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Debating the Destruction of Tikal Temple 33

The great Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala is world famous. But in the mid-1960s, archaeologists made a controversial decision at the site - they deliberately dismantled the final version of the large pyramid popularly known as Tikal Temple 33 (called 5D-33 in archaeological reports.) William R. Coe, the project director from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, wrote that “This large Late Classic temple, if carefully taken down, could give us not only the evidence of how everything beneath it went together, but how the Maya, step by step, built on a grand vertical scale during Late Classic times.”

The Guatemalan cultural authorities signed off on the work in 1964, and as Coe and his team took the structure apart they uncovered the layers they had expected to find, discovered the secrets of how the temple was built, found a funeral monument for a fifth century king, and discovered monumental masks.

When their actions were criticized by other archaeologists, the team argued that the revelations from the structures hidden inside the ruins were worth the trade-off of the temple’s destruction. The temple was never restored and people still debate whether the discoveries were worth tearing down the structure.

What do you think of the archaeologists’ decision to dismantle Tikal Temple 33?

In your opinion, when, if ever, are destructive practices acceptable in archaeological work? When, if ever, do you think archaeological sites or features should be left untouched?

Debating the Destruction of Tikal Temple 33

It seems the critics are saying one should not open a book to learn what is in it. They should have rebuilt the temple.

Tikal Temple 33 ought to be called Tikal Funeral Monument 33!

Responding to Alicia Mc Dermott’s questions in her post, “Debating the Destruction of Tikal Temple 33” at the great Mayan City in Guatemala. 

Only after they destructed Tikal Temple 33, did William RCoe’s archaeological team realize Tikal Temple 33 was a funeral Monument. 

For that reason, it is NOT only a Temple but a sacred Funeral Monument built in honor of the fifth century King in the great Mayan City. In my mind that sacred structure ought to be called Tikal Funeral Monument 33. In the case of a psychological reaction, there is a great difference between the words “Temple” and “Funeral Monument”.  No matter, all ancient structures must be respected equally.  The actions of William R. Coe had shown how he had manipulated us all. How awful!

However, we have to consider  a fateful  fact … 
… Had the Guatemalan Cultural Authorities rejected William R. Coe’s request, that sacred Tikal Funeral Monument would never be destructed. 

It is devastatingly sad to realize that William Coe’s archaeological team did NOT dismantle as carefully as they claimed they would.  Not only that but they arrogantly failed to restore that sacred dismantled Tikal Funeral monument. 
For 57 years, the decision to destruct that sacred Tikal Funeral monument in 1964 has affected horribly upon (2+-) generations of people who are grieving over the devastating decision to destruct that sacred Tikal structure. And they still debate whether the discoveries were worth destructing that sacred Tikal structure.  

Personally, because it was never  restored in 1964, the discoveries were NOT at all worth destroying that sacred Tikal structure!

Because the sacred Tikal Funeral Monument was never restored, an archaeological team must never be trusted to investigate an irreversible archaeological site since we don’t know what is the ulterior motive of an archaeological team, unfortunately. 

Ultimately, there are far too many sacred funeral monuments being destructed all over the world. 

Finally, yes, I firmly support the best practice is to leave all irreversible archaeological sites  untouched. 



This is not the first ancient site/artifact that has been destroyed, maybe the most famous and covered up is King Tut’s mummy. Fact is, researchers then did not have technology to fall back on, and so, like the City of Troy, they took it apart/dug into it, to discover more secrets. Today we have GPR and other devices to peer into the structure to determine where things are and if they should attempt to excavate. If they did not number and record the parts they removed, it may well be impossible to reconstruct it. 

Very touchy are these things and the need for sitting back and really debating the need is number 1 on the archaeological menu in my opinion

5D-33s destruction

I agree with H. Berlin and J. Thompson.  Considering the temple was in good condition and that construction methodology of such temples was fairly well understood, nothing of importance was gained by dismantling 5D-33.  I’d argue that the dismantlers and the IDEAH simply wanted to uncover treasures for exploitive purposes.  I wonder if one of the Coe brothers was responsible for 5D-33s destruction?

I feel that ultimately the IDEAH and any foreign universities that funded the destruction of 5D-33 should be held financially responsible for restoring the temple...regardless of the cost or effort.


Archaeological fieldwork necessarily involves dismantling of a site as found and therefore destruction of upper layers of a site and overburden.. Recent archaeology has standardized on leaving a part of a site untouched so that future archaeologists equipped with improved understanding of the problem and more sophisticated scientific methods will have something to work with. Mayan pyramid temples do not lend themselves to that sort of practice and should either be left as found or studied by the use of non-destructive technology such as ground penetrating radar. Doing that leaves questions about specific funerary practices or what the underlying original temple footprint might have looked like unanswerred.  Sometimes the best thing to do is to leave a site undisturbed unless threatened by modern construcion in a city. That is not the case at Tikal..

James Olson

Desmantelamiento templo 33 en Tikal

Conozco el lugar por haber estado 2 veces en e lmismo y haberme alojado en el parque en la posada Jungle Lodge. Con rerspecto al tema de opinion, me parece muy lamentable se hayan usado aun en 1964, tecnicas tan agresivas sin haber previsto enumerar los bloques o como dice muy bien JRO1940 usar radares de penetracion terrestre que yoy si contamos, pero se podia haber previsto la posterior reconstruccion. A mi me parece ha habido algun grado de connivencia entre las autoridades guatemaltecas y la Universidad en no concluir con la reconstruccion. Es muy triste y se deberia haber exigido la misma.

Carlos Chiossone

The ground penetrating radar

The ground penetrating radar idea is cute but in 1964 was science fiction – as you pointed out. If the temple was not disassembled in a manner to allow reconstruction then some very stupid people were running the show. Not all professors have the best interest in mind – too many only care about their own self interest.

The Destruction of Tikal Temple 33

Discoveries worth a small sacrifice - not destruction

I think some small sacrifices have to be made it cannot be helped, but not to that extent though. When great discoveries are made, like in the excavations of the Egyptian pyramids to unlock their secrets, it was inevitable that we must take the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the past. If we were not prepared to do that. Then were not going to get a true overall picture of the people, their ancient culture & customs. then in effect we are merely scratching the surface, with what we already know so far, leaving us with more unanswered questions than answered ones, which intern raises our level of uncertainty around what facts we already know, leaving our interpretations of the whole truth to all manner of theories. As we have seen from some so-called experts, which mostly consist of fiction leading to speculation at best, to fill in the blanks, instead of reel tangible accessible results that we can rely on.

It would be akin to reading a great novel, shutting the book half way through, and putting it back on the shelf to gather dust. What would be the point of that, when the big reveal may be just within our reach, in our grasp. In doing nothing, we’ve learnt nothing, were none the wiser, why would we repress and deny ourselves the endless possibilities of what still lies undiscovered, in this case entombed in the past, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not to proceed any further with caution in our future exploratory investigations.

Archaeologists’ decision to dismantle Tikal Temple 33, - “Desecration”

 But also at the same time, learning from the case of Tikal Temple 33, and similar cases, looking back we should have been more mindful of our responsibility’s first and foremost, in conducting ourselves in a more professional manner in doing the excavations to a high standard, “in that things should have been put back to how they were in the first place”, because if we don’t do that, were desecrating that countries and other countries ancient cultural shrines to their dead, and that’s disrespectful. We have no right, we’re not Toom Raiders, that’s not who we are, we are in the Archaeological business whose code and conduct First and foremost is in conservation.

Archaeological sites - That should be left untouched but Destruction not acceptable

I also tend to agree with people from religious War torn countries if it’s the will of that nation of people / government etc, that we do not trespass on their ancient sites, then so be it, we have to respect their wishes, but at the same time it’s also sad when a country and its people demonstrate a blatant disregard and a total lack of concern and common sense in not preserving their heritage, and instead commit senseless wilful damage and destruction of  the ancient monuments etc from there past, when there’s basically no need for it really, what’s so ever, I think that’s probably the biggest travesty of all. at least we as educated intelligent archaeologists should at least know better, “well you would like to think so, wouldn’t you”???


The Destruction of Tikal Temple 33

Well, what is it they say?  Never enough time to do it right; always enough time to do it twice.  If they are “destroying” they shouldn’t be allowed to open anything.  Who knows with today’s technology what could be discovered but has been destroyed in the rush to “open” a find...