Blaine Brownell, AIA

To stand in the central plaza at Tikal National Park in Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is to be overcome with the presence of an ancient and formidable civilization. The large, grass-covered mall in this part of the great Maya ruin is flanked on all sides by stepped limestone structures—the tall pyramids of Temples I and II, built around the year 700, stand at the east and west ends, respectively. Images of this place are quite common; it was featured in the original "Star Wars" movie and attracted many tourists during a 2012 gathering to mark the end of the Maya calendar.

Firsthand experience is all the more potent and provides a palpable hint of the awe that Tikal visitors must have felt upon entering the impressive site during the heyday of the Maya civilization. David Stuart, curator of Maya hieroglyphs at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, said in an interview with Smithsonian magazine, "Tikal is simply one of the most overpowering archaeological sites in the world."

What is fascinating about Tikal is that its story continues to change. Once thought to be the religious site and astronomical observatory of a peaceful tribe, archaeologists in the 1980s revealed that the Maya were actually a fierce and frequently warring people. In 2013, archaeologists discovered a significant frieze near Tikal that revealed the depth of the political struggle between Tikal and neighboring rulers of Kaanul, or the Snake Kingdom.

Other discoveries have provided new insights about Maya uses of natural resources. In 2011, University of Cincinnati researchers discovered the presence of smectite, a mineral ingredient of volcanic ash, in Tikal. They concluded that the mineral must have been a byproduct of large volcanic events and that its presence would have been key to agricultural productivity in the region. In 2012, research led by the same university revealed evidence of stormwater-management practices, including the discovery of the Mayas' largest manmade dam, which measured 260 feet long and 33 feet tall and held approximately 20 million gallons of water. Together, these findings reveal how the Maya, through fortune and foresight, were able to flourish for centuries despite periodic droughts and other environmental changes.

In spite of its age, Tikal is still divulging its secrets thanks to thorough scientific attention and careful conservation measures. The next milestone is the year 2020, when archaeologists plan to have most of the remaining temples excavated. Even then, only a fraction of Tikal's thousands of structures will have been uncovered—a sufficient reason for visitors to continue returning to this inspiring site.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.