Eclipse Week: Seen Through Every Lens

There’s been a lot in the media about eclipses this year. In fact, it’s fair to say that America has gotten a little eclipse crazy over the last couple months. (For those of you who just got back from a year stranded on a deserted island, we are expecting a total solar eclipse to cross […]

How to Read Ancient Mayan

In this month’s issue of National Geographic, I tell a story of an ancient dynasty of Maya kings who made perhaps the region’s best attempt at creating what we might call an empire. It’s a twisting tale of political maneuvering and ambition unlike any other in the Pre-Columbian world. It’s actually kind of incredible that […]

What’s in a Word?

Next week, in the July issue of Scientific American, you can read a story I wrote about the fascinating archeological site of Teotihuacan. You may remember it as the Mexican site I wrote about in 2012 with an almost magical ability to draw in hippies. The story focuses on our growing understanding of the politics […]

The Shiny-Jewel Tree of Palenque

This story begins in darkness—darkness both literal and metaphorical. On a dripping wet day in 1952, an archaeologist stood in a small dank corridor deep inside a pyramid known as Temple of the Inscriptions, in the old Maya city of Palenque. In the shadows ahead, a massive triangular stone door blocked his way. For four […]

Dance of Conquest

This is the kind of story that I love, a story about an ordinary person doing something perfectly ordinary, digging out the last of the potatoes from the garden, say, or chasing off after a dog that’s bolted into the woods, and suddenly stumbling on something wonderfully unexpected, something almost magical, something that abruptly, almost […]

The Mix-Up that Ended the World

The Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán is not the biggest monument you can imagine. In fact, it’s dwarfed by the hills around it that it is meant to reflect. It’s cut into four levels, each of which is about the same as a couple flights of stair in a New York apartment building. But […]

Calling 911 in the Maya World

In the early 8th century A.D., the great Maya city state of Tikal reached the zenith of its sophistication and power. Its kings sipped frothy chocolate and smoked elegant cigars in their chambers, listening to the music of trumpeters and drummers. Its painters rendered brilliant court scenes on vases. Its architects designed pyramidal masterpieces that […]

Of Human Sacrifice and Rubber Balls

Exactly one century ago this year, a swashbuckling American archaeologist named Ernest Thompson was wrapping up his investigation of the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, one of the most famous of all Maya sites. Thompson had been long been fascinated by the natural 130-foot-deep sinkhole that was filled in part with water. According to one […]