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Two 1800 year old Maya terrace complexes

Two 1800 year old Maya terrace complexes


On my first day at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia,  its Director, Dr. Román Piña Chán, took a look at the course syllabus prepared by my Georgia Tech professors and grimaced.  He asked me if I wanted to be a typical turisto in Mexico or to learn how to reconstruct Mesoamerican buildings.    You see . . . most tourists only see Maya cities that have been opened for mass tourism.  The archaeologists and historic preservation architects have already done their thing.   Dr. Piña Chán wanted me to understand how Mesoamerican archaeological sites looked “in the raw.”  

I opted not to be a typical turisto.  Dr. Piña Chán waded up the Georgia Tech syllabus and tossed it in the trash can.  He told me that his graduate assistant, Alejandra, would have a new syllabus typed up for me in a couple of days.    Her study plan would take me into the boonies, where few Gringos have ever dared to tread.  It would be the 21st century before I appreciated the archaeologist’s reasoning.

An ancient terrace complex in Guatemala

The photo above is from an excellent website on Maya terrace agriculture that you might want to read.  It may be accessed at Maya Agriculture.

This photo was made at a Maya complex in northern Belize just after the camposinos had cleared off the first swath of underbrush.  This is what you should expect to see, if you are searching for terrace complexes in Georgia, eastern Alabama, northwestern South Carolina and northwestern Virginia . . . lines of rocks with lots of “age” on them . . . not picture perfect walls that seem to belong to some Rhine Valley vineyard.  

I have also seen terrace complexes in Georgia, where the builders mainly used logs for retaining walls.  The logs long ago rotted away.  This is particularly true at Little Mulberry River Park in Gwinnett County, GA and along the tributaries of the Oconee River in Jackson County, GA. 

Where stacked logs were utilized, all you will see is a subtle stair-stepping of the terrain. However, if the terraces are wide enough for three tractors to pass each other, you are probably looking at mid-20th century soil conservation techniques, not an ancient indigenous site.  I have run into several old plantation sites, where the plantation houses and outbuildings are gone, but the landscaping terrace walls are intact.  These type walls will look newer and probably show evidence of being quarried with metal tools.

In Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, there are many exceptions to the rule.  Several of the indigenous peoples of this region continue to farm ancient agricultural terraces.   Where they are farming, the land will be cleared and the walls will be better maintained.  However, the terrace complex will not exactly be the same as it was a 1000 years ago.

This terrace complex near Lake Attlan, Guatemala is almost identical to the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  It has small streams in ravines paralleling both sides of the complex.  Up the side of the mountain were larger terraces where Maya huts once stood. They are now used for growing corn. Most of the terraces were utilized for growing various types of beans.   The farmers grew squashes and pumpkins in terraces that were very fertile.  Most of the corn was grown down in the flood plain of a larger creek.  The corn is in the lower right had corner of the photo.

At the top of the complex are stone ruins, virtually identical to those at the top of the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  In both locations, these were temples and the homes of the elite, who managed the terrace complex. 


The terraces became more formal and closer spaced, near the top of the complex where building ruins of the acropolis were.


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Hey Richard,
    I was at Trackrock this past weekend and it was beautiful. This is the time of year to see it, no underbrush, poison ivyand no one was up there. I have shown some of the pictures to friends and they laugh at me saying that is a pile of rocks not a Mayan city. Last month my friends went to Tulum and had seen some of the ruins in the “raw” and got some pictures. They look like the walls in my pictures of Copal! I think they may have changed their mind about Trackrock.
    After you wrote the article on Cerro Gordo I spent about an hour looking on Google Earth at the area. You can see the abandoned terraces all over Cerro Gordo and the surrounding hills. Many terraces are still being used today and they must be ancient.
    Thanks again for all you do!

  2. Thank you for giving me moral support, Wayne! It helps a lot!


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