them from below, and then out from them from their dizzying heights—heights which seem to reach out and touch that clear tropical sky they try so hard to pierce.
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