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Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acropolis of Tikal, 6 vols.


Although the first volume of the Tikal reports was published as long ago as 1958, two years after the project's start, the appearance of William Coe's six-volume treatise on the excavation of the North Acropolis and Temples I and II marks the metamorphosis of the Tikal work in the minds of most Mayanists. Until now, the reporting of the excavation of major buildings and monuments at this urban site in the lowland tropical forests of Peten, Guatemala had developed only to the intermediate stage of doctoral dissertations (e.g. Jones 1969; Harrison 1970) interim reports (Adams & Trik 1961; Coe 1962; 1963; 1965a; Coe & Broman 1958; Guillemin 1970; Satterthwaite et al. 1961), introductions to the excavations (Coe 1982; Shook & Coe 1961), popular publications (Coe 1965b; 1967; Coe & McGinn 1963), and lists of manuscripts in preparation (see Coe 1982: 57--61). Now, from the chrysalis of 20 years of synthesis, analysis and introspection that have passed since the project's close in 1970, has emerged, not a slender-bodied creature of lightness and flight, but nonetheless the final form of the animal: three volumes of narrative reporting, two bound volumes of figures and one volume of unbound oversized maps and sections, all of which subsume 1007 pages of text, 333 figures, 157 tables and 2 charts.

Review perspective

The Tikal volumes belong to the class of scholarly archaeological reporting known as the monograph. Most monographs of archaeological excavations function as source books rather than interpretive narratives to be read from cover to cover at one or several sittings. We might initially read a monograph's introduction, then move to chronological summaries, overall architectural or occupational trends and then on to the synthesis and conclusions. Unfortunately, the explanatory style of the Tikal reporting is an obstacle to the normal ease with which such a first foray can be made. Whether or not thwarted by this factor in the Tikal case, at some later date we would apply ourselves to detailed descriptions of structures, features and stratigraphy. This step is most likely to occur when we have specific questions about our own excavations for which parallels are sought, or even sooner if we are reviewing the monograph for a journal. The outcome of such intensive scrutiny is that we become aware of the strong and weak points of the archaeological reporting. We learn what parts are most useful, what makes trends easy to follow, what has been left out or what might not be fully explained. The resultant review should point to what is both good and bad about the reporting.

With the Tikal volumes, however, a simple focus on good versus bad is not possible. Although I have criticisms that are positive and negative, they do not apply to portions of the text that can be singled out, or translate in terms of what Coe could have improved, or point out what ought to have been included or left out. (Nothing was left out by this master of structure and stratigraphy, except a commitment to the active voice.) The only way to approach Tikal Report 14 is to see it as a cosmic Mesoamerican experience.

The ancient Maya, like the better known Aztecs, did not dichotomize the world, Christian-fashion, into good and evil forces that were seen as a struggle between moral absolutes (Burkhart 1989: 34--9). Their universe was sustained by chaos as well as order, darkness as well as light; both positive and negative forces were 'essential, functional components of the cosmos' (Burkhart 1989: 37). Disharmony was as essential as harmony, and opposing forces were seen as dependent on one another for the world to function. Coe's Tikal volumes are part of this Mesoamerican world-view. Whatever is positive about the work, and there is much on which I will elaborate below, is brought about by and inseparable from what is negative, mainly Coe's circuitous expository style. Like the Mesoamerican universe, the Tikal volumes and the information contained therein embody a single principle -- not a divine principle in this case, as far as I know, but a single principle nonetheless: the mind-set of William R. Coe.

Before I explore the principle, I must make one more important point about the review process. Most reviews serve readers best by helping them to decide whether or not to acquire, or to recommend acquisition of, a book. In the case of the Tikal volumes there is no question as to whether they are essential documents with comparative information of value. Tikal has for a long time been the paramount site in the lowlands. Whether one likes it or not -- and as an archaeologist who works in Belize I have had some occasion to like it not -- the spirit of Tikal is everywhere. Therefore I think it is safe to say unequivocally that the Tikal volumes were essential even before they were written. What I will attempt to provide in this review is the sense of why they are both useful and ineffective.

The publication quality of the volumes is excellent, and the books will hold up to years of handling. The text font is pleasing to the eye and conducive to the intensive and repeated scanning to which excavation reports as comprehensive as this are subject. The binding is strong yet flexible, and allows the reader to press back the covers and easily keep relevant pages in multiple volumes open at the same time, which will be necessary to follow through aspects of the reporting. The photographs are large and clear, and serve the illustrative purposes for which they were intended. Overall I find no flaws whatsoever in the design of publication. Although this may not seem of paramount importance with some kinds of archaeological writing, excavation reports of this class see long-term and intensive use, and this one was clearly published with heavy use in mind.

Terms for non-Mayanists

Before I proceed to the esoterica of excavating and reporting on Maya monumental architecture, I need to describe the conceptual architectural divisions in common use among Mayanists. The terminology used in the Tikal reporting is introduced in Tikal Report 5 (Shook & Coe 1961) and refined in Tikal Report 12 (Coe 1982: 47--9). A lexicon of Maya architectural terms built in part on the Tikal work also exists (Loten & Pendergast 1981). 'Platforms' are essentially raised surfaces built over a solid core of construction material faced on all sides with dressed limestone blocks. Platforms can be very large and support assemblages of structures, or can be relatively small and support single buildings. More often than not they are terraced or 'stepped'. What exist at Tikal, and indeed at most major Maya site centres, are broad platforms of great areal extent that support numbers of smaller platforms that in turn support masonry buildings. A masonry building and the specific platform supporting it are usually labelled a 'structure' because they are seen as a unit. In fact in the Maya area a building, either masonry or wooden, is almost never without a platform of some sort.

On the broad, extensive platforms, open areas bounded by structures are usually called 'plazas'. This is true at Tikal, although the term 'terrace' is also used to define open space on a large platform that is not bounded by structures. Hence the North Acropolis is surrounded by an open platform surface called the 'North Terrace', which in turn leads on its south side to the Great Plaza bounded by Temples I and II. In the final reporting, however, the terms 'terrace' and 'plaza' are not formalized as constructional terms; the North Terrace becomes part of Platform 5D-4, and the Great Plaza is Platform 5D-1 (pp. 1--11; Coe 1982: 47).

Volume overview

The volumes themselves are divided according to logical architectural and excavation criteria. Volume I is devoted to the 'two platforms [5D-4 and 5D-1] ... isolated as the fundamental underpinnings of the entire group' (p. 4). Platofrm 5D-4 refers to the successive, and in Coe's terms, major planar masses that support and front the North Acropolis; Platform 5D-1 refers likewise to the Great Plaza, which supports the major Temples I and II. Summaries and correlation of the construction histories of 5D-4 and 5D-1 appear in Volume I (pp. 160--64, 195--8), whereas the excavations of the 33 buildings they support(ed) are described in Volume II along with attendant additions, modifications, caches, burials, stone monuments and various features. Each structure and its excavation data form the subject of a section, followed by notes on architecture, distinguishing construction features, lots, dating and, finally, 'Time Span' summaries. Volume III complements the first two volumes, in which reporting is organized along the lines of building and associated activity, by providing detailed descriptions of larger-scale finds such as chultuns, stelae, altar stones and other stone monuments. Most of the volume, however, is devoted to the synthesis and integration of all the different kinds of data that pertain to the North Acropolis and the Great Plaza, known collectively as Group 5D-2.

Volume I

Platforms and Introduction to work

In Volume I, Coe (pp. 4, 11) makes clear that though the segregation of the Acropolis/Terrace platforms (5D-4) from those of the Great Plaza (5D-1) is somewhat arbitrary (data on the former are far more substantial than data on the latter), the segregation of both 5D-4 and 5D-1 from the structures, stelae or chultuns with which they are associated is not. Coe justifies segregation by saying that it facilitates description, but admits freely to problems, as in the case of Platform 5D-1, in '... [straining] to speak of intrinsic formation and sequence divorced from what lay on and about it' (p. 195). Whether one agrees or not with his approach, the schematic sections of the massive supporting platforms in figure 8b are a statement of their compositional integrity.

Those with no immediate interest in platforms will find Coe's introduction the most significant portion of the volume. It builds on Tikal Report 5 in which terminology is laid out, but more important, it provides critical insight into the genesis of the reporting. Coe emphasizes here how much of the terminology reflects the manner of excavation rather than the ultimate interpretive framework. This seems at first to be counter-productive, but it is in fact a great strength. If one reviews the plans relating to the constructional history of Group 5D-2, for example (figure 6a--l), one might be confused as to why some structures have a 'Sub'. prefix, as in 'Str. 5D-Sub.3'. After all, everything is under something else. Could it be a change in orientation? The change from Str. 5D-26-4th to 5D-26-3rd (figure 6f, g) shows this is not so, as from the former to the latter there were changes in plan, orientation and composition. The answer lies in process. As Coe explains, 'This report is in essence arranged in response to often intimate knowledge of inherent parts, long before worrying about their outward articulation in time and space' (p. 8). The 'Sub.' designations reflect constructional history and character revealed through excavation rather than the buildings as they ultimately appear. Buildings without the designation are those demolished and rebuilt by the Maya in at least roughly the same spot without being sealed or concealed from archaeologists by a major floor or platform. Buildings with the 'Sub.' designation are those whose existence was not even hinted at until major floors, units and/or platforms were excavated to reveal them beneath.

This approach to terminology is that of an archaeologist. Architects might protest, because the Maya moved in and out of rooms whose appearance and function were not dependent on how they were later demolished. The dynamics of Maya life are obscured when terminology reflects excavation at the expense of reconstruction. Yet Coe's approach is an acceptable option for two reasons: the architect's scenario can always be created from the excavation data, and the emphasis on the revelatory excavation experience means that we also have a window on the history of decision-making. The terminology used, as the result of design, legacy, and expediency, reflects the process of discovery, and in this way the basis for interpretation is reconstructable. The disadvantage is unwieldy terminology that makes it difficult to envision buildings as use-oriented. The Unit, a generic term applied to different kinds of features such as portions of construction core, walls, pits, floors, etc. is the greatest barrier. But it is possible for explanation ultimately to emerge. Coe's style makes his work seem like an impenetrable wall of esoterica, but ironically, esoterica are not the problem. The ancestry of the information he boasts is completely traceable, and the system works. It will continue to function should excavations begin again at the North Acropolis at some distant point in time. For the present, with the help of tables, appendices, strong book-binding, lots of time, plenty of will-power and several pints, one is equipped to wrestle with Coe's construction accounts, and insight is possible.

Volume II


Volume II, on the constructional and architectural history of each of the many buildings of the North Acropolis and Great Plaza, is the heart of Tikal Report 14. Although, as I explained above, the Tikal terminology reflects the excavation process (the latest phase of a building is the first encountered and is named as such, so that Str. 5D-26-1st is later than 5D-26-2nd), the structures are discussed in chronological order in terms of how they were built, altered, added to and demolished to make way for new construction. Here, the tables are extremely useful. They list each structure's Unit designations, describe them and provide figure references. The tables at the end of the discussion of a structure summarize the relative chronology with associated additions, features, lots and other data listed phase by phase. Although all of the construction activity related to the erection of a building is discussed, any construction or demolition of platforms, stairs or floors that are part of the Acropolis/Terrace or Great Plaza is detailed in Volume I under the discussion of Platforms 5D-4 and 5D-1. This, and the fact that Platforms 5D-4 and 5D-1 have their own numbered sequence of Units, can be mind-boggling. When one looks at realistic rather than schematic sections, for example, and is interested in details of a construction feature, one must determine whether it is part of the building and its immediate platform, or part of the major sustaining platform. Because the Maya were constantly demolishing buildings, razing walls and filling rooms with debris to form sustaining masses for superimposed structures, this distinction is not always easy to make.

Volume III

Stone monuments

In Volume III, the discussions of the carved and plain stone monuments are as meticulous as expected, but it is difficult to maintain interest when stelae are discussed archaeologically and not in a historical context. Descriptions concern position, shape, incision depth, and often contexts of re-erection, an extremely interesting phenomenon at Tikal, discussed at length in Time Span 2 (pp. 866--73). But the lives of kings must wait until Tikal Report 33.

Synthesis and integration

The most important part of Volume III is the 'Group 5D-2 Integration'. Herein lie the summary and coordination of the entire construction history of the North Acropolis and Great Plaza, as well as various topical discussions of architectural trends and features. My recommendation to those who would think to look to this section first for a general overview of Tikal's monumental construction history is, don't hold your breath. But if driven, like me, by some insane and compulsive quest for knowledge, turn first to the figures. The schematic sections (figure 8a, b, c) are, in my view, the most immediate means by which the reader can obtain a 'feel' for the long-term constructional relationships among the buildings, platforms and floor expanses that make up the North Acropolis and the Great Plaza. These sections communicate the sheer power of built form as well as the magnitude of limestone construction that began in the 8th century BC, and did not wind down until the end of the 8th century AD (Chart 1). Add to this the summary of the history of the North Acropolis depicted visually in the plans of figure 6a--l, and the achievement, both the Mayas' and Coe's, is Olympian.


Coe's Group 5D-2 integration, and indeed all the narrative as opposed to visual construction summaries remain, on the other hand, difficult to tackle. Platform 5D-4 and 5D-1 and their correlation in Volume I (pp. 195--6), the 'Time Span' summaries of the individual structural excavations in Volume II and the final integration of the North Acropolis and Great Plaza construction history in Volume III (pp. 806--939) interweave and synthesize considerable and impressive detail, but do not facilitate an overall understanding of the history of the North Acropolis. There are two reasons why this is so.

Understanding construction histories

First, to begin to appreciate the Group 5D-2 integration in Volume III one must already have internalized at least the outlines of constructional histories of buildings and be reasonably literate in the separate systems of building and platform labelling. It is possible to turn to a section of the 'Group 5D-2 Integration' and look up the various relevant name and number designations in the appendices and tables. Coe's Appendices A--G (pp. 949--1002), which can be used along with the more specific tables, are a ready reference and provide complete lists of all excavation and architectural components (e.g. operations, lots, burials, caches, floors, platform units) along with locations, associations and figure references for complete clarification. He leaves no stone of identification unturned. Even given this, my advice to anyone interested in a short-cut to understanding Acropolis and Great Plaza integration is that there isn't any. It is easier to start from the beginning and camp out with the volumes for a while than it is to leap unarmed into the 'Group 5D-2 Integration'.

In other words, to appreciate group construction histories fully the reader must come to know what Coe knows, and almost in as much detail. There have been times, in fact, when I thought it would be faster to go back and dig the North Acropolis than to read through the volumes. However one reaches the higher plane of awareness, the 'Group 5D-2 Integration' then opens up limitless possibilities. For example, along with the realistic protrayal of both building and platform sections (e.g. figures 9 & 10), there is an array of fascinating information on core construction engineering and masonry traditions (pp. 892--900). There were periods when platform masonry differed profoundly from wall masonry, and other times when the two were similar. Coe writes of 'big stone' and 'micro-masonry' traditions, neither of which seems to have enjoyed an engineering advantage. Here, I think, lies the kind of information that will become useful as we learn more from different sites about Maya masonry and engineering practices. Rulers, scribes and potters shared information from city to city; engineers and architects must also have done, but how, and according to what patterns? Did rulers attempt to imitate or out-do one another in monumental construction? Did related ruling families control architects and their plans, engineers and their designs? Can the buildings and the act of construction tell us more about inter-site relationships if we ask the right questions? I think so, and if more archaeological reports imitate Coe's thoroughness and sensitivity for structural, stratigraphic and engineering detail (but not his explanatory style), we will someday have the answers in hand.

Expository style

This brings me, however, to the other reason why overall understanding of construction history is not facilitated by Coe's summaries and integration, and this is his style of exposition. An example (p. 161):

'To expand on this last point [a reference to acts of demolition and preparation of surfaces of older buildings prior to new construction] three closely erected Acropolis faces (U.62, 60, 54) and, to some extent, a fourth as well (U. 63) were wrecked, if not obliterated, by the U. 101 demolition at the start of Plat. 5D-4-4th assembly. To interpret a scribe-line and differential wear as representing long-lived, peripheral, basal terracing (e.g. U. 60) inevitably depends on simple factoring of rather consternatingly diverse possibilities. Similarly, a great substratum of confusion results from the U.172 excavation to solidify the S Terrace. Such, of course, destroyed a lengthy buildup of pavements, the leading edges of some already ruined by prior rip-outs. Consequently, throughout much of crucial excv. 9e, f (Fig. 9), the earliest Terrace floor encountered was relatively late U. 27, laid over a base formed by U. 172 digging. A great amount of inherently controversial juggling of possibilities thus underlies a reconstruction of centuries of Terrace composition.'

What this means is that at the beginning of a new stage in platform construction on the Acropolis (Plat. 5D-4-4th, Figure 8b), the Maya carried out major demolition that wrecked several major earlier Acropolis faces (U.62, 60, 54 and possibly 63, all schematized in Figure 8a). Coe's point is that the existence of these faces had to be inferred from very minimal evidence: in one case (U.60) it was only a builder's mark(?) (a scribe-line) and the presence of differential floor wear at the junction where the vertical Acropolis face met the terrace floor to the south (S Terrace). As if this were not minimal enough, the terrace floor with the scribe-line (U.47, 29) was only a remnant of a series of floors that were periodically damaged both before and during the time the Maya dug into the South Terrace to stabilize it and to cover it with a new floor (U.27). This new floor was only the latest of the series of floors (pavements) and the only one in fact to survive to any great extent, at least in the area where excavations were carried out. These examples are meant to demonstrate that 1 demolition was often incredibly extensive, and 2 that the shreds of evidence for some phases of construction mean that there are other reconstruction options.

Every paragraph in the volumes is packed with information, but hard to follow. I found I would start with a great deal of energy but wear down quickly, not so much because of the lengthy process involved in tracing designations -- which can be fun -- but because referents are unclear, the passive voice is all too common, Coe's use of descriptors is often idiosyncratic and I find the sentence structure circuitous. One can handle a single paragraph, and perhaps the next, but add paragraph to paragraph and the process becomes wearing.

Building relationships

There is one area, despite the wear and tear, for which I sought information but could not find it, and this was the relationship of buildings' axes to one another through time. Indeed any emphasis on individual buildings' axes, other than what is depicted in the figures, is lacking. This may of course be slated for the Tikal synthesis in Report 39. Although the changes in the major axis of the Acropolis are tracked (figure 5) and orientation to cardinal directions discussed (pp. 883--4), only one tantalizing reference is made to the importance of explaining changes in North Acropolis alignment by reference to buildings that stood in the East and West Plaza areas (p. 884). The concept of the primary axis (Loten & Pendergast 1984: 3), a line through the centre of a structure from front to rear that serves as a kind of lifeline for a building, is a major theme that runs through the Altun Ha descriptions of building histories (e.g. Pendergast 1990), and it remains to be seen whether this is a pan-Maya phenomenon.

Volumes IV, V, VI: Figures

I have already alluded to the advantages of exploring Coe's visual imagery prior to confronting his narrative. The figures are extremely well executed and present the data in interpretive, schematic and realistic formats. The interpretive format, usually blended with realistic representation derived from excavation, is used largely for presentations of building plans and sections in which dashed lines help to create complete images of buildings, platforms, floors or features which have been only partially exposed. The major difficulty the reader will have is not in reading plans and sections, but in co-ordinating them. Those dealing with major axes of construction activity are especially challenging and not for the faint-hearted. In Coe's defence, the quantity of detailed information meticulously presented in a profusion of sections probably acted against the feasibility of noting the axes of sections on the plans to which they relate, as the resulting illustration would have looked like a patolli board. The only alternative seems to have been to allow the reader the joy of virtual reality. One must picture oneself in the midst of the North Acropolis, in the right place during the Time Span looking in the right direction, in order to coordinate the slices with the pie.


I close with an explanation of my title. How does one find a title for a Tikal review? Rather than fail in an attempt at grandeur that would match the subject matter, I turned to one of the parts of the text I enjoyed -- where Coe's sense of irony, and I think fun, and as such his confidence in his work, shines through. So much of the later time-spans involve sorting out layers of bat guano, rodent bones and what appeared to be plaster fallout (e.g. pp. 866--8) that I decided to borrown Coe's words for these less than illustrious but nevertheless informative stratigraphic deposits. Thus we leave the majesty of Tikal as it was originally concealed, by 'rats and bats' and 'fluffy stuff'.


ADAMS, R.E.W. & A.S. TRIK. 1961. Temple I (Str. 5D-1): Post-constructional activities. Philadelphia (PA): University Museum. Tikal Report 7.

BURKHART, L.M. 1989. The slippery earth. Tucson (AZ): University of Arizona Press.

COE, W.R. 1962. A summary of excavation and research at Tikal, Guatemala: 1956--1961. American Antiquity 27: 479--507. 1963. A summary of excavation and research at Tikal, Guatemala: 1962, Estudios de Cultura Maya 3: 41--64. 1965a. Tikal Guatemala, and emergent Maya civilization, Science 147: 1101--1419. 1965b. Tikal: ten years of study of a Maya ruin in the lowlands of Guatemala, Expedition 8(1): 5--56. 1967. Tikal: a handbook of the ancient Maya ruins. Philadelphia (PA): University Museum. 1982. Introduction to the archaeology of Tikal, Guatemala. Philadelphia (PA): University Museum.

COE, W.R. & J.J. MCGINN. 1963. Tikal: the North Acropolis and an early tomb, Expedition 5(2): 24--32.

COE, W.R. & V.L. BROMAN. 1958. Excavations in the Stela 23 Group. Philadelphia (PA): University Museum. Tikal Report 2.

GUILLEMIN, G.F. 1970. Artefactos de madera en un entierro clasico tardio de Tikal, 38th International Congress of Americanists (Stuttgart-Munich) 1: 175--8.

HARRISON, P.D. 1970. The Central Acropolis, Tikal, Guatemala: a preliminary study of the functions of its structural components during the Late Classic Period. Ph.D dissertation, University of Pennsylvania. Ann Arbor (MI): University Microfilms.

JONES, C. 1969. The Twin Pyramid Group Pattern: a Classic Maya architectural assemblage at Tikal, Guatemala. Ph.D dissertation, University of Pennsylvania. Ann Arbor (MI): University Microfilms.

LOTEN, H.S. & D.M. PENDERGAST. 1984. A lexicon for Maya architecture. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.

PENDERGAST, D.M. 1990. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964--1970 3. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.

SATTERTHWAITE, L., V.L. BROMAN & W.A. HAVILAND. 1961. Miscellaneous excavations ... Philadelphia (PA): University Museum. Tikal Report 8.

SHOOK, E.M. & W.R. COE. 1961. Tikal: numeration, terminology and objectives. Philadelphia (PA): University Museum. Tikal Report 5.
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Author:Graham, Elizabeth
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Date:Sep 1, 1993
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