Quirigua – Guatemala



More on the Maya

Quirigua – Guatemala


This site is situated in the Izabal department in Guatemala, overlooking the River Motagua which currently flows just over 1 km south of the main group. The Motagua rises in the Guatemalan Highlands, very close to the present-day capital, and flows north-eastwards into the Gulf of Honduras in the Caribbean. Fifty km further south, in Honduras, lies the ancient city of Copan. The site is located in the wide Motagua Valley, barely 70 m above sea level, in an area with perennial rain and heat. By road from Guatemala City it can be reached within three to four hours; from Copan Ruinas in Honduras, it is a two-hour journey. The site lies 4 km from the present-day town of Quirigua, which offers accommodation and food services.

History of the explorations

Around 1910 the United Fruit Company purchased the land on which the site stands, and in fact nowadays it is surrounded by banana plantations. Systematic excavations commenced around 1970 led by Robert Sharer, with the intervention of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. These ended in 1980 and a year later the site gained World Heritage Status.

Pre-Hispanic history

We know very little about the early days of Quiriguci, founded during the Early Classic, and what we do know has been gleaned from subsequent monuments. The first ruler, known as Tok Casper as his epigraphic record has not yet been deciphered, seems to have acceded to the throne in AD 426 in the presence of the founder of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Indeed, a reference at the latter site mentions that the designation of the Quirigua ruler occurred in the same place where the coronation ritual for Copan’s first ruler had commenced. At the time, the city amounted to no more than a series of scattered groups, mainly situated on a hill overlooking the valley. These early structures are known as Group A. Even less is known about Ruler 2, Tutuum Yohl K’inich, who according to the dedication on a stela acceded to the throne around 455. A third ruler, whose name is illegible, reigned around 480 according to Stela U, found in Group A. This monument, which bears a certain similarity to the stelae found at Tikal, states that the city was under the authority of the ‘kaloomte of the west’, an important title used by some of the Copanec rulers, including the dynastic founder. Stela 26 found in Group 3C-1 mentions rulers 3 and 4 but their identity has not been confirmed; the date shown is AD 493.

There are no more references until 652, and it seems that a severe flood affected the site at the beginning of the 7th century, causing the population to abandon parts of Group 3C. This shifted the site’s centre of gravity to what is now known as the Acropolis. Altar L makes a reference to K’awiil Yopaat, although it does not clarify his position in the line of succession; he li mentioned in connection with an event, again rather vague, and Ruler 12 at Copan. Stela T dates from AD 692 but its text is greatly eroded.

Again, all historical information is lost until the accession of the famous K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, who controlled Quirigua’s fate from AD 724 to 785. The Copan ruler Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil attests to this governor’s enthronement. K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat quickly imposed his power, building the still visible Structure IB-2 at the Acropolis and dedicating altars M and N around 732. However, the key event of his reign, possibly linked with Calakmul, occurred on 27 April 738 when he received the same Copanec ruler who had consented to his own enthronement and then, despite no apparent conflict, sacrificed him six days later. Quirigua celebrated the victory by erecting four new monuments: stelae J, F and E, and Zoomorph G. How could the little kingdom of Quirigua possibly deal such a harsh blow to the powerful Copan? There has been much speculation about the reference to Calakmul, which may have provided some form of assistance, possibly warriors. We know that Calakmul was behind certain conflicts in Peten and the western part, altering the dynasties at cities such as Tikal, Palenque, Naranjo and Dos Pilas. Quirigua may well have united its forces with other subjugated cities, such as the unidentified Xkuy, originally mentioned at Copan as a victim of an attack by the dominant city. K’ahk’ Tiliw mentioned it on his monuments, indicating that he witnessed Sun Jaguar’s accession to the throne in 762. K’ahk’Tiliw appointed himself Ruler 14, and although he may have been referring to Quirigua, we cannot ignore the fact that his most important victim, Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, was Ruler 13 at Copan, which may mean that his actions were an attempt to overthrow the dynasty at that site. He certainly claimed various royal titles and gods from what had now become the rival city. In any case, there is incontestable evidence of the radical change in lifestyle at Quirigua, which from that point onwards controlled and benefited from the River Motagua trade route. The population at the site and in the valley grew significantly, although it never reached the same proportions as Copan. Large, exquisitely finished monuments were dedicated. In 746 Stela S commemorated the end of the cycle; it was followed by stelae H, J, F, D, E, C and A, which apart from the last two, dedicated jointly, were erected after every 5-year cycle. Some of these are the tallest stelae in the whole of the Maya area. This ruler also introduced the practice of dedicating zoomorphs – in this case Zoomorph B – extraordinary sculptures with a massive volume and intricate design based on the shape of animals such as the jaguar, crocodile, tortoise or earth monster. K’ahk’ Tiliw’s last two stelae address unusual themes for this type of monument, namely the creation of the cosmos over vast periods of time. His long reign ended with his burial at the ’13 Kawak House’, which has yet to be explored.

He was succeeded on 11 October 785 by Sky Xul, who supervised his predecessor’s funeral and recorded the event on his monument, Zoomorph G, that same year. Again, every five years this ruler would build a zoomorph, such as O and P, which were placed with their respective altars in the Ball Court Plaza. These magnificent, intricately patterned pieces combine animal figures with rulers and many different motifs, as well as texts on panels. The information, some of which is illegible, refers to mythical and ritual events and historical aspects such as the ruler himself and, naturally, Copan and the ill-fated Waxaklajuun. He probably also dedicated altars R and S, which are not dated, and he must have inaugurated buildings IB-3 and 4 at the Acropolis. His reign ended some time after 795. By AD 800 a new ruler was on the throne and had begun dedicating his own monuments. He was known as Jade Sky and governed for just over 10 years. His first monument was Stela 1, which once again refers to the decisive event with Copan in 738, and in 805 he dedicated Stela K; both of these monuments are small and relatively insignificant compared with the colossal stelae of earlier days. This ruler is also attributed with structures IB-5 and 1, the largest at the Acropolis; the latter had a long epigraphic inscription on the facade and on the benches inside the rooms. The text dates from 810 and makes reference to Ruler 16 at Copan, who appears to have attended the ceremony at the end of Katun Perhaps, as at other sites in Peten, the now exhausted Classic Maya culture obliged the former powerful elites to join forces when conducting their propitiatory ancestral rites.

Quirigua was abandoned a few years later but there is evidence that new settlers occupied it for a short time before it was finally abandoned around AD 900. These settlers left cultural marks alien to the region, as manifested for example in the Chac Mool sculpture, and we do not know if they came from the plateau or from Yucatan.

Site description

Quirigua does not have a large number of structures and archaeologist have in any case only consolidated – and exposed – a few of them. The site has two main groups: 1A and IB. The first encompasses the Great Plaza, the structures along its north and east sides, and Building 1A-11 to the south-west; the second is composed of the Ball Court, the Acropolis, the East Group and the South Group. There are several other, slightly more distant groups: Group A, approximately 3.5 km to the west; Group 3C-7 north of the archaeological area; Group B, just over 1 km to the west; and Group C situated between the present-day towns of Quirigua and Los Amates. Of all these groups, the Acropolis is the most outstanding in terms of quantity of architecture exposed and consolidated.

Great plaza.

This extraordinary space measures 300 m north to south and approximately 200 m east to west, with a path running along one side. It is the largest plaza in the Maya area; only the one at Yaxha, measuring 200×200 m, comes anywhere near it. It is composed of a space known as the North Platform, where stelae A, C and D and Zoomorph B are located. Further south but still on the North Platform it is possible to see the imposing stelae E and F, as well as Zoomorph G. Situated on the south-west side of the plaza is Stela H, and then further towards the middle of this spectacular space are stela I, J and K. The southern part of the plaza is delimited by the eastern tip of a great U-shaped platform with structures of varying sizes at its ends.

Ball court plaza.

This plaza contains Structure 1A-11 along its north side and the Acropolis on all the remaining sides, although the north-west and north-east corners are devoid of structures and therefore open. Situated in the middle are the parallel structures typically found in ritual ball courts. Altar L and zoomorphs P and O, with their respective altars P and O, surround the court. The latter has not been exposed and the only things visible are the two parallel mounds. However, to the east and south it is possible to see a broad stairway that may have served as a seating area for spectators, made up of elongated sections of megalithic blocks. The west sector has only been partly exposed, while the south section is made up of smaller blocks that serve as steps leading to the Acropolis Plaza. Situated at the intersection of the two sections are various vertical platforms, some of them typical of the region, with bands of moulding across the top. There is another, lower platform to the west which provided a U-shaped seal around the space that accommodates the ritual ball court. The steps at the south end lead to the large platform preceding the Acropolis.


Constructed in four stages, today only the last buildings that buried the previous structures are visible. There are seven structures in total arranged around a large central court: IB-1, IB-2, IB-3, IB-4, IB-5, IB-6 and IB-18. All of them contain rooms, which nearly always lead off to lateral or rear chambers, again all interior. This pattern is typical of the region and is defined by a unique characteristic: the entrance leads to the central rooms and from these to the corridors leading to the secondary rooms. At Copan and other sites the entrance leads to a preceding space and then to the main room at the rear and finally to the lateral rooms. This preceding space is not present at Qulrlgui, where the rooms lead first to corridors and then to lateral or rear rooms. All the buildings have thick lateral and central walls, and occasionally even buttresses, which suggests a deliberate response to frequent earthquakes (the area sits immediately on top of a geological fault).

Structure IB-1 is elongated and has three entrances leading to the same number of rooms. The central one has two interior lateral chambers, while the lateral rooms have only one additional chamber. The fagade of this structure was once ornately decorated with masks of deities, including one of the Maize God. A glyphic band also ran around the top of the structure and continued on the benches inside the three rooms. The text refers to the dedication of the temple in AD 810, to probable deities from the remote past and also the last great ruler at Copan, Yax Pasaj Chan Yoopat.

Building IB-2 is one of the lowest structures and was erected soon after 720 by K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, prior to liberation from Copan. Its design includes a corridor that runs behind the first room to three smaller rooms and along the right side to another L-shaped room. The exterior was decorated on all four sides by representations of upper jaws and eyes, recreating the earth monster that can also be seen on Temple 22 at Copan.

Building IB-3 from the late 8th century AD, perhaps an elite residence, displays traces of red paint. Structure IB-4 has external benches that also served as buttresses. One of the interior corridors led to a flight of steps up to the top of the structure where surveillance activities were conducted – the Motagua, used to transport goods, originally ran along this side of the Acropolis. Situated between both structures are the remains of a wall whose external face was once decorated with sculptures of the Sun God.

Structure IB-5, the largest of all, was probably an elite residence and was built just after AD 810. It has windows on its lateral and front facades, and is distinguished by an unusual characteristic: its platform projects forwards to shelter the entrance, forming a U-shape. This characteristic can also be seen on Structure 10L-22 at Copan and on Building 204 at El Puente.

The Acropolis Plaza is sealed by stairways to the north and west; at the south-west corner a drainage channel runs under Structure IB-2. There is another large seating area to the south with balustrades running down the sides, just before the ends. Recessed to meet the inner angles of the steps, as again can also be seen at Copan and El Puente, the balustrades display reliefs of a local dignitary with his arms pressed against his breast. The head has been lost and we therefore do not know who the figure represents. A small, low, quadrangular platform is visible to the south-east, next to the south stairway. The west side of the plaza is sealed by a very low platform with remains of Temple IB-18, an adobe structure that collapsed over the body of an infant, and whose north side overlooks Structure IB-6.


These are some of the most important monuments at Quirigua.

Stela U (c. AD 480). Found in Group A, this is the oldest monument at the site and indeed has one of the earliest Long Count dates outside Peten. The Long Count is expressed up to the tuns, omitting the uinals and kins, and then transfers to an inverted Calendric Wheel. Greatly damaged at the front, the sculpture is an example of the continuous relief commencing on the back and continuing to the sides; this wrap-around style is associated with Tikal in Peten, and here at Quirigua can be appreciated on nearly all the stelae.

Stela 26. The front shows Ruler 3 holding a double-headed ceremonial bar.

Altar l. On this coarsely executed monument the Ajaw glyph is expressed through the attributes of the figure of a ruler. This is a strange variant because the Ajaw symbol is usually shown alone, dominating the central image.

Stela H (AD 751). The main face shows K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat without a beard and holding a double-headed sceptre. The rear face has glyphic text relating to the dedication, shown on a type of diagonal mat not unlike – albeit inferior to – the text on Stela J at Copan. The overall quality is poorer than later examples of the ruler.

Stela J (AD 756). A 5-m-tall stela showing K’ahk’ Tiliw on the mask of a deity. The text on the lower halves of the sides and rear mainly refers to the extraordinary capture and sacrifice of Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, Ruler 13 at Copan.

Stela F (AD 761). Over 7 m tall, both the front and back of this stela depict K’ahk’ Tiliw on masks of deities. The texts on the sides refer to the dedication of the monument and a historical account commencing with this ruler’s accession to the throne and ending with the capture of the Copanec ruler Waxaklajuun U’bah K’awiil.

Stela D (AD 766). Both faces of this 6-m-tall stela show K’ahk’ Tiliw at cosmic events; he holds the sceptre of God K, one of whose legs shows a serpent. Here the ruler is shown on masks of gaunt deities.

Stela E (AD 771). This is the tallest stela of the entire Maya culture, measuring 10.6 m in height and weighing approximately 65 tons. Like the former monuments, its main faces represent K’ahk’ Tiliw holding a small shield and the sceptre of God K. There are masks of deities at the base. The texts refer to the celebration of the end of the period, which the stela commemorates, and to the events of his reign.

Stela C (AD 775). The south face shows K’ahk’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat sporting his unusual beard and holding a sceptre with jaguar heads at both ends. On the other side, a god performs a dance; in his hands, two cords intertwine, their ends stretching to the top and downwards to other deity heads. The texts on the sides hold great significance: the first one, on the east side, refers to the myth of cosmic creation from three stones, an event revived by one of the ruler’s ancestors. Stela A was dedicated on the same date; one face depicts Kahk’ Tiliw and the other a dancing deity with jaguar feet. The texts on the sides mention the dedication of the monument and ceremonies involving deities.

Zoomorph B (AD 780). This shows K’ahk’ Tiliw emerging from a crocodile’s mouth, on what appears to be a throne. The text relating to the dedication of the monument is expressed in unusual full-figure glyphs.

Zoomorph G (AD 785). This adopts the form of a crouching jaguar holding Sky Xul in its mouth. Between the different parts of the animal’s body are panels of text detailing events associated with K’ahk’ Tiliw, such as his accession to the throne, funerals and the decapitation of Ruler 13 of Copan. It also mentions Sky Xul’s accession.

Zoomorph O and Altar O (AD 790). These were dedicated by Sky Xul. The first is in the shape of an alligator, while the second shows Chaac, the God of Thunder, in a ritual dance between volutes and clouds; the text refers to the ruler’s accession and his alliances with Xkuy

Zoomorph P and Altar P (AD 795). These magnificent monuments were dedicated by Sky Xul. A cosmic crocodile with the seated ruler emerging from its mouth is the principal image of the first one; at the top and on the rear face are masks of deities with cartouches alluding to divinities and mythological creatures. The glyphic text is inscribed in cartouches and quadrangles that blend with the sculpture; although partly damaged, the text is relatively long and describes the dedicatory event, mythological episodes and the accession of Ruler 1 of Quirigua, whose name has yet to be deciphered. The altar shows the god Chaac and a bird, while the glyphs make reference to cosmogonic and historical events.

Stela I (AD 800). This was commemorated by Jade Sky who is represented with a spectacular feather headdress stretching round to the back of the sculpture. Much smaller in size, it stands a mere 4 m tall, seeming to compress the extravagant forms of its predecessors. The text alludes to the dedication of the monument and to the Copanec ruler Waxaklajuun, and also contains a highly significant reference to Calakmul as a party to the conflict.

Stela K (AD 805). Not unlike the previous one, this monument shows Jade Sky on the front and back, in one instance holding the double-headed ceremonial bar and in the other the small shield and sceptre of God K. The text refers exclusively to the dedication of the monument.

Importance and relations

In its early days, this site had links, primarily stylistic, with Peten and Tikal in particular. For most of its history is was tied to Copan and from just after AD 400 until 738 it controlled the Motagua trade route for the Copanec lords. Thereafter it took charge of its own fate, apparently with help from the distant Calakmul. The city of Xkuy, as yet unidentified but almost certainly located in the Motagua Valley, paid homage and fealty to Quirigua, and after it gained independence from Copan the site experienced considerable development.

Site Museum

This is situated at the entrance to the site and is a small circular enclosure containing ceramics, altars and remains from Stela U, as well as a variety of smaller pieces. There are also photos of the archaeological area in the late 19th century and various drawings of the stelae.

Gustavo J. Gutierrez Leon

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp552-559.



  1. Great Plaza; 2. Structure 1A-3; 3. Ball Court; 4. Acropolis; 5. East Group.

Getting there:

Right next to the entrance to the site is the entrance to the Delmonte banana plantation – where I think many of the workers live in company housing – US fruit companies still maintaining a feudal relationship to their workers. This means there might be, at certain times of the day, regular transport opportunities to get to and from Quirigua. If not there’s always the mototaxis – but best to catch these from Los Amates.


15d 16’ 26″ N

89d 02’ 22″ W



More on the Maya

Zaculeu – Guatemala – Museum

Zaculeu - Guatemala - Museum

Zaculeu – Guatemala – Museum

More on the Maya

Zaculeu – Guatemala – Museum

The small museum is inside the entrance of the Zaculeu site.

It doesn’t have a lot of items and doesn’t provide a great deal of information about Zaculeu but some of what’s on show is interesting and is different from what I’ve seen elsewhere. That seems to be a general theme – not only do the various sites have something disctinctive to offer also the finds from these places seem to differ in slight ways as well.

It seems there was a major fire some years ago and some of the exhibits were taken into the town but there is no museum in the town of Huehuetenango itself so not sure where those artefacts might be.

Because the renovation of the structures of Zaculeu were ‘restored’ in the 1940s in such an anodyne manner it was perfect as a film set – for Tarzan of all things. Instead of providing photos of how the site looked BEFORE the ‘restoration’ there is a section taken on the film set – a missed opportunity.

At least in Zacaleu (which is now much more like a Mayan theme park than an archaeological site) there is an acceptance than nothing is wrong with what was done in the 1940s.

I tend to disagree.

How to get there;

A bus that goes right past the ruins can be picked up at the bottom end of Calle 2, beside the by the Salvador Osorio School. Q3.5


Q50 (to the site, which includes the museum.)

More on the Maya

Zaculeu – Guatemala

Zaculeu - Guatemala

Zaculeu – Guatemala

More on the Maya

Zaculeu – Guatemala

Just before you enter the gates to Zaculeu, on the outskirts of the Guatemalan town of Huehuetenango, you think you are about enter a Mayan archaeological site once inside you realise you have entered a crime scene.

Under the direction of a so-called ‘archaeologist, John Dimick, ‘restoration’ was carried out in the 1940’s – funded by the United Fruit Company, yet another crime to add to what they did in the country. It is argued by some that this was, in fact, what the buildings would have looked like in their heyday.

However, I think there’s little proof of that. Yes, they did use stucco in places and that might have included some of the walls rather than just in decoration. But in all the sites I’ve visited there’s no proof whatsoever that this bland aesthetic was used extensively. If that was the case why had it all fallen off so successfully as to leave no evidence of it being there in the first place. And what has happened to the tons of stucco that would have been at the foot of the buildings?

Further, the use of the stone not only as a building material but also in ways which make it anaesthetically pleasing to look at belies the fact that all that effort would then have been covered in such a manner.

Even if there were evidence that the structures were covered so what was the rational to ‘return it to what it was in the past’? There is no definitive proof of how the buildings were finished and the work carried out in the 1940s was done so only because that was Dimick’s theory at the time. And as it was only a theory why did they feel it was necessary to cover all the structures in such a way? Why not use one as an example of the theory and leave further investigation to come up with other ideas?

Perhaps further proof that this was NOT the way the buildings looked when they were being used is the fact that the concrete has barley lasted a century and is crumbling in many places. It also looks dirty and I don’t think that fits in with the Mayan aesthetic.

And also their practical approach to architecture. If the concrete isn’t lasting why should the stucco have lasted any longer? And why introduce an aspect to the buildings which would necessitate continued maintenance on a large scale? Repairing some stones is one thing, having to cover the building every so often is another.

John Dimick

Just to show the cavalier manner in which this ‘restoration’ was carried out Dimick wasn’t even a trained and experienced archaeologist. He called himself an ‘archaeological buff’ and seemed to think that just because he had been to a few archaeological sites around the world that this gave him the insight to determine what should happen at Zaculeu. This is not to say that even the most experienced archaeologists can get it wrong but to allow such a major alteration of such a large and important site to such an individual is beyond imagining. From reading a little about him it was more than likely due to the ‘old boys network’ that the United Fruit Company gave him the job.


The archaeological site of Zaculeu is situated in western Guatemala, in the municipal district of Huehuetenango, 4 km from the city of the same name and 1 km from the village of Zaculeu. The distances from Guatemala City to Huehuetenango are 266 km (on the CA-1 PanAmerican Highway, via Totonicapan) and 235 km (via Santa Cruz del Quiche and Chichicastenango). The Mexican border (La Mesilla) is 90 km away. All the roads are asphalted. Due to its proximity to the city of Huehuetenango, this site can be reached by car or on foot as there is an asphalt road leading directly to the main pyramid. Zaculeu is situated 1,940 m above sea level at latitude 15° 19′ 58″ and longitude 91° 29′ 36″. The flat, green valley in which the ancient city is situated is traversed by various deep rivers, including the Selegua, west of Zaculeu, and the Vina. To the east and south are deep ravines which contributed to its isolation and made it easy to defend. Practically the only access is a narrow entrance in the north connecting the flat plateau where the ruins stand to the rest of the valley. The Huehuetenango Valley was inhabited long before the creation of Zaculeu, and various places have yielded the remains of a human culture dating from 800 years earlier, from the Early Classic. The city was built in 1480 on a high plateau measuring five blocks and 1,178 yards. The place was chosen because of its status as a natural and practically impregnable fort; defending the city was a matter of vital importance at the time, when the country was being invaded by the Nahua from Mexico and different peoples were at war with each other. The civic-ceremonial core extended over an area of 1,400 sq m and today displays evidence of an exceptional, 800-year-old timeline dating back to the Early Classic. It contains 43 structures arranged in compact groups around small, clearly defined plazas with no particular orientation, corresponding to the Qankyak and Xinabahul phases of the Postclassic. The path that leads to the site enters the plateau via the left end of the narrow access, with a rectangular mound virtually sealing three quarters of the neck. This mound contains the remains of a type of fort that guarded the city’s only entrance. Beyond the narrow entrance, the path continues in a straight line for approximately 100 m until it reaches the base of the great pyramid, the most important monument at the site. Turning right, visitors will see a large plaza measuring 54×38 m, once the scene of the ceremonies to honour the gods to whom the temples were being dedicated. The sides of the plaza were formed by the platforms of four large pyramids situated at the cardinal points.

History of the explorations

Originally named Tzaculeu, it was declared a National Monument of the pre-Hispanic period by government decree on 24 April 1931. On 23 February 1946 it adopted the present-day name of Zaculeu and the United Fruit Company was granted a licence to conduct investigations and excavations at the site.

Pre-Hispanic history

Complex settlements such as Zaculeu, which first emerged in the early classic but experienced its peak in subsequent periods, offer very little information about the architecture: the earliest levels correspond to the Atzan phase (Early Classic) and only reveal adobe floors, greatly eroded sub-structures or terraced platforms, and an early balustraded stairway, all corresponding to Structure 1. The information is completed by the remains of floors associated with a low platform that supported a perishable construction at Structure 13, and by simple floors with ceramic caches at Structure 9. Technically, the principal building material was adobe, although coarse stonework with an adobe mortar was also used and then covered by white stucco. It is difficult to determine whether this region belonged to the East or West Complex because very few reports have been published on the Postclassic ceramics from this area. However, we can make use of the information from the site at La Lagunita, where an important example of Early Classic ceramics was found in an artificial cave on a very similar plan to Tomb 1 at Zaculeu and to two burials found at Nebaj (Tomb 1 in Mound 1 and Tomb 1 in Mound 2).

Postclassic (AD 900-1524).

This era has traditionally been divided into two periods due to the important cultural changes attributed to the great Mexican influence: the Early Postclassic (AD 900-1200) and the Late Postclassic (AD 1200-1524). The research conducted in this region has revealed that this era is conceived more as a stage of continuity and change. It would appear that the Guatemalan plateau did not suffer the same decline in population that occurred in the Maya lowlands during the Postclassic. In fact, the region continued to be densely populated, as the Spanish found when they arrived in 1524. Fauvet-Berthelot has defined a very accurate chronological division for dating the archaeological material and the sites studied, distinguishing three phases: the Epiclassic (AD 850/900- 1100), which marks the transition between the Classic and the Postclassic; the Early Postclassic (AD 1100- 1225); and the Late Postclassic or Protohistoric (AD 1225-1524). After the second half of the 16th century, written documents such as the Popol Vuh and the Anales of the Cakchikels shed greater light on the historical facts.


The cultural characteristics of this period reveal a continuity with the Classic. However, the architecture and funerary practices denote Mexican influences. The ceremonial centres that were located on open ground or in the mountains during the Classic era were still populated in the Early Postclassic and maintained the same orthogonal layout, with the monuments facing the cardinal points. Extensions and superimpositions were added to the existing structures, and long platforms were built, prefiguring the elongated houses of the last phase. Stucco was no longer used as a cladding for plazas and monuments. There was also an important change in the funerary customs, marked by the emergence of new religious beliefs, possibly introduced by small groups of Mexican descent. This meant that the Classic tombs had to be desecrated and then either filled in or used again. During the excavations, several imported metal objects were found. The most habitual form of burial was to sit the corpse directly on the floor.

Early Postclassic.

The strong demographic growth during this period was the result of a change in the governing lineages, which ushered in a new political and religious system. In the case of the K’iche’ Maya, the written sources and archaeological evidence suggest that the new lineages came from the Sierra de Chuacus. The socio-political recomposition that they brought about in the river basins and valleys of Q’umarkaj, Cauinal, Rabinal, Salama and others led to the incorporation of new cultural characteristics during this period, a time when numerous elites, proud of their Toltec descent, were migrating to different places all over Mesoamerica. These important changes were manifested in the structure of the population, the architecture and the religious and funerary practices

Late Postclassic or Protohistoric.

From this period, when Zaculeu enjoyed its greatest prosperity, we have various written documents that shed light on the archaeological data. The indigenous and Spanish texts furnish information on the history and social organisation based on lineages within chinamit (districts), the royal dynasties, the dual government, territorial limits, the requests for tributes and the pantheon of the various federations, among which the K’iche’ federation was the most powerful. Pre-Hispanic history has also been preserved in the oral tradition. During this period, the civic-religious centres moved out to hill slopes and elevated points in search of defensive advantages but also, and most importantly, in search of good farming land, sources of water and trading routes. The buildings no longer occupied a polygonal layout but were organised around a plaza, respecting the local geographical terrain. This enabled the leaders to control the land within sight of their base. At every site the political and religious power was rooted in a noble lineage or several groups of lineages, and there was a pyramid with one or several stairways flanked by sloping balustrades and leading to a single or double temple. The latter probably represented the alliance between two groups, whose patron gods were worshipped in the same way. Zaculeu was built by the Maya Mam and means ‘white earth’ (from zac, earth, and uleu, white). It was one of the last citadels of the pre-Hispanic period and comprises two zones or sections that can still be differentiated to this day: one composed of the fortress city with its temples, palaces, plazas, ball court, etc.; and another with a residential area for the common people and crop fields. According to the account by Fuentes and Guzman in their Recordacion Florida from the final decade of the 18th century, King Kaibil Balam locked himself into the fort during the siege by the Spanish, but in 1526 the lack of food forced him to surrender to Captain Gonzalo de Alvarado y Chavez, the cousin of Pedro de Alvarado, attributed with conquering this region. The indigenous peoples in this department belong to four linguistic groups derived from Maya, the common core shared by the peoples and languages of Guatemala. The largest group or nation was the Mam, to which all the towns outside the Cuchumatanes Highlands belong, with the exception of Aguacatan and a few towns in the uppermost part of the mountains: Todos Santos Cuchumatan and the neighbouring towns. The Mam kingdom covered a vast territory, including Huehuetenango, Totonicapan, Quetzaltenango, San Marcos and the province of Soconusco. The cruel battles between the different tribes led to the dismemberment of the territory and following the K’iche’ invasion led by King Quicab ‘the Great’, the Mam race and their Kaqchikel allies were forced to abandon part of their vast domains and retreat to the mountains, most notably to Huehuetenango, Chiantla and Todos Santos Cuchumatan in the Cuchumatanes Highlands. The Mam also occupied Cuilco and the remaining towns in the north-east, where secular and Mercedarian missions were established to ‘civilise’ the Indians.

Site description

The architecture at the site includes temples, fortresses and a large ball court. At Zaculeu there are no hieroglyphic inscriptions on walls or columns, and neither have any stelae, altars or other sculptures been found in the plazas. Nor are there any Maya vaults or other solutions like those used at other sites. The historical accounts accord Zaculeu considerable strategic importance as the capital of the Mam kingdom or domain.

The ceremonial centre.

The Mexican influences were very strong at Zaculeu. The research conducted by Navarrete indicates Tula influences in the architecture. This is most notable in Structure 4, which contains a bench-altar composed of a protruding altar in the fashion of a small pyramid with a balustrade culminating in a finial block. Another typical characteristic is the construction of circular structures in the rear sections of the buildings. In the last phase, the building materials were slate and granite, covered with stucco. An imposing bowl-shaped ball court occupies the central position. The tiered pyramids were built in the talud-tablero style with a double stairway, and surmounted by a temple with one or two interior chambers and three entrances delimited by cylindrical columns. The small altars in the plazas adopted the same characteristics as the large pyramids, resembling miniature pyramids themselves. The best examples of a Toltec-style sloping base surmounted by the walls of the super-structures are Structure 1 at Zaculeu and the enclosed ball courts reported by Smith at six other sites.

Funerary and sacrificial practices.

During the Protohistoric, it was customary to burn the leaders and bury their ashes at the foot of important structures. Urns of varying types were used for this purpose and were accompanied by small offerings of metal, such as gold, tumbaga (an alloy of gold and copper) and copper, either imported or made locally. The common people were buried in cemeteries situated on the outskirts of the cities, near their residential groups, in simple cylindrical graves identified by stones. Royal and other important dignitaries were buried with their legs folded against their breast, their arms crossed, their skull (according to their customs) artificially deformed and their teeth selectively filed; sometimes, they were accompanied by offerings consisting of serpentine axes, obsidian blades, jadeite beads and copper rings.

Sacrificial stone slab in front of the temples.

Navarrete explains that there are two examples of sacrificial stone slabs in front of temples but that this characteristic only appears in its entirety at Temple 2 at Iximiche, in front of and in the middle of the central entrance to the precinct. Its discoverer, Jorge Guillemin, described it as follows: ‘The steep stairway leads to the top terrace; near the edge is an altar with a stone slab for sacrifices, measuring 40 cm in height, 45 cm in width and 18 cm in depth, with a slightly concave top, all made out of stone and stucco. Compared with Mexican archaeology, it is clear that this stone slab must have been used for human victims ‘thrown into the arms of Caxtoc’, according to the term used in the Memorial of Solola’. Another example could well be the base of a stone slab very similar to the aforementioned one, found in front of and in the middle of the entrance columns to Structure 17 at Zaculeu; unfortunately, it is in such a state of ruin that it is impossible to make out its original form.

Monuments and ceramics classic (AD 200-900).

Zaculeu contains a black coffee-coloured variety of ceramics, very similar to the contemporary ceramics produced in the Zoque area of western Chiapas, coinciding with a supposedly Zoque linguistic enclave in the Aguacatan region (Awakateco II language). One hypothesis suggests a Mixe-Zoque presence in the middle of, or next to, a Maya population that uses the K’iche’, Poquomam and Q’eqchi’ languages, which have recently spread throughout the region. In any case, this presence, if It exists, is only evidence of a much wider Preclassic occupation whose hypothetical association with the sculptural styles of the Plateau and Coast has yet to be explored. There are also ceramics related to those of Nebaj, Zacualpa in El Quiche and the Early Classic site of Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala City. We can therefore conclude that at least in the Early Classic these ceramics belonged to the West Complex of the western highlands, based on the evident continuity in the pattern of settlement. The region may have continued within the West Complex for at least the whole of the Classic era. Subsequently, the Sajcabaja region appears to have changed its orientation and become part of the East Complex, because in the Late Postclassic the ceramics show stronger ties with the populations in the basin of the River Negro.

Epiclassic (AD 850/900-1100).

Ceramics continued to be manufactured in the same way as during the Classic era but new ritual and funerary types emerged. The innovations included the manufacture of Plumbate Tojil ceramics – characterised by anthropomorphic and zoomorphic vases that idealised the god Tlaloc – and other types imported from the Valley of Mexico. Meanwhile, the imported objects comprise Mixtecastyle tripod incense burners, Fine Orange tripod vases on pedestals, red-on-cream incised tripod bowls, redorange polished bowls with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic moulded supports, and plates and vases decorated with the negative painting technique. The stone-carved sculptures included pieces with butts and stelae with bas-relief decorations; in relation to minor lithics, serpentine axes, grinding stones, pestles and artefacts made of obsidian were all used. Metal also emerged at Zaculeu; the excavations revealed a tumbaga butterfly.

Early postclassic (AD 1100-1225).

The most characteristic ceramics produced during this period correspond to the Plumbate Tojil variety and included bowls, cylindrical or barrel-shaped vases, and jugs with modelled effigies. Perforated tripod incense burners were also made during this period, and there are discs, stamps, whistles and female figurines.

Late Postclassic or Protohistoric (AD 1225-1524).

Chinautla Polychrome ceramics have been found, and although their presence at Zaculeu is somewhat limited they are nevertheless highly representative of other places in the Guatemalan Highlands. Polished monochrome black bowls and vases have also been found.

Patricia del Aguila Flores

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp494-498.



1. Plaza 1; 2. Plaza 2; 3. Plaza 3; 4. Plaza 4; 5. Plaza 5; 6. Plaza 6; 7. Plaza 7; 8. Plaza 8; 9. Structure 1; 10. Structure 6; 11. Structure 9; 12. Structure 10; 13. Ball Court; 14. Structure 2; 15. Structure 3; 16. Structure 13; 17. Structure 4.

How to get there:

A bus that goes right past the ruins can be picked up at the bottom end of Calle 2, beside the Salvador Osorio School. Q3.5


15d 20’02” N

91d 29’ 34” W



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