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.
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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