Maya Adventure: Thinking Big and Small

by Carolyn Handler Miller

One day a slender brochure arrived in the mail and my husband Terry and I scanned it with growing excitement. It was from the Archeological Conservancy, an American organization dedicated to the acquisition and preservation of archeological sites. The Conservancy was offering a unique, archeologist-led tour of eight Maya sites in Belize and Guatemala, most of which are rarely visited by anyone besides serious Mayanists.    

Carving at Lamanai archeological site, Belize. 

Carving at Lamanai archeological site, Belize. 

Terry and I are both fascinated by archeology, especially Maya archeology. In fact, we spent our honeymoon exploring famous Maya sites in the Yucatan, like Chichen Itza and Uxmal, and we later took a trip down to the Yucatan to see sites we hadn’t been able to reach as newlyweds. The Conservancy tour, which included many little-known sites plus two famous ones, Tikal and Caracol, sounded irresistible to us. And there were two added bonuses for me. First, it would be led by archeologist John Henderson, a professor from Cornell University, my alma mater. Cornell professors are rock stars to me. And second, at least one of the site, Tikal, was located deep within the rain forest, meaning we’d be seeing monkeys, iguanas, coatis and other exotic animals, as well as brilliantly colored tropical birds – all unknown to me in arid New Mexico, where I live. This was a special enticement for me, a serious animal lover.  We signed up immediately. 

Early this year we landed in Belize City, the starting point of the tour.  Although the biggest city in Belize and at one time its capital, it is severely impoverished and hardly one of the garden spots of the world. The constant rain had created swampy streams along the streets, most buildings were seriously dilapidated, and there was only one working stop light in the entire city. However, some of its districts possessed a genuine Caribbean charm and cheerfulness, and deeper forays into the country would later turn up areas of genuine beauty and grace.

That first night, during our pre-dinner cocktail party/orientation meeting, I met our fellow tour members and our two archeologists, including Jim Walker, from the Conservancy’s Albuquerque office. As I sipped the first of many "Panty Rippers," the strangely named rum concoction that is the national drink of Belize, I looked forward eagerly to exploring the ruins of the great Maya cities that lay ahead. 

Our first, the next day, was Altun Ha. There  I got a taste of the vast scale of Maya sites in this part of the world, and the brilliance of their architecture. The ancient city once covered an impressive three square miles. Like most Maya sites, many of its buildings have not yet been excavated, though tall grassy hills with protruding building stones gave hints of what still lies buried. The major temple there rises to 54 feet, which seems to be a towering height, though we would later discover that it was  relatively tiny compared to other structures we’d soon be seeing.  As is typical with Maya architecture, this temple had extremely steep stairways with seriously tall steps, making stair climbing a challenge for me, a person of short legs. It didn’t help that the stairs were also slippery from a recent rain, so with each step I took I feared a hazardous slip. The stairs appeared to be built for giants, though the ancient Maya were of modest height. Prof. Henderson pointed out that the stairway design helped make the architecture so striking, but I never completely conquered my apprehension in climbing them.     

The author and her husband at Cahal Pech Maya site, Belize.

The author and her husband at Cahal Pech Maya site, Belize.

It seemed everything Maya was on a gigantic scale. It wasn’t just the architecture or the size of the sites, but also the Maya way of thinking. Not only did they develop a written language and complex religious beliefs, but they were also adept at astronomy. In the evenings before dinner, we gathered together over cocktails, and Prof. Henderson taught us about the ways the Maya world tracked time and used mathematics. Some of their concepts were difficult for me to get my head around, particularly their complex calendar system (and I suppose the Panty Ripper cocktails I continued to order didn’t help). 

Evidently, the Maya had three types of calendars. One, for sacred purposes, was a 260 day count calendar. Another, for civil purposes, was much like our own Gregorian calendar, composed of 265 days, though arranged differently. It had 18 months of 20 days, each with a name, plus five nameless days at the end that were times of dread, and considered dangerous. In addition, they had the “calendar round” or “Long Count” which repeated every 52 years. The three calendars formed one interlocking system to measure time. 

It was all quite mind boggling. The Long Count was a method of recording a date from the beginning of creation; it began on the Maya’s mythical first day of creation, on August 11, 3114 BC, and could go deep into the future. The Maya even had names for long time spans. The longest was alautun, and one single alautun was composed of approximately 63 million years. Theirs was a civilization that could think in units of millions and millions of years! For us, in contrast, our longest chunk of time is the millennium,  just 1000 years. The Long Count became important to us when we encountered stelae (large, vertical, carved stone panels), which were marked with a Long Count date. To be honest, I could never decipher them, but fortunately Prof. Henderson was nimble at calculating these ancient dates and could translate them into our own Gregorian dating system.

I noticed another striking feature on these stelae. They often depicted a ruler wearing a monumental headdress, as high from his head to its top as the distance between his waist and his neck. These impressive headdresses indicated status and family history, and sometimes incorporated images of spiritual beings. 

Caracol was one of my favorite sites, but reaching it involved traveling for over two hours on a badly rutted dirt road. Still, it was worth every jolt and lurch of our van. Caracol had once been an important Maya center during the Classic Period, and the handsome excavated buildings indicate how prosperous it had been. It is the largest Maya site in Belize, covering an area larger than Belize City and, at its peak, supporting a much larger population. The massive building known as Caana, or “Sky Palace”, towers over the site at more than 130 feet, and is one of the largest man-made buildings in all of Belize. The lush rain forest setting at Caracol was straight out of King Kong, and the deep reverberating roars of the howler monkeys were a special thrill to me. They were at once scary and impressive and added greatly to the exotic jungle ambiance.

But Caracol, despite its size and magnificence, was dwarfed by Tikal in Guatemala, which we reached two days later. Tikal is world-famous for its grand scale and sky-high pyramids topped with enormous roof combs. The old city of Tikal, including its residential neighborhoods formed a metropolis of 23 square miles. The park itself encompasses 222 square miles and is a wildlife preserve, full of monkeys and other wildlife. One day I spotted a big family of winsome coatis, about 20 animals in all. I studied them closely as they sniffled around for food, amused to note they looked something like raccoons from the front and monkeys from the rear.

The plaza at Tikal National Park, Belize.

The plaza at Tikal National Park, Belize.

The major buildings at Tikal are arranged in 4 acropolises, each with a multitude of structures. They were used for administrative, ceremonial and residential purposes, and sometimes for burials. It took the University of Pennsylvania 13 years to uncover just 10 square miles of Tikal, and much of it still lies buried beneath the dense jungle. It’s the largest excavated site on the North American continent. 

Six major temples have been excavated at Tikal, each one a towering masterpiece usually garnished with an enormous roof comb. The largest of all is Temple IV, rising 230 feet from the jungle floor. Measured against today’s modern high rises, where each story is approximately 10 feet, Temple IV is the equivalent to a 23- story building.

It was at Tikal that I began to appreciate other, less obvious, structural achievements of the Maya, particularly the causeways and the building platforms. A causeway, called a sacbe (plural sacbeob) in the Maya world, is a raised paved roadway that connects plazas, temples and even cities. These “white ways," are built of stone and rubble, and usually paved with white limestone. They rise above the swampy marshes of the jungle and stay relatively dry, thus being attractive passageways for those going from one destination to another. They called for advanced engineering skills and an enormous amount of human labor. Some of them rise 13 feet from the undeveloped jungle floor, and they can be many miles in length and are impressively wide. The Mendez Causeway at Tikal, for example, which connects the central city with Temple VI, is 200 feet in width.

The building platforms are equally impressive feats of construction. The Maya topography is uneven and often hilly, and structures need to be constructed on a level surface or else they will be unstable. Hence, the platform. Typically, they were surfaced with stucco or cut stone and filled with tightly packed gravel. They ranged from six to 30 feet off the ground, and some might have been as high as 147 feet. They could also be enormous in terms of their footprint. The platform for the South Acropolis at Tikal, for example, is 220,000 square feet.   

Yet, despite the magnificence and monumental grandeur of everything I saw and everything I learned, a memory of something tiny haunted me.  It was something I saw at our very first site, Altun Ha. And by the end of the trip I still felt jabs of nagging guilt about something that happened, or didn’t happen there. 

That first day, our group was climbing the giant steps up to the first platform of one of the temples, and because the tall steps posed such a challenge for me, almost everyone was ahead of me. As I neared the platform, something caught my eye. It was a minute frog, newly minted from its tadpole stage, about as big as the first joint of my thumb. It was sitting motionless on the platform as everyone clamored up, probably too frightened to move. The little frog – it seemed like such a tiny thing in the midst of these architectural monuments and the vast scale of the Maya world. Yet this creature was a living thing, and it seemed so vulnerable and tender among the heavy hiking boots of us humans. Would it survive if I didn’t speak up? Or would it be crushed, inadvertently, by those already on the platform? 

At the time, I  felt unable to say a word. I was as paralyzed as the little frog. I hardly knew the people in our group. Wouldn’t they think I was a little weird to be worrying about a little frog when they were on a quest to explore the splendors of an ancient civilization? My discomfort brought me back to the eighth grade, where my classmates eyed me strangely when I talked passionately about animals. If I loved animals so much, why hadn't I tried to save that minuscule frog?  I lectured myself sternly about my failure. Next time, I vowed to myself, I will speak up. Even if people think I am strange. So what? I’m not in eighth grade anymore. Even in the midst of all these enormous monuments, I knew that small things can matter, too.  

Carolyn Handler Miller ( is a writer who works across a variety of media. Originally beginning her career as a newspaper reporter and magazine journalist, Carolyn's projects spans TV shows and specials, feature films, books and new media. She is one of the pioneering writers in the field of interactive narrative, where she has contributed to dozens of projects as a writer, writer-story designer, and consultant. She is the author of “Digital Storytelling: A Creator's Guide to Interactive Entertainment

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