Located deep within the tropical forests of the central Petén of Guatemala, Tikal rose to prominence in the centuries around the turn of the first millennium A.D. Settlements in and near Tikal first emerge in the archaeological record at about 800 B.C., and they were to establish the boundaries of what would become Tikal's urban core.
At that core was the Great Plaza, a large area of plaster-surfaced floor first laid down in the middle of the second century B.C. In time, the Great Plaza would abut some of the most important structures at Tikalthe North Acropolis, the Central Acropolis, and Great Temples I and IIand hold some seventy slender stone slabs, known as stelae, that were erected in a double row in front of the North Acropolis. The stelae, which were usually accompanied by low altars set in front of them, included some carved with hieroglyphs and images of rulers. The early rulers of Tikal established the North Acropolis as the ritual center of the city at the beginning of the first millennium. Fronting the Great Plaza on its other side was the Central Acropolis, 700 feet of long, low, many-roomed buildings that are often termed palaces, although their exact function is uncertain. Tikal eventually grew to cover an area perhaps as large as twenty-five square miles, where living areas were interspersed with sections of uninhabitable swamp, and where ruler and commoner alike were interred in subfloor burials. At the beginning of the tenth century, the Maya of low-lying tropical sites like Tikal were experiencing difficultiesperhaps war, famine, or diseasethat led to the collapse of authority and the abandonment of the great culture centers.