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How to Interpret Archaeology

Updated on November 3, 2014

Archaeology Evidence is Before Your Eyes

Archaeology is detective work whose outcome is based on accurately reading the evidence and deciding on the activities it represents. In most cases when something of the distant past is uncovered there is little to go on other than a few bits and pieces of bone, some debris, maybe a tool and sometimes the remnants of a building.

Recent civilisations may have plenty to spark the imagination and even historical records to help put things together. But when no records exist and sites are greatly disturbed by intruders and corruption of viable evidence the job is much harder.

One civilisation that sparked my interest is that of the Maya, who resided in MesoAmerica until around the ninth century. In this area much remains of their behaviour but the number of people who have placed their authoritative opinions over it left me to do a lot of digging to come up with other plausible answers. It is thought that the beginning of this archaeology may be as early as 2000 BC (Before Caesar).

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Was it a City, a State, or a Religious Site?

Piecing together the evidence

Tikal was buried in the thick jungle of Petn, in Guatemala. The temples were either taken over by massive growth or were completely covered by deposition. When first revealed during the 19th Century the archaeological community gasped. Here was something to rival Egypt in spectacular proportions. From the outset the enormity of organisation shown here and the skilful construction, use of materials and mysterious religious practices drew worldwide attention.

As the picture of the mask demonstrates these were people of knowledge, skills and discipline. The problem archaeologists faced was interpreting what finds like this mean.

Tikal is arguably one of the largest of the many Mayan cities. Spanning some 576 square kilometres it reeks of power and government and was possibly the main city of the Mayan, although kings ruled over others. The widespread range of these communities along with their designated kings and politics tells us that they were city states and that they vied with each other for power and control. That suggests wars and rivalry existed between them although there is little evidence of it.

Unlike in Egypt the rivalry may have been religiously based rather than by sheer force of numbers. This is borne out by the pyramids and the interpretation my research allows. Before making any assumptions there has to be sufficient background knowledge in the archaeologists mind to piece together the puzzle. In my case this went far outside the discipline into the regions of linguistics, anthropology and religious studies.

Are You Aware of The Mayan Civilisation?

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The World Encyclopedia of Archaeology: The World's Most Significant Sites and Cultural Treasures
The World Encyclopedia of Archaeology: The World's Most Significant Sites and Cultural Treasures

This is a thorough in depth look at archaeology throughout the world. Quote: "The main section of the book details each region of the world, with the authoritative text revealing the fascinating history of important archaeological sites." It will certainly help anyone interested to research sites and gain understanding of human progress over time.

Emblem Glyth Tikal
Emblem Glyth Tikal

Piecing Together the Archaeological Clues

The Mayan had a form of hieroglyps (pictured) to express their behaviour and to record events. They wrote these in codices (books), on walls and on stelae. But they had physical forms of expression that stand out like neon signs along main roads.

Because of my work in other areas these things were not new to me and when confronted with the purpose of the pyramids they were readable as if they flashed their lights with words. While the Mayan did not have an alphabet as we do they used pictures to describe their meaning, But they also used something else and it was this that made my day.

They used numbers and each number has specific meaning. For instance in every site studied by me the ancient Mother God had numbers attributed to her. They were 1,3,5 and 7 in the main. The number 1 stands for power and control as the sun is one, The number 3 represents the triune nature of her aspects, that is 'earth', 'sun', and 'light'. The number 5 is 'life' and as [f] and [v] are interchangeable 'life', 'live' five'' and 'fife' have the same meaning. The sun is the giver and sustainer of life on earth, The number 7 stands for the law, whoch was handed down from the sun through interpretation by high priests. The seven pointed star appears on law enforcement uniforms and vehicles to this day. It played a role in Mayan culture to depict who occupied certain sites.

Sons of the sun, Mayan kings, also had numbers. The man ones were 2, 4 and 9. The king is second (that is number2) in line and 2 and 7 (the king plus the law) is 9. Ths indicates that the king has married Mother God and is her consort. As such he has attained great power in death and temples were built to worship him, as they were in Egypt and elsewhere.

The two main pyramids in the Tikal layout comprise one of three rises and one of nine rises. To me they indicate that the first represents Mother God and the second is her consort, the dead king. The hyroglyph from Tikal shows two figures embracing and they could well represent the marriage of the two gods. This would make Tikal an extremely holy place.

If my interpretation is correct this was the place of the king's resurrection and marriage to the Divine. This is borne out in another famous location in the region, which is discussed below.

Another structure comprises a platform on which human sacrifice occurred. The normal manner of sacrifice was the extraction of the beating heart from victims who posibly volunteered their giving of it. The operator was extremely skilful in it's removal and in one stroke wouild seize it and lift it still beating upwards to the sun, It was then burnt in a special container called a brazier and the smoke rose upwards to bring strength to the sun. The platform was elevated by 5 rises that indicates it meant life for the community. Such events were obviously held to ward off plagues, famine, and other destructive forces.

But self emulation was also practiced here.

There is much about Tikal that stands out in the archaeology. It was a kingdom with power. Religion was practised here. Human sacrifice was normal. They were matriarchal They worshipped the sunThe kings were sons of the sun Kings were considered gods.

Movies On Archaelogy

Image from Wipipedia
Image from Wipipedia

Archaeological Links to Other Civilisations

Kings are depicted lopping off their own heads while dancing and ladies drawing barbed ropes through their tongues (pictured) show the extent of this behaviour. The headless corpses were recorded in glyphs in Catal Huyak in Turkey. There are found images of the cross along with headless bodies dancing in the presence of large stylised vulture like birds. Present on the walls are depictions of the Mother God with arms outstretched represented the four arms of the cross.

In the Buddhist regions of the Himalayas bodies are carved up and fed to vultures that then carry them upwards towards heaven. There is evidence that the Maya believed in birds as representing dead kings. In Egypt the gods are often depicted with the heads of birds. But there are other similarities.

In the tomb of Ramses 11 he is laid out with his arms crossed and above him is Osiris with the head of a bird. In Palenque the tomb of Pacal is strikingly similar to that of the Egyptian pharaohs that it is hard to deny there is a link.

Pacal is in a sarcophagus with an elaborately carved lid that depicts him falling into the earth off a cross. Sitting on the cross above his head is an elaborate bird. Like Ramses, who was known as 'barley', the main staple of Egypt, Pacal is surrounded by heads of corn, the staple of the Maya.

Mayan Calendar
Mayan Calendar

Tikal is Shown to the World

The world gasped in amazement

Alfred P Maudslay first drew sketches of the centre of Tikal in 1881-1882. That makes the site relatively new and as it was not fully revealed until the 1960's archaeologists are still working there and finding new discoveries. This lens does not cover everything known about the site and here my purpose was simply to give an insight into how one pieces evidence together to arrive at a conclusion.

Unlike many cultures around the world the Mayan had a calendar and knowledge of the seasons; they had sophisticated insight into the movements of the planets and were not naive about agriculture and construction of buildings that have stood for more than a millennia. The stones that were used were carved using nothing more than stone tools and there was no mortar used to hold them in place.

To me Tikal is a place of sacrifice and resurrection of the king into a god who then mates with Mother God to bring prosperity to the earth. He has the lives of those who follow him in his hands and by worshipping and dying for him his subjects expected to have a place in his eternal kingdom. This was the same with those who sacrificed their lives for their kings in Egypt, China and elsewhere.

Tikal is exciting, strange and full of mystery and it draws people to it today probably in the same way as it did when the Maya community lived here. They come to be a part of the atmosphere and to soak up what is left of the culture that built such a place.

Archaeology is all detective work based on prior knowledge of how communities work, what they consider important and how they worshipped their gods. The wider one's education is in these aspects prior to interpretation of them the more successful one is at their job. It also means they can create even more interest and excitement in the minds of others who support the excavations and give money to teams to undertake the enormous amount of work involved in painstakingly revealing what has been hidden for centuries, even several millennia.

For me linguistics plays a huge role in reading sites and understanding the behaviour. Anthropology is important as communities appear to have similar traits that is borne out in the iconography and landscapes they chose to live in. Often those sites were out of the way places, devoid of water and frequently perched on a mountain peak. To understand the logic behind them one has to reach out and be willing to explore everything no matter how tiny the evidence or how difficult it is to extract.

That's what archaeology is about and it is a great scientific discipline that engages in many forms of science including DNA analysis, examining time factors, forensics, human and animal anatomy, and so forth. It is neither for the faint hearted nor for anyone unwilling to put themselves into extremes of heat, frustration and danger places. The rewards, however, are enormous.

Ancient Maya

National Geographic Investigates: Ancient Maya: Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of the Maya's Past
National Geographic Investigates: Ancient Maya: Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of the Maya's Past

The ancient Maya was part of my study for my honors thesis. The rituals and behavior match that of Egypt and ancient Britain and the history of the people is fascinating,


Have you learned something here?

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© 2012 norma-holt

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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      You've got it in one. Coun'ldt have put it better.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Enjoyable and educational lens. Regret to realize that I forgot so many things about ancient history, especially the American part...

    • maryLuu profile image


      6 years ago

      An Interesting trip to the past... Loved it!

    • nickybutler profile image


      6 years ago

      Fantastic lens, so informative! Thanks :)

    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 

      6 years ago

      i learned a lot from this lens although i have basic knowledge about it. thank you for sharing and blessings. hoping that the end of the world is not near.

    • DecoratingEvents profile image


      6 years ago

      WOW! This was very good! I have always loved the idea that there was an Atlantis -- an ancient civilization much more advanced. Learning about the past is key to the future! ;D

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This was so interesting! Thank you for teaching me a bit more about ancient civilizations.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      6 years ago from United States

      This is really awesome! There is so much to see and learn. I will have to return to take the quizzes. I was too busy reading this time :)

    • CheyanneWassell profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for such a lovely lense. The Mayan, though not my favourite in ancient civilization, are still truly facinating. Good work!

    • Snowsprite profile image


      6 years ago from Cornwall, UK

      Great lens. Hope to visit and see they ruins one day.

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 

      6 years ago from Albany New York

      Very well done and informative lens. I enjoyed it.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very well done lens. You showed your knowledge on stuff an intense and interesting topic, as well as breaking it down to make it easier for regular people to understand. Plus, those quizzes helped to remind people (well, me) to actually read what you wrote :) Great lens!

      Li Li


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