September 9, 2006 Dr. David Webster, Pennsylvania State University: "The Great Tikal Earthwork: Fortification or Folly?"

              Dr. David Webster galvanized the PCS audience with his talk on the Great Tikal Earthwork. The discovery of this apparently defensive earthwork at  Tikal, Guatemala, in 1966, by University of Pennsylvania archaeologists Dennis Puleston and Donald Calendar, was a serious blow to the belief in the peaceful Maya, which still prevailed, despite the discovery of the Bonampak Murals in 1946. Cutting twelve kilometer transects out from the center of Tikal, Pulestan and Calendar discovered and mapped a 9.5 km earthwork and ditch four km north of Tikal, and a smaller 1 km segment to the southeast of Tikal. From these segments, Pulestan and Calendar theorized that a great earthwork had been built around the city, and extrapolated its shape, which they felt ran between the bajos which surrounded  Tikal.  They believed that the earthwork had been built to defend agricultural lands in approximately 400CE, during a war with Waxactun. The theory and projected shape were widely accepted; population estimates of the greater Tikal polity were projected from its theoretical size and shape. Inspired by this work at Tikal, Dr. Webster excavated at the site of Becan, in 1970, where he discovered a smaller defensive earthwork, surrounding the site, probably built in 250-300CE. This discovery reinforced the findings at Tikal, as well as the growing acceptance of a more warlike Maya.

            In 2003, Dr Webster received a National Science Foundation grant to remap the segments of the Great Tikal Earthwork, and find its southern boundary. His team, which included Tim Murtha, Jay Silverstein, Kirk Straight, Horacio Martinez and others excavated many small, widespread test pits, and conducted GPS settlement surveys, supplemented by aerial imagery. Their findings, after three field seasons, were not what Dr. Webster had anticipated. He did find that the earthworks were made primarily of limestone, which had been excavated from the ditches fronting the earthworks, and piled onto the existing surface.  The earthworks found were always built toward the center of Tikal, with the ditches on the outside, even when that meant that the earthwork itself might end up downhill of the surrounding terrain. He also found the elevations of the earthwork were erratically inconsistent, in a manner that did not seem to be caused by erosion. Additional segments of the earthwork were discovered, including a fairly substantial segment which stretched a great distance to the southwest, well beyond the limits of the present day park. None of their extensive work uncovered any evidence of a southern earthwork; the site is bounded by milpas to the south, which  show no soil disturbance indicative of an earlier earthwork. Dr. Webster estimates that the amount of labor needed to construct the existing earthwork segments would have been three or four times that required to build Temple 1 of Tikal, and that the work was probably done between 700-800CE.

              The purpose of the Earthwork, however, now seems to be unclear. Dr. Webster feels that the irregularity, size and discontinuity of its segments would have been difficult to defend. There seems to be little evidence that it was simply remains of quarries, or a drainage project. Could it have been built as traffic or tax control or to define the area which took the toponym Yax Mutal? Although there is an overall lessening in population density of the sporadic settlements as one moves out from Tikal; there is no clear division at the earthwork.  Indeed, the investigating team found that the apparent population density immediately north of the northern earthwork was slightly greater than that directly south of the earthwork.  Was the earthwork begun as one or more of these things, and later abandoned, unfinished?  Dr. Webster most provocative talk raised many questions which were debated later in lively discussion.

       David Webster is a Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, where he has taught since 1972. The results of his current Great Tikal Earthwork project can be found in The Tikal Earthworks Revisited, Occasional Paper in Anthropology No. 28, Dept. of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University. His latest publication is The Maya Mystique, in Archaeological Fantasies, edited by Garrett Fagan; Routledge; 2006. Other recent publications have been:  Ancient Maya Warfare, in War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds; Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds.; Harvard University Press and Copan: The Rise and Fall of a Classic Maya Kingdom, with Anncorinne Freter, and Nancy Gonlin; Harcourt Brace; Fort Worth; 2000.

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