Travel Report: Within Tikal's Reach

Dr. Astrid Runggaldier on the field

This summer a small team, led by Dr. Astrid Runggaldier, set out on a Mesoamerica Center expedition. The group visited several sites in the Tikal region and wanted to locate the settlement of El Zapote, first reported by Ian Graham in 1974.

This pilot study was funded by a research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through UT’s Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. Its aims were to ground-check the best location and potential for developing a long-term project, provide training and research opportunities for graduate students, and enrich undergraduate courses at UT with original research.

This region has contributed important recent discoveries and developments in Preclassic and Early Classic studies as well as demonstrates the interaction between Maya and Central Mexican peoples.

Most sites within Tikal National Park were reached on foot from Tikal along narrow trails with the help of machete-wielding workers and archaeologists of the Atlas Arqueológico de Guatemala and guards of the National Park who monitor activities and prevent looting.

Edwin Roman, LLILAS Ph.D. candidate, made a photographic record of architectural features of interest, like the standing walls of structures at Corozal. Astrid Runggaldier and Alex Gantos tracked our paths through the jungle with GPS and recorded points for mounds and looters’ tunnels.

The sites of Navajuelal and Uolantun proved interesting though remote, and the trek took the wind out of everyone in the team that day. 


We explored the substantial structures at Chik’in Tikal, a site with a tall standing temple that offers excellent views of Tikal’s Temple IV, and were privileged to have access to the newly discovered site of El Celoso. At El Celoso, we examined construction episodes in the stratigraphy exposed by looters’ tunnels for clues to its chronology.

Outside of the National Park, the environment is very much changed by deforestation for cattle ranching and milpa farming but mounds and ceramic scatters are still clearly visible.

Despite the stark contrast between jungle and deforested areas, the landscape of hills north of the town of Macanché and east of El Caoba, provides breathtaking panoramas of the lakes and sink-holes around the site of El Zapote.
Locating El Zapote took several days of hiking up and down hills and hacking through dense and thorny secondary growth forest; however, we are happy to report that the structures and monuments discovered by Ian Graham are still protected under dense vegetation on the hilltop. Additional carved stelae from the site are stored at Tikal and in Guatemala City. 

Thanks to all who made for an exciting, if challenging, trip (we came to refer to it as “extreme tourism”), and contributed information or support to pursue a new project in an area that is well known, but still has much to offer: Edwin Román, Alex Gantos, Jorge Chocón and Tikal Park Administration, Gendry Valle, José Ranchos and Atlas Arqueológico de Guatemala, Elizabeth Marroquin, Vilma Fialko, Edy Barrios, Daniel Aquino and the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Etnología, the Departamento de Monumentos Prehispánicos, and the Dirección General del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural.