The Mayan City of Quiriguá

Guatemala - Scott #258 (1932)
Guatemala – Scott #258 (1932)

Quiriguá is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the department of Izabal in south-eastern Guatemala. It is a medium-sized site covering approximately 1.2 square miles (3 km²) along the lower Motagua River, with the ceremonial center about 0.6 mile (1 km) from the north bank. During the Maya Classic Period (AD 200–900), Quiriguá was situated at the juncture of several important trade routes. The site was occupied by 200, construction on the acropolis had begun by about 550, and an explosion of grander construction started in the 8th century. All construction had halted by about 850, except for a brief period of reoccupation in the Early Postclassic (c. 900 – c. 1200). Quiriguá shares its architectural and sculptural styles with the nearby Classic Period city of Copán, with whose history it is closely entwined.

Quiriguá’s rapid expansion in the 8th century was tied to king K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat’s military victory over Copán in 738. When the greatest king of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil or “18-Rabbit”, was defeated, he was captured and then sacrificed in the Great Plaza at Quiriguá. Before this, Quiriguá had been a vassal state of Copán, but it maintained its independence afterwards. The ceremonial architecture at Quiriguá is quite modest, but the site’s importance lies in its wealth of sculpture, including the tallest stone monumental sculpture ever erected in the New World.

The archaeological site of Quiriguá is named after the nearby village of the same name, and is located a little over 120 miles (200 km) northeast of Guatemala City; it lies in the municipality of Los Amates in the department of Izabal and has an elevation of 246 feet (75 m) above mean sea level.

Positioned on the north bank of the lower reaches of the Motagua River, Quiriguá is situated at the point where the valley broadens into a flood plain, which has exposed the site to periodic flooding over the centuries. Although the river passed close to the site during the period of the city’s occupation, it has since changed course and now flows 0.6 miles (1 km) south of the ceremonial centre. Quiriguá is 50 miles (48 km) north of Copán, and is located 9.8 miles (15.7 km) north-west of the international border with Honduras.

The local bedrock is a hard red sandstone, which the inhabitants used in the construction of monuments and architecture. This local sandstone is very strong and not prone to shearing or fracturing, allowing the sculptors at Quiriguá to erect the tallest freestanding stone monuments in the Americas. Quiriguá was built directly over the Motagua Fault and the city suffered damage in ancient times as a result of major earthquakes.

The southern Maya area, showing the locations of Quiriguá and Copán
The southern Maya area, showing the locations of Quiriguá and Copán

Although the Quiriguá elite were clearly Maya in ethnicity, the site lies on the southern periphery of the Mesoamerican area and the population was at least bi-ethnic, with ethnic Maya in a minority. The majority of the population belonged ethnically to the less complex Intermediate Area lying beyond the eastern border of Mesoamerica. The population density of the site has been estimated at 1040 to 1300 per square mile (400 to 500 per square kilometer) in the center of the city during the Late Classic with an estimated peak population of 1200–1600; surveys have revealed an average of 338 structures per square miles (130 per square kilometer) at the site, compared with 3767 structures per square mile (1449/km²) in central Copán. The low population density indicates that Quiriguá served as the focus for a dispersed rural population.

The population levels of the Quiriguá valley increased rapidly after the successful rebellion against Copán in 738, although it was never a heavily populated site. In the 9th century there was a severe decline in population, culminating in the abandonment of the city.

The Motagua River flows down from the western Guatemalan highlands, and Quiriguá was ideally positioned to control the trade of uncut jade, the majority of which was found in the middle reaches of the Motagua Valley, as well as controlling the flow of other important commodities up and down the river such as cacao, which was produced as a local cash crop. Although cacao was produced for trade, maize remained the primary local crop due to its central role in the Maya diet. In addition, maize probably formed an important component in the site’s tribute payments to its overlords at Copán, a city that was exhausting its own local resources. Although little jade has been recovered from the site, there is evidence for trade in obsidian originating from the Ixtepeque source situated near the upper reaches of the Motagua.

In the Classic Period, the location of the site would have placed Quiriguá on a crossroads between the trading route from the highlands to the Caribbean coast and the route from Copán to the major cities of the Petén Basin.

Aerial view of the central ceremonial area of Quiriguá, Guatemala
Aerial view of the central ceremonial area of Quiriguá, Guatemala

There is evidence that Quiriguá was occupied as early as the Late Preclassic (400 BC – AD 200). Although no structures have been securely dated to this period, a number of Late Preclassic artifacts have been recovered, including 63 figurines and a chert blade. Early Classic ceramics from Quiriguá are similar to finds at both Copán and Chalchuapa in El Salvador, while jade hunchback figurines from the same period resemble those found in central Honduras and in the Guatemalan highlands. These early finds demonstrate the participation of Quiriguá in the wider southeastern Maya region from the Late Preclassic onwards.

A combination of hieroglyphic texts from Tikal, Copán and Quiriguá, together with architectural styles and chemical tests of the bones of the founder of the Copán dynasty all suggest that Quiriguá and Copán were founded by elite colonists from the great city of Tikal as a part of its expansion into the southeastern border area of the Maya region. The recorded history of Quiriguá starts in 426, in the Early Classic (c. 200 – c. 600); according to hieroglyphic inscriptions at other sites, on September 5 of that year K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was enthroned as king of Copán. Just three days later he installed “Tok Casper”, the first known king of Quiriguá, upon the throne. From this it is evident that right from the beginning of its recorded history Quiriguá was subservient to its southern neighbor, and was founded to bring the lucrative trade route of the Motagua River under the control of Copán and, indirectly, of Tikal. During the next few centuries, about which little is known, the ceremonial architecture at Quiriguá was limited to the hilltop Group A and a broad earthen platform on the valley floor. It is recorded that a stela, as yet undiscovered, was erected in 455 by Tutuum Yohl K’inich, the second king of Quiriguá. An early monument records the supervision of a ritual in 480 by the then overlord from Copán, demonstrating Quiriguá’s continued status as a vassal of that city. A hieroglyphic text dating to 493 mentions two further kings of Quiriguá, but interruptions in the text make the reading and decipherment of their names particularly difficult.

There are close parallels between the 5th-century architecture and monuments of Quiriguá and Uaxactun in the northern Petén, a site that fell under the domination of Tikal in the late 4th century. The similarities show that Quiriguá remained strongly aligned with the great Tikal alliance network.

Stela D, north side, from Quiriguá, representing king K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat. Photo taken on January 27, 2008.
Stela D, north side, from Quiriguá, representing king K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. Photo taken on January 27, 2008.

Quiriguá suffered a hiatus from the turn of the 6th century that lasted through to the middle of the 7th century. This may be linked to the Tikal hiatus of the Middle Classic caused by Tikal’s defeat by Calakmul. There is evidence that Quiriguá suffered an attack by unknown enemies in this period, as demonstrated by the apparently deliberate defacement of Stela U and Monument 26, characteristic of damage inflicted by invading warriors. No monuments were erected during this hiatus, which lasted from 495 to 653.

In the 6th or early 7th century a natural disaster caused a devastating flood of the Motagua Valley and buried the surface of the site under a deep layer of silt, completely changing the landscape. Only those buildings that stood above the mud continued in use, including group A, saved by its hilltop location. The earthen platform on the valley floor also continued in use, at least those parts of it that stood above the silt, and it was one of the site’s smaller complexes that grew to become the new center of Quiriguá, as represented by the monuments visible to this day.

A revival can be identified by the dedication of the first new monument in a century and a half, raised by the otherwise unknown king, K’awiil Yopaat, in 653. Continued contact with Copán is evident, as well as longer distance contacts, possibly with Caracol in Belize. At about the same time major construction work was undertaken in the acropolis, including the building of the site’s first ballcourt.

Quiriguá traditionally had been subordinate to its southern neighbor, Copán, and in 724 Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, king of Copán, installed K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat upon Quiriguá’s throne as his vassal. As early as 734, however, K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat had shown that he was no longer an obedient subordinate of Copán when he started to refer to himself as k’ul ahaw, holy lord, instead of using the lesser term ahaw, subordinate lord; at the same time he began to use his own Quiriguá emblem glyph. These early assertions of independence can only have been made if Quiriguá had managed to form an external alliance.

Indeed, this local act of rebellion appears to have been part of the larger political struggle between the two Maya “superpowers”, the great cities of Tikal and Calakmul. In 736, only two years later, K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat received a visit from Wamaw K’awiil, the high king of distant Calakmul, while Copán was one of Tikal’s oldest allies. The timing of this visit by the king of Calakmul is highly significant, falling between the accession of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat to the throne of Quiriguá as a vassal of Copán and the outright rebellion that was to follow. This strongly suggests that Calakmul sponsored Quiriguá’s rebellion in order to weaken Tikal and to gain access to the rich trade route of the Motagua Valley. It is likely that contact with Calakmul had been initiated soon after K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat acceded to the throne, since Quiriguá experienced rapid growth soon after, suggesting that Quiriguá already was receiving external support.

In 738, the interlinked fortunes of Quiriguá and Copán took a stunning change of direction when K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, reigning lord of Quiriguá, captured the powerful, but elderly 13th king of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, who had installed him on his throne in 725. This coup does not seem to have affected either Copán or Quiriguá physically, there is no evidence that either city was attacked at this time and the victor seems not to have received any detectable tribute. Quiriguá seems rather to have gained its independence and the control of important trade routes. An inscription at Quiriguá, although difficult to interpret, suggests that the capture took place on April 27, 738, when Quiriguá seized and burned the wooden images of Copán’s patron deities. All of this seems to imply that K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat managed to somehow ambush Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, rather than to have defeated him in outright battle. In the Classic Period the statues of Maya deities often were carried into battle on palanquins, facilitating their capture in the event of defeat. It has been suggested that the king of Copán was attempting to attack another site in order to secure captives for sacrifice, and was ambushed by K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and his Quiriguá warriors.

Stela C - south face - from Quiriguá, Guatemala, representing K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat. Photo taken on March 28, 2009.
Stela C – south face – from Quiriguá, Guatemala, representing K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. Photo taken on March 28, 2009.

The captured lord was taken back to Quiriguá and on May 3, 738, he was decapitated in a public ritual. The sacrificial offering of the blood of such a powerful overlord greatly enhanced the standing of Quiriguá and its royal family throughout the region and it proclaimed Quiriguá as the new capital of the south-eastern Maya region. After this, Quiriguá engaged in a major monument-building program, closely mimicking the sculptural style of Copán, possibly using captured Copán sculptors to carry out the work. The population of Quiriguá and of other sites in the valley rapidly increased after the events of 738, although Quiriguá was always a small center and its total population probably never exceeded 2,000.

In the Late Classic (c. 600 – c. 900), alliance with Calakmul frequently was associated with the promise of military support. The fact that Copán, a much more powerful city than Quiriguá, failed to retaliate against its former vassal implies that it feared the military intervention of Calakmul. Calakmul itself was far enough away from Quiriguá that K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat was not afraid of falling directly under its power as a full vassal state, even though it is likely that Calakmul sent warriors to help in the defeat of Copán. The alliance instead seems to have been one of mutual advantage, Calakmul managed to weaken a powerful ally of Tikal while Quiriguá gained its independence.

In 718, the city of Xkuy — an as yet undiscovered site — was attacked and burned by Copán under the leadership of king Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. After the king of Copán was sacrificed in 738, Xkuy seems to have become a loyal vassal of Quiriguá and in 762 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat supervised the accession of “Sunraiser Jaguar” to the subservient city’s throne.

K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, who had so dramatically changed the destiny of his city, died on July 27, 785. Zoomorph G is his memorial stone and it describes how he was buried 10 days later in the 13 Kawak House, a building that has not been identified. The great king was succeeded by “Sky Xul”, a king whose name has not been properly identified. “Sky Xul” became the reigning lord of Quiriguá 78 days after the death of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, who is thought to have been his father. His reign lasted from 10 to 15 years and was a period of continued activity. In most of the Maya region cities already were suffering terminal decline, engulfed by the Classic Maya collapse, but in Quiriguá “Sky Xul” dedicated three great zoomorph sculptures and two altars, considered marvels of Maya stoneworking. “Sky Xul” died some time between 795 and 800.

Altar M at Quiriguá, Guatemala, dating to 734. It has been identified variously as feline, a crocodile, and a snake. It may be a three-dimensional representation of a rare toponymic glyph Photo taken on March 28, 2009.
Altar M at Quiriguá, Guatemala, dating to 734. It has been identified variously as feline, a crocodile, and a snake. It may be a three-dimensional representation of a rare toponymic glyph Photo taken on March 28, 2009.

Little is known of “Jade Sky”, who succeeded “Sky Xul” and was the last recorded ruler of Quiriguá. The city’s power already was waning, as evidenced by the two stunted stelae erected during his reign, which indicate that the kingdom no longer had access to the kind of resources needed to produce monuments of a similar quality to those of his predecessors. “Jade Sky” did build two of the largest structures in the acropolis, however.

Quiriguá apparently retained its independence from Copán and continued to flourish until the beginning of the 9th century. Relations between the two cities had improved somewhat by 810, when king Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat of Copán visited Quiriguá in order to carry out a k’atun-ending ritual. However, 810 was also the year when the last hieroglyphic texts were raised at Quiriguá, although a reduced level of construction continued in the city center. After this, Quiriguá falls into silence, engulfed by the greater phenomenon of the Classic Maya collapse — it had lost its reason for existence when trade no longer flowed along the Motagua; within a few years Quiriguá was all but deserted and sites throughout the Motagua Valley suffered severe decline or abandonment.

In the early Postclassic Period (c. 900 – c. 1200), Quiriguá was occupied by peoples closely linked to the Caribbean coastal areas of the Yucatán Peninsula and Belize, perhaps due to Chontal Maya control of a trade network that included the Yucatán coast and the Motagua Valley. During their brief reoccupation of the site they made substantial additions to the acropolis complex. Finds associated with their occupation include a reclining chacmool sculpture and ceramics from the east coast of Yucatán, artifacts that demonstrate a close link with the distant city of Chichen Itza. Some copper bells and ornaments were recovered from Quiriguá, they are among the earliest finds of metal artifacts in the Maya area. They have been dated to either the Terminal Classic (c. 800 – c. 950) or the Early Postclassic.

Dilapidated railway platform at Quiriguá, Guatemala. Photo taken on December 6, 2003.
Dilapidated railway platform at Quiriguá, Guatemala. Photo taken on December 6, 2003.

The first European visitor to publish an account of Quiriguá was English architect and artist Frederick Catherwood, who reached the ruins in 1840. The previous landowner, by the surname of Payés, had related the existence of the ruins to his sons and to Carlos Meiney, a Jamaican Englishman resident in Guatemala. The elder Payés had recently died and passed the land to his sons and, since neither Meiney nor Payés’ sons had visited the land containing the ruins, they invited John Lloyd Stephens and Catherwood to join them on their first trip to the site. Stephens had other duties to attend to, but Catherwood was able to accompany the Payés brothers to Quiriguá. Due to adverse conditions he was only able to stay a short time at the ruins, but made drawings of two of the stelae, which were published with a short account of Catherwood’s visit in John Lloyd Stephens’s book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan in 1841. Quiriguá was the first site that Stephens and Catherwood could claim to have discovered themselves. A longer account of the ruins was made in 1854 by Dr. Karl Scherzer.

Explorer and archaeologist Alfred Maudslay visited Quiriguá for three days in 1881; they were the first pre-Columbian ruins that he saw and they were sufficiently impressive to inspire him to take up a permanent interest in Central American archaeology. He was able to return on three further occasions, the last being in 1894, and he made the first efforts to clear the monuments before recording them. He carried out a very thorough examination and made a photographic record of all visible monuments, carried out some minor excavations, made paper and plaster molds of the hieroglyphic inscriptions and surveyed the principal sculptures; these molds were then shipped to the Victoria and Albert Museum, with casts being transferred to the British Museum.

In 1910, the United Fruit Company bought Quiriguá and all the land for a great distance around the site for banana production; they set aside 75 acres (30 ha) around the ceremonial center as an archaeological park, leaving an island of jungle among the plantations. More archaeological work was carried out from 1910 to 1914 by Edgar Lee Hewett and Sylvanus Morley for the School of American Archaeology in Santa Fe. Duplicates of the stelae of Quiriguá made from Hewitt’s plaster casts of the originals were exhibited at the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, California, in 1915. The casts are still on display at the San Diego Museum of Man in their “Maya: Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth” exhibition. The Carnegie Institution conducted several intermittent projects at Quiriguá from 1915 through 1934. Aldous Huxley, writing after visiting the site in the early 1930s, noted that Quiriguá’s stelae commemorated “man’s triumph over time and matter and the triumph of time and matter over man.” Quiriguá was among the first Maya archaeological sites to be studied intensively, although little restoration was carried out and the ruins once again became overgrown with jungle.

The Great Plaza of Quiriguá, originally laid out by K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat; view is from the acropolis looking north. Photo taken on January 27, 2008.
The Great Plaza of Quiriguá, originally laid out by K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat; view is from the acropolis looking north. Photo taken on January 27, 2008.

Quiriguá was declared a National Monument in 1970 under Ministerial Accord 1210, this was followed on June 19, 1974, by its declaration as an Archaeological Park under Governmental Accord 35-74.

From 1974 through 1979, an extensive archaeological project was conducted at Quiriguá sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, the National Geographic Society, and the Guatemalan Instituto de Antropología e Historia. Directed by Robert Sharer and William R. Coe, the project excavated the acropolis, cleaned the monuments, and studied outlying groups. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, and in 1999 UNESCO approved one-off funding of US$27,248 for “emergency assistance for the rehabilitation of the archaeological site of Quiriguá”. One of the site’s stelae is depicted on the Guatemalan 10 centavo coin.

The 4 acre (34 ha) area included within the Archaeological Park of Quiriguá has been developed for tourism with the construction of a car park, site museum, and sanitation facilities and is open to the public on a daily basis.

After Quiriguá’s pivotal victory over Copán in 738, K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat rebuilt the main group in the image of Copán itself. Thus, the acropolis, palace, and ballcourt all lie at the southern end of the Great Plaza. The ceremonial center is laid out around three plazas, the northernmost is the Great Plaza. This plaza measures 1,066 feet (325 m) from north to south and is the largest plaza in the whole Maya region. At the southern end of the Great Plaza is the Ballcourt Plaza, surrounded on three sides by structures associated with the acropolis. The Acropolis Plaza is a fully enclosed plaza within the acropolis itself. The area to the west of the Ballcourt Plaza was probably the riverside docking area and there is evidence that the southern part of the Great Plaza was a marketplace. A number of ceramic-lined wells have been excavated close to the site core, these were all built in the 8th century and although some continued in use into the 9th century, none are known to have been built that late.

Maudslay's map of the ruins at Quiriguá, Guatemala
Maudslay’s map of the ruins at Quiriguá, Guatemala

The monuments at Quiriguá include unusually large stelae elaborately carved from single blocks of red sandstone, brought from quarries 3 mles (5 km) away. Stelae are tall monoliths engraved in varying degrees of detail, to act as everything from calendars, to storytellers, to godly and royal icons. Known to have been created in several ancient cultures, standing stones of the Mayan — such as those at Quiriguá — were often erected as testimonials to rulers and their glorious deeds, or to mark astronomical and seasonal events. The characteristics of this hard rock allowed the local sculptors to produce low-relief sculptures enhanced by three-dimensional faces, in contrast with the contemporary two-dimensional sculpture of the Petén region.

After the defeat and execution of the king of Copán in 738, the sculptural style of Quiriguá closely resembled that of its former overlord. The enormous stelae at Quirigá originally would have been visible from the Motagua River, which once flowed past the west side of the Great Plaza, announcing the new-found power of the city to passing traders. The monuments include long panels of glyphic text that are considered among the most complex and beautiful of all Maya stone inscriptions. A characteristic of these texts is the use of full-figure glyphs in which the normal bar and dot number glyphs of Maya script are replaced with exquisitely carved representations of the deities. However, by the latter part of the 8th century Quiriguá had developed an original style with the production of boulders elaborately sculpted into the forms of composite mythological animals bearing elements of toads, jaguars, crocodiles, and birds of prey; these sculptures are referred to as zoomorphs and were completed by two later kings after the death of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat in 785.

There also are various altars and sculptures used as decoration in the facades of buildings; most Quiriguá monuments have a grand formal monumentality that is rather stiff compared to the naturalistic grace of the art of some other Maya sites. Traces of red pigment have been found on some of the monuments and most of the monuments were likely to have been painted red, the color of birth, sacrifice, and renewal.

Full figure glyphs on the west side of Stela D at Quiriguá, Guatemala. Photo taken on January 27, 2008.
Full figure glyphs on the west side of Stela D at Quiriguá, Guatemala. Photo taken on January 27, 2008.

[url=][img][/img][/url][url=]GT_Quirigua_StelaE[/url] by [url=]Mark Jochim[/url], on Flickr

Stela E in Quiriguá, Guatemala, is 12 meters tall, making it the highest in Maya culture and possibly the largest freestanding stone monument in the New World. It was erected on January 22, 771.
Stela E in Quiriguá, Guatemala, is 12 meters tall, making it the highest in Maya culture and possibly the largest freestanding stone monument in the New World. It was erected on January 22, 771.

Stela E stands in the northern half of the Great Plaza. This stela was dedicated on January 24, 771, by K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. Its total shaft measures 35 feet (10.6 m) in height, including the buried portion holding it in place, which measures just under 10 feet (3 m). This enormous monolith is the largest stone ever quarried by the ancient Maya and weighs approximately 65 tons, it may even be the largest free-standing worked monolith in the New World. In 1917 this stela, already tilting away from vertical, finally fell over completely after heavy rains, although it remained unbroken. In 1934, an attempt was made to raise the stela using a winch and steel cables, during which the cables snapped and the monolith fell and was broken into two pieces, which have since been joined back together using concrete. This stela bears portraits of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat on its front and back.

I don’t know which stela is depicted on Scott #258 released by Guatemala on April 6, 1932. The 3-centavo carmine rose stamp was engraved and printed by the American Bank Note Company, perforated 12. The stamp was released to promote the export of coffee.

Flag of Guatemala
Coat of arms of Guatemala


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