Posted by: Johan Normark | October 15, 2009

El Mirador is a brand!

Cornelius Holtorf has written a book called Archaeology is a Brand! To him, archaeology is usually presented as something positive in media. The archaeologist is seen as an adventurer, a detective, a discoverer of incredible things, and the caretaker of old remains and artifacts. Holtorf argues that archaeologists should use these positive associations that archaeology has. Indiana Jones is not bad and we should utilize him and other popularized views of archaeology when we present archaeology. In this sense archaeology is a brand.

Mayanists are often working along these lines. No one does this better than Richard Hansen (who was Me Gibson’s consultant for Apocalypto). Hansen is definitely an adventurer, detective, discoverer of spectacular things and the caretaker of archaeological remains. At least this is how he is represented in this video from CNN. Here Hansen promotes El Mirador as a brand. The mysterious and massive Late Formative/Preclassic Maya ruins hidden in the jungle is a dominant topic. We are shown a sequence of the Danta pyramid buried in jungle and a text shows up telling us “This is not a mountain” (depends on how you define it since according to the Maya cosmology “pyramids” are mountains). Later another text says that El Mirador is “Larger than downtown Los Angeles”. This gives an impression that the site had as large population density as downtown LA. This is not quite true and I do not know if they mean larger in terms of area or in terms of population or population density.

The journalist promotes the idea that Mirador lies deep in the jungle. She says that the helicopter that brought them there is getting smaller and smaller, leaving her stuck in a vast jungle and does did not know what she will see. This is a typical mystifying of an exotic adventure. Hansen let her know that Mirador is a saga of humanity that was not known before (Mirador is hereby transformed into a heritage of mankind). Mirador or the Mirador basin is promoted as the “cradle” of Maya civilization. That depends on how you define it. There are sites with older occupation elsewhere, such as in Belize, but they are much smaller. Nearby Nakbe (where Hansen has worked before) is also a massive site but as far as I know it is older (but older structures may be found below the later Mirador pyramids). Another similar comment in this context is delivered when they reach the top of the Danta pyramid: they are now on top of the Maya world.

We are told that the Danta pyramid may be the largest pyramid/ancient structure in the world. In the helicopter Hansen first says that Mirador’s pyramids are the largest in volume, then he hesitates for a moment and says that they are ranked among the largest in the world. The reporter makes a comparison with the pyramids of Egypt (Khufu’s pyramid I assume). Danta may be 2.8 million cubic m large whereas Khufu’s “only” is 2.6. Now, this is believed to be the case if the builders at Mirador actually built the bottom platform as well. This may be part of a hill. In any case, this is not the largest “pyramid”. This is still the one at Cholula (4.4 million cubic m).


El Tigre

El Tigre

However, I am highly skeptical to the calculated volume of the Danta pyramid (and the Cholula pyramid as well). I do not have the exact dimensions of the Danta structure, but if we take the nearby El Tigre pyramid (as shown in another video clip) at the same site as an example (which has slightly smaller basal dimensions), its dimensions are 150 x 145 x 53 m. Now, these two pyramids have a very massive substructure but these only reach halfway up the height. The top three structures have much smaller volumes. Let’s say, for the argument’s sake, that the El Tigre pyramid formed a cube, we would get the volume of 1.1 million cubic m. I would suspect that the Tigre real volume probably is 0.6-0.7 million cubic m. The Danta pyramid cannot have been much larger, certainly not four times larger which is needed to surpass the Khufu pyramid. Even here, the pyramids at Izamal may be as large as the Mirador structures. However, the largest structures in the Maya area are not “pyramids” but causeways and the Coba-Yaxuna causeway has an estimated volume of 0.75 million cubic m. Anyhow, Mirador also had massive causeways connecting the site with many other sites.


However, this exercise in volume calculating is pointless apart from the fact that it indicates a tremendous labour investment. Comparing it with other “pyramids” in the world only fuels the idea that Mesoamerican pyramids are like the Egyptian ones (and all that may imply). The journalist Brooke Baldwin mentions that the archaeologist still tries to find out if the supporting platform is a platform or a hill. One gets the impression that the only thing archaeologists are interested in is how big their structures were. This reminds me of a 4th of July party tour I took a couple of years ago when all information we got from the tour were the dimensions of buildings.

El Mirador is not a “new” site. It was discovered in 1926 but it lies in a remote location. However, it has been a tourist destination for quite some time (hiking tours for a couple of days). It is not as isolated anymore as the journalist is saying. The whole Mirador basin will become a tourist destination in the next decade. The basin contains several huge sites (El Mirador, Nakbe, Tintal, Wakna, etc.) and it is one of the most interesting archaeological areas in the world. Hansen is automatically the protector of these ancient sites that are threatened by loggers, looters, drug smugglers and cattle rangers. Indeed, El Mirador is brand (although slightly exaggerated) that is in need of protection.

Updates: since I wrote the post I realized that there were three more video clips. I really found the handprint inside one of the Tigre structures to be most fascinating. I have mentioned the Popol Vuh frieze in an earlier post. Not included in these videos are the exciting finds of a possible battle on top of the Tigre pyramid when Teotihuacanos attacked the site. I have other related posts on El Mirador as well. Hansen is doing a remarkable job and it is easy to create this kind of brand when you are working with the most spectacular of Maya ruins. I am sure posthumanocentric archaeology will never become a brand.



  1. So do you see yourself as somewhat like Indiana Jones? 😉 I have to admit, though, that archeology didn’t appeal to me as much as after I’ve seen the Indy trilogy 🙂 Interesting post, by the way… cheers! -pauline

  2. I like Indiana Jones but I do not see myself as anything like him. I am more of the book worm who occasionally goes out into the real world of artifacts and ruins.

  3. As for the volume comparison between Danta and Khufu’s pyramid, the latter is also built on top of a low hill, though it is impossible to tell how high this is, since it is only accesible in the passages inside the pyramid.

  4. People often make use of preexisting topography to enhance the volume of buildings. At Ichmul, where I have worked, we have an acropolis (not to be confused with the Greek acropoli) that is roughly 4 hectares large. It looks fairly impressive in terms of volume (but nothing compared to Mirador). However, in some places the underlying bedrock is exposed and you can see that the acropolis is built on a low hill.

  5. Dear Sir, Do you see any resemblence to the Tower of Babel from the Bible? I found a picture online of the Tower of Babel and I think it is something to think about

  6. No.

  7. Whoaaa!! Bigger than L.A.! There is no way! What’s the population of the city! He must be a joke lolz!

  8. I have not seen any population estimates for Mirador but I guess he is referring to the spatial extent of the site rather than its population size.

  9. Even with the extent of the city! I don’t even think it’s bigger than all of downtown L.A.! The population of the city would probably range from 100,000-150,000! Sometimes people over exaggerate! It seems like everybody is trying to lay claim on beating the pyramid of Giza lolz!

    • I would guess that El Mirador had roughly 100,000-150,000 people (similar to nearby Calakmul during the Late Classic period).

  10. That’s I thought too! If he’s gonna place El Mirador as bigger than all of downtown L.A. he better provide concrete evidence not just place the whole jungle as a settlement! The most important thign to sustain a huge amount of population is the foundation of agriculture! What kind of agriculture techniques do these people possess in order to feed a population bigger than downtown L.A.! It doesn’t look like the area contains any huge agricultural needs to provide for a population or anything bigger than downtown L.A.! The biggest pre-industrial city that is known to human history is Angkor which covers over 3000 square kilometers which is fact bigger than L.A. the city itself and population is about 1 million or more with the huge agricultural engineering capacity to feed a large population.

    • I do not know how much of the site has been mapped beyond the central monuments (so I do not know how many domestic structures there are). Anyway, there are bajos (seasonally inundated swamps) that may have been used (they may have been former lakes that has been silted in). Water is considered to be a centralizing factor in this area and agriculture is a decentralizing factor.

    • One of the major problems with estimating ancient population, especially at sites like Angkor and the Classic Maya centers, is that what we see today is the result of a thousand or more years of accumulated constructions, many of which we can’t see. Trying to figure out when these structures were built and used, and what they were used for, is often extremely difficult. These considerations obviously affect our estimation (guesstimation would be a more appropriate word) of the population size. This is especially the case with Angkor as it is clear that the royal palace moved around a fair bit between 802 and 1431. The palaces, as with all residential structures in ancient Cambodia, were made of perishable materials and are all but completely unknown archaeologically. One reason for this is that Cambodian residences are usually built on stilts and so all that remains of them are postholes. Residences, even royal palaces, of Angkor are thus all but complete mysteries. If the royal court moved around it is quite certain that the population moved around as well. I highly doubt, even at its height, that all of Angkor was occupied with residence buildings. The real population of Angkor at any given time was undoubtedly lower, and possibly by a considerable amount, than the 1 million population figure popularly given.

      Compared to any Maya city, however, even Tikal and Calakmul, Angkor was huge. Maya centers were much smaller and the population was quite spread out and not nucleated as in modern cities. One reason for this was that many of the Maya residents of these cities still carried on smallscale farming within the city, probably with more orchards and fruit trees than with milpa farming, which would have been concentrated further away from the center where more open land was available. However, this means that it is very difficult to determine the edge of Classic Maya cities. None had city walls except for ones that were either built early or late and used only to defend the city center or, as in the case of Tikal, situated so far out that the area enclosed includes vast areas of open farmland. Thus population estimates for Classic Maya cities, even though the remains of housemounds here are much more in evidence than in Angkor, are still highly problematic.

      The bottom line is that population estimates of ancient cities, especially those in Angkor and the Maya area, need to be taken not with a pinch of salt but with tons of the stuff. While Maya cities like El Mirador spread over vast areas the population density was very low in comparison to modern cities like Los Angeles and there was rarely any clear delineation between the city proper and the surrounding farmland used to support the center.

      • I do not know how they came up with the 1 million figure for Angkor. I guess it is the usual one: ethnographic analogies with current people living in the same area, calculating their population density per areal unit and multiplying it with the areal extent of the site. Since domestic buildings are unknown (and it is quite striking when you visit Angkor, it appears to be a city compiled just of massive buildings). Some parts of Angkor was delimited, like the late Angkor Thom which have a large moat and wall surrounding it. Most of the site lacks such limits. The site is large by any standards but, as you indicate, the whole site may not have been populated at the “height”.

        In the Maya area it is actually easier to calculate the possible population size since we do have domestic buildings preserved. But the problems of contemporaneous occupation, multiple households at different locations for a family, length of household occupation, the “invisible” houses, how many structures were actually residences and not other structures, etc. The population figure will be an educated guess.

        The problem is even greater when we calculate the population of a polity. We cannot even be sure that the royal titles of emblem glyphs correspond to the area in which farmers moved around. So any estimates of how many subjects the ruler of, let’s say Tikal, controlled in the early 9th century will be a complete guess since it cannot account for how farmers behaved during for example droughts (and I am not talking about Gill’s mega-droughts here).

  11. You do need water to do Agriculture! It’s not just for drinking but also harvesting! The swamps were probably used as both am guessing but who knows!Well see!

  12. water and agriculture plays a important role in any civilizations believe it or not! Unless that civilization can provide something better to feed it’s population!

  13. Hansen’s team has studied the importance of rain, water and climate in the emergence of complex socieities in the Mirador basin. In the third CNN video we are shown the “Popol Vuh” iconography surrounding a water reservoir.

  14. I have a question! Is El Mirador an empire or a collection of city states!

  15. Many people (including me) believe that El Mirador was the original capital of the Kan (Snake) kingdom. During the Classic period the Kan kings were first located at Dzibanche and later at Calakmul which is close to Mirador.

    I would say that Mirador was part of a major state larger than city states but it was probably not an empire of any greater spatial extent (not like Teotihuacan). It may have controlled a greater part of the Central lowlands.

    Unfortunately, the better known later Classic period cannot be used as a guide to the Late Formative political systems. I now believe that the Early Classic political systems in the central lowlands are the result of a balkanization of a fragmented Late Formative centralized state. At this time Teotihuacan also intervened in the area (see my post on the Last Stand at El Mirador?).

  16. I feel that Richard is over exaggerating too much! He should provide facts and evidence if he’s going to claim things like this just to get attention. How can it be the largest when the Chuolola pyramid is like two times larger. I smell something fishy!

  17. I guess his calculations includes the lowest platform and hence also include other buildings within the larger Danta complex, but not exactly the pyramid itself. In any case if you placed the Danta pyramid next to the Khufu pyramid it would look quite small.

  18. ^^^ The height really doesn’t matter when it comes to volume! The base matters the most! But Richard never give us the size of the base or the platform that it sits on! You can’t combine all of the Danta complex pyramids against Kufu that would be cheating! I’m pretty sure if you take all of the pyramids in Egypt and combined them against Danta pyramids it wouldn’t stand a chance against Egypt! The only civilization that I know of that can beat all of the pyramids of Egypt in terms of the numbers of stones is Angkor! But that’s another story! I also have question! El mirador looks like a small kingdom surrounded by many other kingdoms around it right? It’s stupid if Richard connects of these cities as one kingdom because they are different kingdoms!

    • El Mirador was probably the centre of a large Late Formative kingdom. Many of us believe it to be the capital of the early Kan/Kaan kingdom. The site is connected to several other sites by causeways. Hostile centers were not connected by causeways (at least they were not hostile at the time of construction). El Mirador was not like the Classic kingdoms. It was probably larger, more centralized, etc. However, at the present state of knowledge we simply do not know the extent of it influence.

  19. I also have a question base on the pyramid of Cholula pyramid! It looks like there are more earth put into it than stones! The pyramids of Giza are built entirely with stone! And also the ones at Teotihuacan with the pyramids there! There are more dirt than stones.

    • Most pyramidal constructions in Mesoamerica use far smaller stones than in Egypt (but I must emphasize that these are not the same kind of buildings).

  20. ^^ Yeah I just noticed most of these stones that are used to build the pyramids are small compared to the ones in Egypt! They have far more dirt also! Still, I noticed when Richard started speaking in the helicopter he stutters a lot! For example, he said the pyramid of La Dante is the Largest… rank amongst the world! Then he said it is also the largest city in the…. western hemisphere ( he was about to say the world too lolz)! Richard, Richard, Richard!

  21. Hansen is selling a concept. We all exagerate to some extent (see Stan’s comment on the Sneferu pyramids). When it comes to El Mirador, it is a truly impressive site, but it is old news to Mayanists.

    • When studying sites like this! You need actual facts about every single thing not just words that come out of the mouth! He didn’t even give the exact measurements or the exact number of the size of the city itself! I know he loves his job but do it right!

  22. I’m interested in other sites in the Mirador basin like Nakbe, Wakna, etc! I think these cities fought one another!

    • El Mirador is connected to Nakbe by a causeway, the same goes for Tintal. I am not sure if Wakna is connected to El Mirador. These structures were large construction projects and they indicate that the connected points most likely were not fighting each others at the time of construction.

  23. hmmm.. just because they are connected by a causeway doesn’t mean they didn’t have any conflicts with one another over land, farming, population, and power. These are all different kingdoms not a unify empire! But will see in the future!

  24. Hostile polities would not construct large causeways between each others that easily would allow large amount of enemies easy access to one’s centre. There are no fortifications to my knowledge where these causeways enter each site.

    See today’s post on the wall at Chichen Itza ( It once had gateways at the end of the causeways at the site but during warfare the gates were sealed off. No such structure exist at the termini of the Mirador causeways (at least to my knowledge).

  25. What took Richard so long to map out this whole area of El Mirador lolz!

    • yeah, hurry up, richard…lol 😉

  26. Wikipedia on El Mirador is not accurate! Can you tell him to fix it! There are so many false claims without citations!

  27. The Wikipedia entry apparently relies on a single source. I doubt it is Hansen himself who has done it (I think he is too busy). You can always help Wikipedia out with the correct(ed) references.

  28. There are still people on youtube that think that this Pyramid is the largest AHAAHAHAHH!!! I think 2012 is almost coming what else do they have in store for us lolz!!


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