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The Lords of Tikal - The Real Star Wars

December 27, 2011 at 3:47am

"The Real Star Wars"

from Chapter Eight, THE LORDS OF TIKAL

Published by Thames and Hudson

Reprinted here with permission:

"The Hiatus: War and Outside Dominance"

The prevalence of warfare at Tikal is a feature throughout most of the life of the city for which records are available. Virtually the entire Classic period is characterized by escalating warfare. Researchers have argued that the introduction of the Mexican spearthrower known as the "atlatl" had an important effect on the way warfare was conducted at Tikal. Before its introduction skirmishes in the forest with short-distance spears and hand-held weapons limited the amount of damage suffered by the opposing forces. The spearthrower (or more properly dart-thrower) changed all that and made long-distance thrusts a matter of deadly accuracy. This instrument had been introduced to Tikal during the time of Jaguar Claw I. The personage known as Spearthrower Owl, a contemporary and possible relative of Jaguar Claw I, even used the instrument as part of his name glyph. The first great event that is likely to have been affected by this instrument was the conflict between Tikal and Uaxactun in the mid-4th century.

The role of warfare clearly escalated from this early date. The causes of alliance and enmity are presumed to rise from either economic sources or disputes rooted in familial dissent. Alliance was often achieved by the device of marrying women of one city's royal family into that of another city. Tikal had such marriage-based alliances with a number of its neighbors, near and far. They did not prevent a breakdown of the friendly relationship which often ended in armed conflict between former allies. We know a little about these relationships that led up to and continued during the Hiatus at Tikal.

The traditional date for the end of the Early Classic period falls between AD 550 and 600. At Tikal the date of this major cultural transition depended upon local events which have been blurred by the prevalence of warfare. A major defeat of Tikal is recorded in the year AD 562 at the hands of the city of Caracol, working in conjunction with Tikal's age-old enemy Calakmul. This claim of defeat of the great capital of the Maya comes from a carved altar at Caracol while other inscriptions from this southeastern city tell us of the alliance with Calakmul.

With this definitive defeat, Tikal fell silent. There are no known carved monuments, no inscriptions of any kind recorded at the city for a period of 125 years. Nor were any structures dedicated or lintels installed for the glory of a ruler. Because the silence falls precisely during the transition between cultural periods, the problem of analysis of events is especially difficult. The Hiatus itself is unique to the city of Tikal.

However, the written voice from other sectors of the Maya lowlands is not silent during this period. Whatever horrors were happening at Tikal did not occur in the same way at other Maya cities in the lowlands. The fact that inscriptions are lacking at Tikal over this long period of time does not mean that they had not been made. Monuments may well have been erected with texts, but are now lost. Christopher Jones considers that this was a period of intense monument destruction. Warfare was prevalent in the lowlands in general although Tikal was a particular focus - - an uncharacteristic loser -- during the silent time. The absence of surviving monuments and texts is assumed to be the result of domination or the intense conflict of the period.

The tomb of Lizard Head II (Burial 195) is associated with the transition from the Early to Late Classic periods as known by the contents of the grave, although the exact date of the burial is not known. It is quite possible that this ruler and his burial post-date the defeat of Tikal, in which case Lizard Head II may not be of direct genealogical descent from a Tikal lineage at all. He is one of the earliest rulers of the Late Classic period at the site. This vagueness and uncertainty is characteristic of the change from the Early to Late Classic at Tikal -- it remains shrouded in mystery.

The Hiatus at Tikal spans from AD 557, the last recorded date on Stela 17, until AD 682, the first date recorded for the activities of the 26th ruler, Hasaw Chan K'awil. While this ruler was not the first ruler known to hold sway over Tikal at the start of the Late Classic period, he was the first to restore a written record to the city.

The fact that the Hiatus of Tikal spans the change from one major cultural period into the next is surely not a coincidence. One has to ask why a unified cultural system like that exhibited in the Early Classic period, which had already endured some three-and-a-half centuries, should undergo such profound changes as we see in the Later Classic period.

The explanation in part for such change may be that the cultural shifts were not as profound to the ancient Maya as they seem to us. These changes consist primarily of the abandonment of old shapes and influences in the ceramics -- the most plastic medium of Maya art. There are also changes in architectural forms. These shifts of style may represent merely a fading of the influence of Teotihuacan in the midst of internal conflicts and warfare. By the time of the Hiatus, the highland civilization itself had dissolved into oblivion. What emerged at Tikal was a very positive Maya form of art and architecture with little outside influence.

One could interpret the Early Classic period as a time when Tikal succumbed to the influence of another culture which it viewed as superior, adopting its art forms and its methods and philosophies of warfare. Teotihuacan's influence had led to a brief period of glory for the city. However, the focus of warfare took over the structure of society and escalated throughout the lowlands. For Tikal this ended in a nasty defeat. While rebirth would come later, one of the results of the influence of Teotihuacan was a period of subjugation for Tikal.

The record of the final battle that led to Tikal's Hiatus is sparse at the site itself. The onset of the strife was recorded on Stela 17, in which Double Bird told of a "chopping/cutting" event taking place at a location known as "Flint Mountain" at the hands of Tikal. This location is now identified in the city of Caracol, and the event marked the beginning of a long conflict between the two cities.

Information about Tikal's ensuing fortunes and misfortunes is gleaned from inscriptions at other cities that had not been similarly beaten. Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube have provided the scenario by way of readings of texts from outside Tikal.

Caracol entered into warfare with Tikal after an earlier period of alliance based upon familial interaction. The events leading up to the war with Tikal provide a textbook diagram of political intrigue. We know, for example, that a ruler was installed at the city of Naranjo, lying 42 km to the east of Tikal, under the auspices of the reigning king of Calakmul in AD 546. Furthermore, conflict with Calakmul had been in progress for quite some time in the power play between the two cities that may have been rooted in the rivalry for the dominance over trade routes. We have to remember that Tikal and Calakmul both sit astride the peninsular divide and thus are alternative places where trade routes could cross in the lucrative overland east- west route that connected the Caribbean to the Usumacinta drainage.

Iconography suggests that these two rival cities had a lot in common. They shared the same protector deity in the form of the jaguar god and both cities had dynastic leaders with related lineage names, Jaguar Claw at Tikal and Fire Jaguar Claw at Calakmul. These convergences suggest an even closer affiliation, perhaps based on family ties that may have once connected the patrons of the two cities. It would not be the only time that enmity between cities was based on an earlier family connection. Not enough information is available yet from Calakmul to point to a common dynastic origin for the two opposing politics. Even if deteriorated family ties had been a factor, the most likely explanation for a rivalry that escalated into bloody warfare lasting a couple of centuries is commercial: competition for control of trade routes.

Meanwhile, Caracol, some 70 km to the southeast of Tikal, had installed a new king under the aegis of Tikal's ruler of the time in AD 553. This must have been the Tikal ruler, Double Bird, according to the record of known dates. This installation of a king at Caracol by Tikal took place only three years before Tikal was at war with the same city. The installation was likely a failed attempt at control without warfare. The texts suggest that this act on Tikal's part was a response to the defection of their neighbor, the city of Naranjo, lying dangerously close to Tikal's eastern flank. The geography is important. Naranjo is only 42 km east of Tikal, and, while not in a straight line, is located between Tikal and Caracol.

Then in AD 556 Tikal enacted a formal "axe war" against its former ally Caracol. This type of war, symbolized by an axe, indicates a serious attack with intent to destroy, but unlike a "star war" was not determined by ritual of astronomical timing. The attack was apparently unexpected and hurt Caracol. Then, just six years later in AD 562, Caracol retaliated against Tikal with the first recorded "star war" known in the Maya lowlands. This date is taken as the date of Tikal's fall to Caracol. A "star war" is a full-scale war planned in accordance with specific astronomical events, usually the first appearance in the morning sky of the planet Venus. The heliacal rising of the brilliant "star" in the pre-dawn sky was considered by the Maya as a highly evil portent. As such it was an appropriate herald of warfare, at least on the part of the attacker.

Caracol's act of aggression initiated a type of intensive war that was to be repeated a number of times in the future, between many different cities in the lowlands. Noting the dates of these particular conflicts between Tikal and Caracol we can see that they are a prelude to the end of the Early Classic period as a cultural marker, but the conflicts continue on an accelerated scale during the Late Classic. It would be easy to interpret warfare as the stimulus of change that brought about the end of the Early Classic culture in the lowlands as a whole.

Altar 21 at Caracol records the defeat of Tikal, and this claim coincides with the Hiatus at Tikal, and therefore bears credence. Although eroded, the text on this important altar includes a reference to Calakmul, the northern capital already known to have been in conflict with Tikal for some time. The reference on Altar 21 suggests that Calakmul was behind or at least in support of this particular and seminal "star war" against Tikal. Calakmul had won a political victory in the struggle for Caracol's allegiance, probably in hurt retaliation for the surprise "axe war" that Tikal had enacted against the disputed city, its former ally. Further reference to an ahau of Calakmul, and his personal emblem glyph, is found on Caracol Stela 3 at the date of AD 572, confirming that the shift in allegiance by Caracol from Tikal to Calakmul was complete. All of these events were critical to both kinds of change that were occurring in the lowlands: in the cultural landmarks that distinguish the Early from the Late Classic; and in shifts of the political landscape.

Further, in AD 588 the birth of a Lord of Caracol is recorded on Panel I at Naranjo, suggesting a friendly affiliation between these cities by this time. That a former ally of Tikal displayed friendship with an enemy of Tikal indicates a change in the relationship between these nearest neighbors. This minor event did not bode well for Tikal. It indicated a tightening military presence slowly but surely encircling the City of the Lords, in a classic military pincer movement.

Inscriptions falling between AD 593 and 672 occur at sites both to the west and to the east of Tikal and these indicate that business as usual was being conducted on a friendly basis outside Tikal, while they remained hostile towards the great city. Notably, Tikal remains in silence during this entire period. Domination from Caracol, or possibly from a number of sites in collaboration, including Calakmul, seems as good an explanation as any currently available for this silence.

In AD 672 the site of Dos Pilas raised a new presence in the political landscape, leading to more speculation about what had been happening at Tikal. At this date, Dos Pilas recorded its own defeat by a "star war" event launched from Tikal, showing that Tikal had revived enough to effect this aggressive attack. As it happened Dos Pilas was a new site with roots in Tikal, but nevertheless, a hostile rival. The evidence substantiates this kind of connection, pointing towards an origin in Tikal for the founders of not just Dos Pilas but its entire political enclave including three other sites: Aguateca, Tamarindito, and Punto de Chimino. One interpretation of the connection between the Dos Pilas polity and Tikal is that collateral members of the royal family at Tikal, realizing that they could never aspire to rulership of the central capital, defected from the city and established a new base to the west toward the end of the Early Classic period. Evidence that this splinter hegemony established a new kingdom at Don Pilas out of Tikal is found in the dates themselves and the respective site emblem glyphs. The dates for the beginnings of the Dos Pilas group coincide with Tikal's time of intense conflict with surrounding powers.

Also, Dos Pilas itself adopted the Tikal emblem glyph as its own, as if calling itself "New Tikal." To our Western way of thinking this suggests most strongly that a disgruntled member of the Jaguar Claw clan at Tikal defected, realizing that he/she had little hope of power at the central capital, already under serious political and military siege. This personage (or personages) claimed the emblem glyph of the mother site for him/herself and proceeded to establish new allegiances, particularly with cities already hostile to Tikal.

The site of Dos Pilas had come into existence about AD 625, some 47 years before it recorded its own defeat by Tikal. Its establishment apparently occurred under the auspices and support of Calakmul, already well into conflict with Tikal at this time and all too ready to assist defectors.

This assumed dissension and defection from within the royal family must have been a blow to the current ruler already under severe siege by surrounding sites. The piracy of the Tikal city emblem glyph probably would never have succeeded without the support of a powerful ally like Calakmul.

These events have been argued convincingly by Schele, Grube, and Martin. By AD 588 Tikal found itself threatened by Caracol in the southeast, by Naranjo to the nearby east, by the giant Calakmul to the north, and even by the Dos Pilas hegemony to the west. Tikal was virtually surrounded by enemies. The beleaguered city's best allies lay far away, Palenque to the far west and Copan to the far south.

We know that the leader of the attack on Dos Pilas in AD 672 was Shield Skull I (Nu Bak Chak I) of Tikal, the 25th ruler in Tikal's succession, and this event fell within Tikal's period of silence. The record of the event is at Dos Pilas. The last ruler with a written record at Tikal was Lizard Head II, the 22nd ruler. This leaves a gap of two unknown rulers, the 23rd and 24th in the succession. As Genevieve Michel has noted, this is a very murky period with few clues to the identity of these missing rulers.

The clues that do exist come from painted inscriptions on ceramic vessels, one from Tikal and two of unknown provenance. These refer to a minor lord who lived at Tikal under the reign of lizard Head II. This minor lord, a sahal, was named "Star Jaguar" and he may have become the 23rd ruler. This person's son was called "Long Snout" and he may, in turn, have become the missing 24th ruler. These observations, however, are speculation filling in a cloudy gap. Because of the warfare and defeat of Tikal the rulers of this period could have been interlopers from Caracol, unrelated conquerors from Calakmul, or even suppressed descendants of the Jaguar Claw family itself. We simply do not know. The passage and transformation from the Early to the Late Classic at Tikal was a difficult time.

2:46 PM


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