Occupied for over a thousand years, Tikal was a functioning city from Pre-Classic times (600 BC250 AD), reaching it's height during the Late Classic period (600900 AD).
It has been known to Western scholars and explorers since the 19th Century through the detailed 1881 drawings of Alfred Maudslay and the 1895 & 1904 photographs of Teobert Maler. The monuments and inscriptions of Tikal were recorded by Sylvanus Morley as part of his pioneering study of Maya hieroglyphic texts in the early 1920's.
In 1956 the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania initiated the Tikal Project, which was to continue for fifteen years under Edwin Shook initially, with William Coe the field director for the last seven years.
"Judged by almost any standard, the Tikal Project was conducted on an unprecedented scale for Maya archaeology. By its final year, in 1970, its professional staff over the years had totaled one-hundred-thirteen archaeologists.
After 1970, excavations of the buildings and their consolidation continued under the direction of two expert Guatemalan archaeologists, C. Rudy Larios and Miguel Orrego, working under the auspices of the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia de Guatemala."
Robert Sharer, The Ancient Maya, pp. 272-273
Click here for Cross-Section sectional diagram of North Acropolis with construction layers
George Stuart called the North Acropolis "the most complicated layer cake of ancient architecture ever excavated in this hemisphere".
At the front-center of the North Acropolis is Structure 5D-33, probably the most intensively explored and excavated temple at Tikal, if not in the whole Maya area. Three structures, one over the other, are partially visible today. The latest is termed 33-1st.
Originally this pyramid and its two-room building towered close to 110 feet above the plaza. Built before Temples I and II, around A.D. 600, this great temple was found in very poor condition and has been largely dismantled.
As if to compensate for the sad state of 33-1st, tunneling beneath it disclosed two magnificently embellished Early Classic temples, 33-2nd, and beneath it, 33-3rd, both of which are partially accessible today.
"The Classic Maya use of free-standing sculpture was restricted to low relief compositions upon tall slabs and prisms of stone (called stelae by transfer from Greek archaeology) as well as on low blocks, drums, and boulders, often associated with the stelae.
The term altar is a misleading transfer from European liturgy, where it conveys a table of sacrifice, rather than the pedestal of rank it signified for Maya peasants and nobles.
At Tikal the stelae are aligned like gravestones along the sides of the courts, but they do not stand at the center."
Kubler, p. 248