Sunday, July 10, 2011

Guatemala Part 10a: The stunning stelae of Quiriguá

Massive, beautifully-carved stone monuments led to Quiriguá's World Heritage Site status. Quiriguá's Stela F shows the face and elaborate headdress of K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat, also known as Cauac Sky, Quiriguá's greatest ruler. The stela was erected in 761 AD. Standing 7.4m (24 ft.) above the current surface, it is the second tallest monument in Quiriguá. After our visit to Tikal, our Caravan Tour stopped at the ruins of this ancient Maya commercial crossroads. But before we get into Quirguá's wonderful sculptural remains, a word about our journey.

Getting there

Sunset over Pentenchel lagoon, near Lago Petén Itza. After our tour of Tikal (see previous 2 postings) we returned to Hotel Villa Maya for dinner and a night's rest before embarking on the all-day journey back to Guatemala City. The hotel sits on the bank of the lagoon and provides a wonderful view of the water and abundant wildlife. We had arrived in the pitch-black jungle darkness the previous night, so this was our first (and last) sunset over the lagoon. It was worth the wait.

Folklorico dancers entertained us after dinner at the hotel. Jorge, our Caravan Tour Director, arranged for a local group of high school students to perform a series of traditional dances. This sort of performance is called a Ballet Folklórico, and is very similar to acts we have seen in Mexico. Despite their youth, the dancers were well-practiced and gave a beautiful show.

Where continents collide. This rather mundane-looking bridge actually marks a very significant spot in the world. It crosses the Sarstoon River, the bed of which is part of a fault line system. The fault line running under the bridge marks the spot where the North and South American continents collide. This fault line system is the reason why southern Guatemala is thick with volcanoes and subject to massive earthquakes. The bridge was a little bumpy, but fortunately nothing else rocked us as we crossed.

Rio Dulce marina. Rio Dulce (the "Sweet River") empties Lago Izabal and runs to the Caribbean in southeastern Guatemala. Sailboaters travel up the river to Lago Isabal, just as pirates used to during the 16th-18th Centuries. A small fort still stands where the river joins the lake, to protect what used to be an important colonial trade point. Our tour was originally scheduled to stop here on the way to Tikal, but a lengthy labor dispute on the highway prevented this. The town of Fronteras, sitting at one end of the bridge spanning the river, is an important vegetable market for the local area. Many Maya farmers still paddle their product to the market in dugout canoes called cayucos.

Dining (literally) on the river. A pier juts out over the water, covered by individual palapas. Under each palapa is a table for diners. Steps leading down to the water allow those inclined to take a dip while waiting for their food.  Rio Dulce has become famous among Caribbean boaters for its hospitality and laid-back lifestyle. After crossing the river, we continued south, almost to the border of Honduras. The lush, flat land was covered with banana plantations. This is United Fruit Company territory (or Chiquita Brands as it is now known). You will recall that they were the company that played such an important role in fostering the 1954 CIA coup d'etat that ousted a democratically elected government and installed a brutal military junta that eventually murdered 200,000 people, most of them innocent Maya. United Fruit banana groves surround Quiriguá on all sides. To the company's credit, they created an archaeological zone around the ruins when they bought the land more than 100 years ago.

The Great Plaza of Quiriguá

Quiriguá's Great Plaza was the largest of the ancient Maya region. The Great Plaza is the northernmost of 3 plazas. It measures 325m (1,066 ft.) from north to south, and 150m (492 ft.) east to west. Above, you are looking north from the Acropolis, which lies on the southern end of the plaza. The embankment seen in the background below the trees marks the northern limit of the plaza. The embankment itself is one of the oldest features in Quiriguá. The tall palapa in the center foreground, and those in the background, were built to protect stelae and the other stone sculptures located here. This vast plaza was created late in Quiriguás history by the ruler Cauac Sky, just after he had won independence from the great Maya city of Copán, 48k (30 mi.) to the south. In fact, most of what can be seen in Quiriguá today was created during Cauac Sky's 61-year reign.

A huge ceiba tree stands in the middle of the Great Plaza.  Ceiba trees have been sacred to the Maya from the earliest times, representing the connection between the underworld (the roots) and heaven (the canopy). In this photo, you are looking south toward the Acropolis. Cauac Sky created his huge plaza to display his power to the thousands of people who gathered here. However, the city's population was relatively small, raising many questions about where these throngs came from. Archaeologists speculate that Cauac Sky stitched together a political patchwork of alliances among other towns and cities around Quiriguá in his bid for independence from Copán. He would have used this plaza to bring together people not only from Quiriguá but from all the allied communities.

The Stelae of Quiriguá's Great Plaza

The image of Cauac Sky appears on most of the stelae in the Great Plaza. Above, you see the north side of Stela D, built in 766 AD. He is holding a manikin scepter in his left hand and a shield in his right. Nearly all of the stelae have twin--but not identical--faces, one on the north side and one on the south. The east and west sides are used for Maya script or depictions of the gods.

Beautiful panels cover the sides of Stela D. These carvings of various Maya gods have been described as among the finest Maya relief sculpture ever made. The style of the carvings and stelae are distinctly that of Copán, leading archaeologists to speculate that Cauac Sky may have captured some sculptors when he defeated Copán's king and gained Quiriguá's independence.

Stela D also contains this odd panel. In the upper right quadrant, a king seen in profile seems to peer out of a modern television screen. He wears a rather modest headdress, but has elaborate earrings. His gaze is directed toward what appears to be a human leg being consumed by some sort of snake monster.

Stela E is the largest stone monument of its kind in all the Maya region. The shaft rises 8m (26.5 ft) above ground and extends another 2.6m (8.5 ft.) beneath the surface. This gives it a total length of 10.6m (35 ft.). It is all of one piece, made of sandstone, and weighs 65 tons. Even beyond the wonderful sculpture that covers it, one must consider the feat of engineering accomplished by these 8th Century AD people. The stone originated in a quarry many kilometers away and had to be cut in one piece without the use of metal tools. Then, without the use of draft animals or the wheel, it had to be moved to its present site and raised to a standing position. Archaeologists think that the Maya may have floated the huge stone down the nearby Motagua river on a raft. Even with that, getting it to the river and then from the river to the final site must have been a mindbogglingly difficult task. Of course, many difficulties can be overcome if you are a ruler with the power to order human sacrifices.

Not all the stelae were of such staggering dimensions. Stela J is of more modest proportions but it still rises 5m (15 ft.) above the surface. This stela portrays Cauac Sky as beardless and younger, perhaps because it was erected in a slightly earlier period, 756 AD. Later stelae show him with a goatee beard and headdresses that get more and more elaborate as the years go by. Cauac Sky raised new stelae at 5 year intervals according to cycles in the Maya calendar called "katuns". The sides of Stela J are covered with Maya script detailing the capture and execution of 18 Rabbit, the great Copán king he seized in an apparent surprise attack in 738 AD. In modern terms, we would describe what happened as a coup d'etat rather than a war. Cauac Sky brought 18 Rabbit back to Quiriguá and ordered him to be publicly decapitated in the plaza, thus ensuring Quiriguá's independence. Interestingly, 18 Rabbit was the very overlord who, in 724 AD, had appointed Cauac Sky to his job as ruler of Quiriguá. Apparently one should pick one's subordinates carefully. Stela J also mentions that Cauac Sky was the 14th ruler in his dynasty. There were 17 in all, before the general Maya collapse and cities like Quiriguá were abandoned.

Stela U is one of the older monuments. It is not clear when the stela was erected, but the date 480 AD is mentioned in the monument's script. From the decyphered date, it is possible the king pictured above may have been the one known as Turtle Shell, the third in Cauac Sky's dynasty. There is also a reference in the script to a ceremony presided over by the king of Copán, indicating that the stela pre-dates Cauac Sky. In addition to the natural erosion on the face, the stela was broken at the knees by some unknown enemy who attacked Quiriguá after the stela was raised. Destroying or defacing stelae like this was typical of the war practices of the time. The style of the stela comes from Tikal, showing how far south the influence of that great city stretched. In fact, both Quiriguá and Copán are believed to have been originally settled by Maya elites from Tikal who moved into the area and came to dominate a local population the majority of whom were non-Maya. The original height of the stela was 2.7m (9 ft.).  

Erected in 775 AD, Stela C was one of Cauac Sky's later monuments. The Maya script on the side panels contains a considerable amount of information. The are references to the date 455 AD and to a king named Tutuum Yohl K'inich, who may have been the 2nd in Cauac Sky's dynasty, 300 years before. The script also references the date August 13, 3114 BC, when--according to the Maya calendar and mythology--the current creation was begun and the gods placed in order. The Maya calendar runs in cycles with each successive creation destroyed at the cycle's end. Some people believe that the Maya calendar shows that the current cycle will end December 21, 2012 at 11:11 AM. This may be a problem if you have any holiday parties planned for later that month. My own suspicion is that the 2012 date will have something less of an impact than the disaster we all remember occurring when Y2K finally rolled around.

Profile of a big-nosed monster-god on the base of Stela C. Many of the stelae contain monster faces on their bases. I was impressed by the elaborate detail and graceful carving even on elements that were not central to the overall sculpture.

Stela A, another portrait of Cauac Sky, stands near the entrance of Quiriguá. It was erected in 775 AD and dedicated on December 29 of that year, the same day that Stela C was dedicated. This is one of the latest of Cauac Sky's stelae and the king is shown wearing a goatee beard and an incredibly elaborate headdress. 

Maya script from the side of Stela A. The inscription on the side of the stela indicates that Cauac Sky was in his "5th Katun of life", meaning that he was between 79 and 98 years old at the time. This was quite elderly for a period when commoner's lifespans were probably in the 40s. He came to power in 724 AD and died in 785, an extraordinary 61-year reign. 

Detail from the script on Stela A. Notice the symbol of the hand with the thumb and forefinger pressed together. The 3 dots to the right of the hand are part of the Maya number system, which was based on dots (indicating "1") and horizontal bars (indicating "5"). Unlike the modern number system based on 10 digits, the Maya counted by 20s. Their mathematicians made a major advance with the invention of the concept of "0". Western civilizations did not achieve this until after the the end of the Classical Maya period, when Arabs built their Middle Eastern empires in the 8th Century. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks ever came up with the concept of "0".  Maya script was a combination of abstract symbols and pictographs and contained elements that were both phonetic and symbolic. The combination made it very difficult for archaeologists to decypher the script. It was not until the 1970s that the Maya code was finally cracked. Many Maya inscriptions remain undecyphered.

Cauac Sky, up close and personal. Fragments of paint pigment remaining on some of the stelae indicate that they were probably painted blood red, the color of fertility and sacrifice. Although most of the stelae have at least one portrait of Cauac Sky and sometimes twin portraits, the carvings are not identical, even on the same monument. Headdresses vary greatly and different gods are emphasized on different monuments. Although the stelae are wonderful works of art, they are best understood as political posters with a message. 

A modern Maya altar is shaded by the large ceiba tree in the Great Plaza. Maya still perform ceremonies here. These usually involve chanting, singing, playing musical instruments, and the burning of copal incense and other offerings. Although Maya religious practices have changed since the ancient days, many beliefs persist, including reverence toward the sacred ceiba tree. Human sacrifices are rare, mostly of random tourists who straggle off the main paths (just kidding...).

This concludes the first of 2 postings on Quiriguá. The next part--the last of my Guatemala series--will take a look at the Acropolis area and some of the huge, exquisitly-carved boulders that portray various natural and mythical animals. Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim


  1. We're really enjoying your Guatemala trip! Learning alot from your infomative narrative that we gleaned when we visited! Quirigua is a good example. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Jim, for this informative post, and for reminding me of the apocalypse that's coming up pretty darn soon.

    I'm wondering where in this fascinating part of the world you will be reporting from next.

    Anticipating our trip to Guanajuato next week, I've been recently been re-reading your reports from there.

  3. Looks great! Thanks for sharing the post.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim