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There was something of a resurgence of grand Mayan architecture in what is known as the “postclassic” period that lasted until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s—although the post-classic style, best represented by the pyramid complex of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula that flourished until around 1250, was heavily influenced by the cultures of the Toltec and Aztec Indians of central Mexico, who might even have invaded and subjected the Mayan territories.Archaeologists were long aware that there had also been a “preclassic” Mayan period dating from roughly 1,800 b.c.The preclassic Maya were also just as sophisticated artistically and culturally as their successors: Some of the stucco panels in a frieze at El Mirador depict the “Hero Twins,” the protagonists of the Mayan creation myth that would be written down nearly 1,500 years later in the , one of the few surviving Mayan narrative texts.And as Hansen and other archaeologists later discovered, instead of practicing relatively inefficient slash-and-burn agriculture, which requires farmers to move their fields every few years as the soil becomes exhausted, the Maya of the Mirador Basin constructed terraces into which they hauled nutrient-rich mud from nearby swamps, enabling the cultivation of dense harvests of corn, squash, chili peppers, and beans that could feed tens of thousands of people on limited acreage.Shortly after that weekend in Rupert, he would be back in Guatemala entertaining a top NASA official and ferrying around some VIPs from the National Geographic Society—more fundraising, that is.The weekend in Rupert itself had a whirlwind quality.The gigantic El Mirador complex had first been discovered in 1926, and it was assumed that owing to its sheer size and elaborate layout, it represented yet another classic-period city like Tikal, only in worse condition.But while excavating a chamber in the bottom level of a structure at El Mirador known as the Jaguar Paw Temple (the jungle cat had totemic significance for the Maya), the 26-year-old Hansen came across fragments of polished-red pottery, undisturbed for centuries, that could only be preclassic in origin.
“It was boggling to think we were standing on the labor of thousands of people from antiquity, and to imagine their vanished metropolis,” But the sheer size of the Mirador Basin settlement isn’t what made Richard Hansen famous.
Hansen’s theories about the cultural refinement of preclassic Mayan civilization have been borne out by later archaeological findings.
In 2001, for example, William Saturno, now an archaeology professor at Boston University, uncovered a set of brilliantly colored frescoes at the preclassic site of San Bartolo not far from Tikal that also recounted events narrated in the Archaeological digs are usually a summertime affair—at El Mirador the excavations run from May to September in order to accommodate the school year for professors and students—so I met with Hansen in the off-season, late February, when he was temporarily back in Rupert, Idaho, where he is the second-most famous native son after television personality Lou Dobbs (who was born in Rupert but no longer lives there).
After 900, that civilization appears to have collapsed, and the inhabitants of its impressive cities abandoned them precipitously.
The Mayan ruins at Tikal, as well as those at such well-traveled tourist destinations as Uxmal and Palenque in southern Mexico and Copán in Honduras, all represent glorious architectural phases of the classic Mayan period.