acropolis plaza stairway gustavo gutierrez leon
zoomorph G dennis jarvis
stela H glyph text ela ginalska
group A site map morley
structures 3, 4 and ajaw wall world monument fund
altsr P dennis jarvis
Quirigua is a small, yet significant Maya archaeological zone originally located along the north bank of the Motagua River. The river forms part of the border between Guatemala and Honduras. The structures are very modest in design and size. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
Quirigua is renowned for having the tallest carved stelae, and the most elaborately carved sculptured monuments, in the Maya World. Stela E, which depicts ruler Kak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat is a stunning 35 feet/10.6 meters in height with a weight of some 65 tons. The Great Turtle Altar, Zoomorph P is considered by many to be among the great masterpieces of Maya art.
The site and surrounding area were purchased by the United Fruit Company in 1909, with the company setting aside 35 acres as an archaeological zone. It is now owned by the Guatemala Government.
The underlying bedrock is made up of red sandstone as opposed to limestone that was the material of choice in most of the Maya area. Both of these materials are easier to carve when first exposed to the air and elements, and harden over time.
The population during its heyday in the Late Classic (600-800 CE.) never exceed 1,600-2,000. The Maya were the ruling elite, but were considered to be in a minority as the site lies at the fringes of the known Maya area.
Quirigua is a four-hour drive northeast on Highway 9 from Guatemala City, about 120 miles/200 kms. A good alternative is a two-hour drive from Copan in Honduras if one is also visiting that site.
HOURS: 8A.M-4:30 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: U.S. $11.00/80 Quetzals
GUIDES: Check in Quirigua town
ON-SITE MUSEUM: Yes
ACCOMMODATIONS: Basic lodging and food can be found in the nearby town of Quirigua
GPS: 15d 16’ 26" N; 89d 02’ 22" W
HISTORY AND EXPLORATION
Ceramic evidence indicates that Quirigua was settled by the Late Preclassic (350 BCE-250 CE). At the end of the Early Classic Period (250-400 CE), Copan, about 30 miles/48 kms to the southeast, established a subservient dynasty to control the jade and obsidian trade along the Motagua River. The great city state of Tikal, which had a hereditary alliance with Copan, has been named as the impetus for the site’s development as part of its strategy to counter the expansion of its arch enemy, Calakmul.
Early Classic ceramics from Quiriguá are similar to those at Copán, Honduras, and the Chalchuapa area and San Andres in El Salvador. The ceramic style is known as Copador, and most likely indicates a strong relationship between these sites.
Numerous stelae and monuments record an uninterrupted sequence of hotuns, five-year periods, from 184.108.40.206.0-220.127.116.11.0, approximately 751-810 CE. These monuments provide a wealth of information regarding the history of Quirigua. What is interesting to note, is that at both Quirigua and Copan the monuments do not depict subjugated captives, or overt military conquests as is seen at most other sites. There are references to eight rulers described in the texts.
The first Ruler, Tok Chi'ch' is mentioned retrospectively on Zoomorph P. He was installed to the throne in 426 CE, by Kin’ich Yax Kuk Mo, the recent dynastic founder and king of Copan who had a direct association with Tikal. This may have been a grand strategy on the part of Tikal to subjugate the local populations and control the Motagua River trade route in one fell swoop.
Stela 26, located in the North Group, mentions both the second ruler, Mih Toh, and the third ruler Chan Yopaat. This stela is thought to date to 493 CE.
There are few monuments displaying texts from most of the 6th and 7th centuries. This time frame meshes well with the defeat of Tikal by Calakmul in 562 CE, wherein Tikal also entered into a period of greatly reduced activity referred to as a hiatus. There is some evidence to suggest that Quirigua was also attacked during this time period.
One of the few records from this time frame is found on Altar L which mentions the fifth ruler, K'awiil Yopaat. This monument is dated to 18.104.22.168.0 12 Ajaw 8 Kej, October 14, 652 CE, and commemorates a visit by the 12th king of Copán, K'ahk' Uti' Witz' K'awiil. Stela T, in Group A, was erected in 692 CE but is too eroded to convey any information on who erected it. At this time Quirigua was still a vassal state of Copan.
The next ruler who is named in the historical records is Quirigua’s most notable king, Kak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. He assumes the rulership on 22.214.171.124.17 12 Kaban 5 Kayab, December 31, 724 CE, under the supervision of the 13th ruler of Copán, the great Waxaklajuun Ub'aak K'awiil/18 Rabbit.
With the probable collusion and instigation of Calakmul, Kak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat captured Waxakajwn Ubaak Kawiil, and sacrificed him in the Great Plaza in 738 CE. Quirigua attained its independence, and Copan never fully recovered from this deceit and defeat. Stela J, dated to 756 CE, names Kak’ Tiliw as the 14th dynastic ruler of Copan, which would appear to indicate that not only did Quirigua defeat Copan in 738 CE, but that Kak’ Tiliw regarded himself as the legitimate ruler of Copan. Whether he actually ruled over Copan, directly or indirectly, requires further investigations.
Quirigua continued to expand in size and population with new monuments and building constructions. Most of the spectacular monuments seen today at the site were erected during the reign of Kak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (724-785 CE), and record Hotun (five year) Period Endings starting from 751 CE.
The artisans at Quirigua seem to have been free to explore new artistic concepts with regards to monument design initiated during Kak’ Tiliw’s reign. The exquisite calligraphy and intricate designs on his early stelae are extraordinary.
The next phase was sheer height in the production of Stela E and F. On 13 Ajaw 18 Kumku, 771 CE, Kak’ Tiliw celebrated a Hotun Period Ending in the company of ruler K'in B'ahlam from the nearby site of Xkuy as mentioned on Stela E.
The third artistic phase initiated by Kak’ Tiliw was the carving of an immense zoomorphic sculpture, Zoomorph B, displaying deep cosmological expressions, which was continued by his successor, Sky Xul/Chan Tiliw Yopaat who acceded to the throne in 785 CE. He moved monumental and architectural activity to the south end of the Great Plaza, and commissioned the incredibly detailed Zoomorphs O and P with their associated altars.
Jade Sky/ K'ahk' Jolow Chan Yopaat assumed the throne sometime before 800 CE, and continued the expressive tradition. He returned to stelae commemorations, erecting Stelae I and K, but placed his seated image within a frame (Stela I) as is seen at Piedras Negras. The glyphic text contains a rare mention of the 819-day cycle.
His last innovation was creating an entire structure, Structure 1B1, to record the Hotun Ending in 126.96.36.199.0. 9 Ahau 18 Mol, 6/26/810 CE. This event is recorded at structure 1B1 upon a text band that wraps around the exterior of the structure. The text describes a scattering event performed by Jade Sky and Yax Pasaj Chan Yo'paat, the ruler of Copan, in dedication of the newly built Acropolis structure. The presence of the Copan king would seem to indicate a return of normal relations between the two sites.
There are no historical texts after 810 CE. The site apparently experienced a sharp decline and was abandoned a short time thereafter. There was a later occupation around 900 CE that was short lived, and which may have been the result of a trade relationship with Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico as indicated by a recovered Chac Mool monument.
There may have been a relationship between Quirigua and Nim Li Punit 73 miles/118 km to the northeast in Belize. The recorded texts at this site were produced between 721-800 CE which closely matches the reign of the three major kings of Quirigua. A colossal stela, Stela 14, the tallest in Belize with a height of 31 feet/9.5 meters, is similar in style to Stela E at Quirigua. The use of a royal title, ek 'xukpi ahaw/lord of Black Copan, and that of hach’at/royal companion, is seen at both sites.
Juan Payes and his brothers, owners of the property and adjacent areas, discovered the ruins in 1798. Those intrepid explorers, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, were at Copan, about 30 miles/48 km to the southwest, in 1840 when they learned of the site. Catherwood alone made the trek to investigate the ruins, and was the first to record and document the site. Stephens attempted to purchase the site to no avail. Their books make for a fascinating read.
Alfred Maudslay documented the site through his excellent photographic methods in 1881. During his fourth visit in 1894 excavations on Temple 1/Structure 1B1 and Pyramid XI were begun by his assistants, the Lopez brothers from Coban. Plaster reproductions of certain monuments were made and exhibited in the U.S. and in England.
Sylvanus Morley started systematic excavations in the early 1900’s. In 1910 the United Fruit Company set aside 35 acres to preserve the site and forest.
Edgar Lee Hewett and Sylvanus Morley of the Archaeological Institute of America conducted investigations beginning with the first Quirigua Expedition in 1910, followed by other expeditions between 1911-1914. The 1914 expedition included, among others, Ruth Laughlin, a noted suffragette, author, and journalist. Plaster casts were again taken for display at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, a few of which are still on display at San Diego’s Museum of Man/Us. The exposition also exhibited several of Carlos Vierra’s dramatic landscapes of ancient Maya cities, including Quirigua, which made a lasting impression on the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Carnegie Institute undertook investigations between 1915-1934, first under the direction of Sylvanus Morley (formally of AIA), and later by Oliver G. Ricketson, and Earl Morris.
Excavation and consolidation continued throughout the 1970’s by the University of Pennsylvania, The National Geographic Society, and the Guatemalan government, directed by Robert Sharer and William Coe. The site experienced some damage from the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that occurred on February 4, 1976. Excavations, restorations, and consolidation continue under the government of Guatemala and international partners.
There are several groups spread out over a wide area that make up Quirigua. Groups A -C are located some distance outside the central core area of the site.
Group A is located about 2 miles/3.5 km west of the Great Plaza on the highest hill in the area, and dates to the Early Classic (250-400 CE). It is thought that this small group was an early ceremonial center of the site, and houses an early stela, Stela U, tentatively dated between 478-495 CE. The group’s principal structure consists of a pyramidal base housing a single chamber temple facing to the south. A rich cache of eccentric flints was discovered at the rear of the chamber in 1922.
Group B features three structures set around a small plaza measuring about 150 feet/45 meters x 100 feet/30.5 meters. It runs on a north/south axis, and is around 1.25 miles/2 km southwest of the Great Plaza and situated on the valley floor. Structure II is located on the north side of the plaza and is a three-tiered platform with a south, plaza facing stairway. The platform base measures approximately 60 feet/18 meters x 30 feet/9 meters, and has a height of around 21 feet/6.5 meters. Structure I is set on the west side with Structure III on the east side. Both are small, low platform mounds. Stela S stands on the south side of the plaza and dates to 9 Ajaw 18 Xul, 746 CE.
The Great Plaza forms the heart of the civic/ceremonial city, and is set on a north/south axis. This is perhaps the largest plaza in the Maya World measuring 981 feet/300m x 654 feet/200 meters. Some researchers have suggested that the plaza corresponds to the mythology of cosmic creation with the plaza itself representing the primordial sea.
It was here that Quirigua’s greatest ruler, Kak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, built and defined Quirigua as it was known in its prime, and as it exists today.
Anchoring the north end of the Great Plaza is a complex set about a large courtyard. The principal structure, Structure 1A3, is a long platform that measures about 271 feet/82.5 meters x 66 feet/20 meters, with a platform height of around 23 feet/7 meters. A broad, inset stairway extends approximately 207 feet/63 meters and faces south onto the Great Plaza.
In front of this structure is a series of stelae, Stelae A, C, and D, and a carved boulder of a mythological creature known as a zoomorph, Zoomorph B. This artistically sculptured monument was dedicated on a Hotun Period ending on 4 Ajaw 13 Keh, 795 CE, and is thought to represent the Water Throne Stone, one of the three hearth stones of creation located in the Orion Constellation.
Looking south across the Great Plaza can be seen the largest monuments ever erected in the Maya World and which were commissioned by Kak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. These magnificently carved sandstone monuments vary in height from 16 feet/5m to a stunning 35 feet/10.6 meters.
Stela E, the largest, depicts Kak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat performing a Katun ending ceremony that took place on 188.8.131.52.0. 13 Ajaw 18 Kumku, January 22, 771 CE. This is the tallest monument in all of Mesoamerica.
Fronting the east side of the Great Plaza is a line of mostly low, unexcavated platform structures. The west side was open to the river.
At the south end of the Great Plaza is the Ball Court Plaza which backs onto the Acropolis. The north side is taken up by Structure 1A11 and is a pyramidal platform with a south facing stairway. The Ball Court, Structures 1B6-7, has an unusual east-west orientation. The fantastic Monument 16/Zoomorph P, and Altar P are located between the Ball Court and the broad, high stairway to the Acropolis. They were dedicated by Sky Xul c.795 CE. They contain long texts relating to the first rulers of Quirigua along with intricately carved mythological scenes with the zoomorph in the shape of a cosmic crocodile. The equally impressive Zoomorph O and its wonderfully carved Altar O are located here as well. Altars L-N are found on the east side of the plaza.
The Acropolis is the largest complex at Quirigua. There are numerous structures that were built and later expanded and/or buried during four different construction phases. An early ball court was found beneath a western portion of the complex. A high, broad stairway leads up from the plaza level to a wide terrace. The Acropolis structures are set at the back of the terrace, and form around a large, interior courtyard.
Structure 1B1 is on the south side of the courtyard. It is a restored range type structure set on a high platform base around 125 feet/38 meters in length x 35 feet/10.6 meters wide, with a height of about 10 feet/3 meters. It has 3 entrances that lead into 7 chambers with interior benches each having a band of nine glyphs forming a single narrative beginning on 8 Ajaw 18 Xul 810 CE. These dates relate to the reign of Jade Sky, the last recorded ruler of Quirigua, and the structure's dedication.
The structure contained tenoned, sculptured heads on both the interior chambers and exterior façade. Most of these were stored at the local United Fruit Company Hotel which unfortunately burned to the ground in 1926. An exterior cornice molding once displayed a band of hieroglyph text commemorating a Period Ending and a ceremony including Yax Pasaj Chan Yo'paat, the ruler of Copan. The structure may have exhibited a decorative roof comb. A broad central stairway leads down to the Acropolis Plaza.
Structure 1B-2 is located on the southwest corner at courtyard level. It has five interconnected chambers with the remains of a corbeled vault. The exterior of the structure was once decorated on all four sides by representations of the earth monster. A drainage channel runs beneath the structure.
Structure 1B3 is found on the south end of the west side of the Acropolis Plaza. It is a multi-chambered structure with traces of red paint still visible.
Structure 1B4 is set on the north end of the west side of the Acropolis Plaza. It has interconnected chambers with an interior stairway in the northwest corner that once led to a flat roof.
Structure 1B-5 is the largest structure at the site and is found on the northeast corner of the courtyard. It is believed to have been the palace of Jade Sky and features several interconnected chambers.
On the western side of the Acropolis Plaza between Structures 1B3 and 1B4 is a long wall known as The Kin’ich Ahau Wall. The wall displays five Sun God and serpent masks.
Structure 1B6 is on the east side of the Acropolis Plaza. A tomb, Burial 2, has been located here, and is thought to be the final resting place of the first ruler, Tok Chi’ch’.
About 325 feet/100 meters east of the Acropolis is the East Group. This small complex consists of three structures that form a quadrangle around a courtyard, Structures 1B14-16.
The North Group is located about 984 feet/300 meters to the northwest of Structure 1A3. This group has several low platforms set around a plaza, Plaza 3C1. Stela 26 is located here and has an early date of 493 CE, and names rulers 3 and 4.
There are smaller residential groups that are found within and without the core center such as the South Group, and Group C.
updated september 2023
stela C ela ginalska
group B site map morley
zoomorph P HJPD
stela E north side ela ginalska
ajaw wall ward/rice
excavations structure 1B2 c1911 edgar Hewett
altar L daderot
zoomorph P hjpd
structure 1A3 stelae A C D zoomprph B maya kakaw
acropolis looking south ilamdar8
zoomorph G c.1911 sylvanus morley
stela D c.1912 sylvanus morley
structure 5 world monument fund
site map ward/rice
ceramic dallas museum fine art
Share your photos with us
museum of us casts ilamdar8
great plaza stela E & F zoomorph G ela ginalska
structure 1B2 dennis jarvis
zoomorph B c.1890 alfred Maudslay
zoomorph B dennis jarvis
stela F detail studardo herrera
stele E detail ela ginalska
structure 1B1 dennis jarvis
stela F 1976 earthquake repair ward/rice
acropolis structure 1B1 hjpd.
stela K c1894 maudslay
view of monument c.1881 alfred maudslay
stela E jan pesila
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