Tikal's tallest temple was once known as The Temple of the Grand Jaguar, but that name was made up for tourists and it is now called by the more scientific Temple I. Progress!
Stela covered with Maya Glyphs
The first is the story of the rise and collapse of Maya civilization. Because the village of Ceren was buried by a volcano 1,400 years ago, creating a Pompeii-style situation, we know that Maya villagers of that time lived in houses remarkably like those of the 1950s. They were also using similar ceramics and baskets, eating much of the same food, wearing similar clothes and so on. So on one level Maya life continued on an uninterrupted arc for three or four thousand years.
Tikal, the North Acropolis
But some of the Maya, bored with village life, created an astonishing high civilization, of which Tikal was one of the greatest centers. The great central plaza was the center of a metropolis that in AD 700 held 80,000 to 100,000 people. And this was only one of hundreds of Maya towns and cities, all of which built temples and altars that look much the same. The population of the Guatemalan lowlands was extremely dense, as great as that of the Nile Delta in classical times or the Sichuan basin in old China. These towns and cites were linked together by roads, canals, and webs of political alliances that spread across hundreds of miles. This went on for about a 1,200 years.
One of the coatimundis that badger Tikal tourists for food
And then one day the Maya got tired of living in stone cities and supporting a fabulously rich elite of kings and priests, so they got rid of them and went back to living in villages. The jungle covered the cities, and they were forgotten.
The Tomb of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I or Ah Cacau, buried in AD 734 inside Temple I at Tikal, as Displayed in the Museum at Tikal
Two generations of archaeologists have revolutionized Maya history. The insights gleaned from a hundred thousand excavations have built up like a cresting wave, sweeping away a library's worth of false assumptions. Every pot, every tomb, every house had added to the story.
Wooden Lintel Commemorating a Victory by King Yik'in Chan K'awiil in 743 AD
But the key event was the deciphering of the Maya script between about 1960 and 1990, which opened up the Maya world to us: now we know vastly more about them, including their names.