Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Indiana Jones, Tikal, and Me

Temple V - Photo by Chris Chafer
At school, history was a bore. I mean, really, what's so interesting about studying dead people? But then a man with a battered hat, bullwhip, and a lopsided smile swaggered into my life. OK, it was onscreen, but still, Indiana Jones impacted the way I viewed the ancient world and literally, changed my life.

History became exciting. The people who lived in ancient civilizations had invented cool stuff. They made me realize we owe a lot to our ancestors for what we have today. And from the first moment I saw Indy swinging with his bullwhip across a chasm, I decided to go on my own crusade and discover ancient cultures.

One of the first that fascinated me was Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. Located in the lush Petén Basin in Guatemala, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most impressive, mysterious places on earth. Thick jungle surrounds the ruins and howler monkeys chatter overhead, accompanied by the lyrical songs of 410 species of birds.

Bound by rivers, the park containing Tikal provides protection for ocelots, peccaries, toucans, and jaguars, just to name some of the exotic wildlife that live in the shadows of the jungle. So far, only 3,000 sites have been uncovered, and there’s a further 10,000 waiting for archaeologists to unearth. It’s been 50 years since the first dig at Tikal, and given the expanse of the area, it could take many lifetimes to fully discover the history and secrets beneath the soil. The Mayans believed in reincarnation, and I wonder if archaeologists wish it were true, so they could continue with their discoveries.

In its heyday, Tikal was home to 90,000 people and covered close to 75 square miles (120 square kilometers).  Because of its geographical location, the Mayans needed to conserve water, and management of this precious resource was vital for the survival of their city. Surrounded by wetlands, the Mayans devised reservoir systems for water diversion and storage, taking advantage of the seasonal rainfall. Roads were paved with lime-based cement, and flint was readily available, providing the Mayans with a valuable stone to make spear points, arrowheads, and knives.

In 700 B.C., Tikal was a commercial, cultural and religious centre but by the mid-4th century, Tikal had morphed into a city of people who’d adopted brutal methods in warfare under the rule of King Jaguar Paw. It is still not known exactly what killed off the Mayans but the latest report in National Geographic suspects climate may have had a lot to do with their demise. Yet another reason why learning about history is so important – we have the opportunity to change our ways based on what our ancestors did, or didn’t, do.

The most striking features at Tikal are the steep-sided temples rising above the jungle. The plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, and the temples are partially restored. At times, great distances exist between sites, and one can stroll under the dense canopy, take refuge from the sun, and enjoy the rich, earthy scents of the low-lying vegetation. Even at peak tourist season, it’s possible to escape the throngs, step back in time, and imagine what life may have been like.

Translated from Itzá Maya, Tikal means “place of voices”, and it’s easy to understand why. Whispers from the past echo through the deserted corridors and around corners. The skin prickles, and hair stands on end with the feeling of not being entirely alone.

It’s a long, hot climb to the top of the temples but the view is worth every rasping breath. Temples tower above the dense forest, dotting the vista, and the great height of the monuments can cause giddiness. Star Wars buffs will note Temple IV was used for a scene of the Massassi Outpost on the fourth moon of Yavin. Even 1970s Hollywood saw the allure of such a magical place.

Tikal is shrouded in mystery and magic. It begs to be explored and the mind wanders, trying to create theories of how people lived and died. Maybe all the questions will never be answered. But what I do know is Tikal will always be a place I treasure, thanks to an intrepid fictional adventurer named Indiana Jones.


  1. “Place of voices” sounds like my kind of place. I love listening to places that are capable of telling you stories; sometimes you can hear things, sometimes you can feel them with your skin. I get that feeling a lot around the very old ancient places in the Middle East. It’s a sort of energy, or at least so I call it; I’ve heard people call it divine and weird, both, I guess depending on how and what they feel. I’ve heard of Tikal, but this is the first time I read about it in such detail. I should add it to my wanderlust list.

  2. Hey, Alli, I just knew this had to be your post. :) Actually, history was my favorite subject and I really loved the Indy movies - my favorite ride in all of Disney is the Indiana Jones ride - you feel like you're actually in the movie - I imagined a ride just like this with my first Indy movie. Grab the kids and I'll meet you there. :)

  3. I hated history in school, too. I think the way it's often taught is too dry and removed from students' experience. It's quite different when you visit one of these amazing sites in real life. I had no idea there was still so much excavation work to do at Tikal. So much more to learn!

  4. Lina - isn't it amazing how a place can "speak" to you? I totally believe in ancient places (especially) having a certain energy - I get what you're saying. And yes, you should most definietly put Tikal very high on your list and allow at least two days to explore in detail.

    Kathy - sounds like a brilliant plan! I can't get enough of the movies. I just love the whole "Saturday Afternoon Matinee" appeal. I think that's why I love The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean as well.

    Heidi - yes, subjects at school should be less dry and make it fun and exciting. If I had then what really lay beyond my textbook I would have paid a lot more attention. :-)

  5. Dave, I was wondering who'd come up with a quote first. Nice work!

  6. At school I always wanted to be an archaeologist, but fate had a different pathway set out for. Anyway, 35 years later I started travelling the world to explore ancient cultures and environments. Tikal was somewhere I had always wanted to go and the drive through other Mayan ruins in Belize and across the Guatemalan border was an adventure in itself. I spent four days exploring Tikal, it really is an amazing place. The view from the top of Temple IV is total awesome. Cool blog Alli and thanks for using my pic.

  7. Hi Chris! I'd always wanted to be an archaeologist, too but my maths and science brain just wasn't wired that way. How cool you got to see these amazing places and could capture them so beautifully through the lens. Thanks for dropping by, Chris!