Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guatemala Part 10b: Quirguá's Acropolis and intricately carved stone altars

Stairway to Heaven.  Above, the north staircase to Quiriguá's Acropolis stands out against the background of thick jungle surrounding the ancient Maya city. Unlike Quiriguá's Great Plaza (see Part 10a) with its many beautifully carved stelae, the Acropolis was not intended for public access or large gatherings. Maya acropoli were raised platforms, often superimposed over many previous layers. On Quiriguá's Acropolis stood palaces, temples, administrative centers and residences for the elite class of nobles, warriors, and priests. The rituals and other activities conducted here were meant to be shielded from the view of commoners. Most of the ruins of the Acropolis we see today were constructed by Jade Heaven (800-810 AD), Quiriguá's last ruler before the city succumbed to the general collapse of Maya civilization in the 9th Century.

In my first posting on Quiriguá, I focused on the Great Plaza and Cauac Sky, Quiriguá's greatest ruler. He took power in a coup d'etat against 18 Rabbit, his overlord from the powerful city-state of Copán, only 48k (30 mi) to the south. In this posting, I will show the Acropolis area and the great zoomorphic sculptures, many of which are found along its north side. I will also present a picture of the power relations and political landscape of the Classic Era Maya world that allowed the ruler of a relatively minor principality to seize and behead the king of a great state--and get away with it! For a map of the Maya world as it existed at the time of Quiriguá, click here. Quiriguá is located in the southeast corner of Guatemala, just north of the border with Honduras and a bit inland from the Caribbean Sea.

The Acropolis area.

Model of Quiriguá's plazas and Acropolis area. The open rectangular area in the background is the Great Plaza, seen last week. To the left center is a pyramid that faces due south toward the great staircase of the Acropolis. In between the pyramid and the staircase are parallel structures that form the two sides of the Ball Court.  The area around the Ball Court, bounded by northward thrusting arms of the Acropolis, is called the Ball Court Plaza. For an interactive map showing this area and some additional photos of the various sculpures, click here.

Although there were quite a number of Maya city states during the Classic Era (250-900 AD), the four most important were Tikal, Calakmul, Copán, and Palenque. Quiriguá was client-state of Copán, established as a commercial crossroad on the important trade routes along the Motogua River (west to east) and between Tikal and Copán (north to south). The two most powerful states ("superpowers" in modern terms) were Tikal and Calakmul, intense rivals for hundreds of years. Calakmul was the older power and claimed political and cultural descent from the great Pre-Classic Maya civilization based at El Mirador just south of Guatemala's present-day border with Mexico. El Mirador flourished from 600 BC to 100 AD, falling into a jungle ruin shortly before the beginning of the Classic Era. Some archaeologists believe that Calakmul was settled by elites who migrated there from the fallen El Mirador. If you check the Maya World map on the link, you can see that El Mirador lies approximately 1/2 way between Calakmul on the north and Tikal on the south.

Pyramid facing the Ball Court and the Acropolis' north staircase. This pyramid, known as structure 1A-3, is 7m (23 ft) high and measures 82.5m (271 ft) by 20m (66 ft). For unknown reasons, it was never finished. As with many of Mesoamerica's ruins, much of Quiriguá has yet to be uncovered.

Tikal arose during the El Mirador period and came into its own after that civilization fell. The rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul apparently intensified after Tikal's conquest by an army from faraway Teotihucan, north of present-day Mexico City. In 426 AD, a generation after that conquest, the ruler of Tikal sent an army south to take control of the areas north and south of the Motagua River near the present-day border between Guatemala and Honduras. These areas had been settled as early as 400 BC by non-Maya people. Their new rulers were "Mexicanized Maya" or may even have been full-blooded Teotihuacans. DNA from bones in an elite tomb in Copán that dates from this period shows that the ruler was of a different ethnicity from the local indigenous people. In addition, artifacts from his tomb show warriors dressed in the Teotihuacan style. The lord of Quiriguá was installed as a sub-ruler or vassal of the new Maya/Teotihuacan king of Copán three days after the Copán king took power. Thus began the long period of Quiriguá's political and economic subservience. Both Copán and Quirguá were part of the constellation of allies and subject cities accumulated by Tikal as part of its superpower rivalry with Calakmul.

The Great Staircase and northeast corner of the Acropolis, looking south from the Ball Court. The building on top is named Stucture 1B5 and was subdivided into elite residences. 1B-5 was constructed very late in Quiriguá's history, during the reign of Jade Heaven, the last recorded king.

Just as Tikal was establishing a complex set of alliances, either by warfare or diplomacy, so was Calakmul. In fact, that city followed a consistent policy of encircling Tikal with a hostile network of allies. Various of these allied cities changed hands, and elite groups were driven out or returned to power, all over a long period of time. Palenque, a Tikal ally in present-day Mexico's Chiapas State to the west, was seized by Calakmul several times. In 562 AD, Calakmul dealt Tikal a decisive defeat and the latter city was eclipsed for 130 years. Tikal eventually revived, and in 695 AD delivered a defeat to Calakmul from which it never fully recovered. Even so, it continued as a powerful and dangerous enemy to Tikal well into the Post-Classic era. Any student of the long struggle between ancient Carthage and Rome, or of Renaissance Italy during Machiavelli's time, or even of the modern political machinations between the United States and the old Soviet Union, will find much of this ancient Maya history startlingly familiar.

The Great Staircase and the Acropolis' platform 1A-1. The Great Staircase leads up to an enormous platform that forms the northern part of the Acropolis complex. The platform measures 100 by 85 meters (300 by 279 ft). The platform was built over a period of 20 years by Cauac Sky. It was constructed from cobbles from the Motogua River and paved with stone slabs.

While Copán itself was not subservient to Tikal, it was definitely an ally. Calakmul sought a way to weaken Tikal by weakening Copán. The man ruling Copán at the time was Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, also known as 18 Rabbit. He was the 13th ruler of the dynasty established when Tikal's army had conquered the non-Maya inhabitants of Copán back in 426 AD. 18 Rabbit reigned from 695-738 AD and was Copán's greatest king. He was very powerful in the southern Maya area of that time. 

Acropolis plaza (looking south from the north Acropolis platform). The plaza is surrounded by palaces, temples, and administrative complexes. The plaza's grassy rectangle is set down .5m (2 ft) into the Acropolis' surface, with several steps leading down into it. At the south (far end) are the ruins of the palaces of Cauac Sky and Quiriguá's last ruler, Jade Heaven. A broad stairway leads up to the palaces, separated in two places by fenced-off areas.

In 724 AD, 18 Rabbit appointed K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky) as Quiriguá's ruler. Cauac Sky, you will remember from Part 10a of this series, was the man whose face appears on most of the beautiful stelae at Quiriguá. 18 Rabbit was getting old at this time, and he may not have paid close enough attention to how ambitious this young man really was. 

Cauac Sky's earliest claim to fame. Commissioned in 734 AD, the large stone sculpture seen above, called Altar M, is the earliest known monument dedicated by Cauac Sky. The script on the shell of the turtle/crocodile contains the title k'ul ajaw. This was Cauac Sky's first use of this title for himself, and it was an important political statement.

Cauac Sky apparently chafed at his subordinate role as ajaw (lord), and lusted to become k'ul ajaw (holy lord) a title indicating independent rulership. In fact, after 10 years in office, in 734 AD, he began using the emblem for k'ul ajaw, a fact that no doubt would have brought a swift reaction from 18 Rabbit in his younger days. Nothing was done to curb Cauac Sky, however. 

A sloping wall called a "talud" separates sections of the staircase up to Cauac Sky's palace. On the talud are the remains of a relief sculpture, a pair of wings separating an emblem of some sort, possibly that of Cauac Sky. The talud itself is an architectural feature of Teotihuacan, perhaps a survival of a style imported hundreds of years before from there, via Tikal.

As his ambitions grew, Cauac Sky realized that he could never, on his own, defeat powerful Copán and gain his independence. In true Machiavellian fashion, he looked around for an ally and protector whose interests would be served by the humbling of Copán, but who also would be too far away to threaten the independence he so desired. Calakmul, seeking to weaken Tikal, was happy to undermine Tikal's ally, Copán. In 736 AD, two years after usurping the title of k'ul ajaw, Cauac Sky invited the ruler of Calakmul to pay him a visit. Since arrangements for a state visit like this don't happen overnight, it is possible that he initiated contact with Calakmul not long after he declared himself to be k'ul ajaw.

On the west side of the Acropolis plaza are three structures. They are reached by the broad 8-step staircase that surrounds the plaza on three sides. The these structures are 1B3 on the left, 1B4 on the right, and a much older wall between them, now covered by a corrugated metal roof. This wall contains a mosaic frieze with depictions of the sun god, Kinich Ahau.

While nothing specific is known of the talks between Cauac Sky and Wamaw K'awiil, the ruler of Calakmul, the results suggest an agreement that Calakmul would supply troops to support an action against Copán, and in addition would offer protection against any later retaliation. Such a deal was typical of political alliances Calakmul arranged while constructing its encirclement of Tikal.

Structure 1B-5, located on the raised platform on the north end of the Acropolis plaza. This may have contained elite residences, or administrative offices. The door shown above was very low, requiring a hands-and-knees approach. However, the bottom of the doorway may be buried well below the surface.

Although elderly by now, 18 Rabbit was still active enough to lead an expedition whose purpose was to gather captives for sacrifice back at Copán. Apparently he wanted to celebrate the completion of a new ball court. He set off in April of 738 AD, but seems to have been ambushed by Cauac Sky with the possible help of warriors from Calakmul. Several of Copán's wooden deities, typically carried into battle on palanquins, were captured and burned. That was a significant psychological blow to Copán, but the real disaster was the capture of 18 Rabbit himself.

A shrine to the ancestors containing an elite tomb, east side of the Acropolis plaza. The structure above is called 1B-6. Such shrines were typical of Tikal, a further indication of that city's influence on Quiriguá. In the tomb, archaeologists found the skeleton of a man with jade-inlaid teeth. A bead of jade was in his mouth. Ceramic offerings place the tomb in the Early-Classic period. Behind the shrine, thick jungle rises.

18 Rabbit was dragged back to Quiriguá and publicly beheaded in the main plaza 3 days after his capture. Such an event would no doubt have entailed a great ceremony with warriors in full dress and thousands of people in attendance. Cauac Sky had won independence from Copán, but could he keep it? Would 18 Rabbit's successor react in fury and destroy Cauac Sky, and Quiriguá with him, for the killing of Copán's greatest ruler in such an underhanded manner by man who was supposed to be a loyal follower?

A humble drain performed an important function. The general area around around Quiriguá is low and swampy. The climate is humid and rainfall can be heavy. At least once in its ancient history, Quiriguá was flooded by the Motagua river, which left behind several feet of silt. The ancient engineers who built Quirguá needed to ensure the runoff of excess water, and drains like this helped.

The death of 18 Rabbit paralyzed Copán. His successor, K'ak' Joplaj Chan K'awiil was not installed until 39 days after 18 Rabbit's death. In fact, very little is known of the successor or of this period because all new building, particularly that of monuments with inscriptions, ceased for 17 years. Oddly, Cauac Sky did not go on to seize power in Copán. He remained in Quiriguá and there is no indication of any physical damage to either city as a result of his coup d'etat. In addition to the internal chaos caused by the death of 18 Rabbit, his successor probably feared retaliation from Calakmul should he attempt revenge upon Quiriguá. Cauac Sky's Machiavellian diplomacy seems to have paid off.

The Zoomorphs and their Altars

A snarling face, with eyes bulging and teeth bared, graces the north end of Zoomorph O. A zoomorph is a large boulder carved in the shape of a mythical monster, usually combining two or more animals. Zoomorph O is part crocodile and part mountain lion. Notice that the headdress of the face and all the area around it are covered by Maya text. This zoomorph was dedicated in 790 AD by Sky Xul, Cauac Sky's successor who ascended to the throne in 785 AD.

Copán suffered a significant decline after 18 Rabbit's execution. Not only did it lose its most illustrious ruler, it lost economic control over the vital crossroads that was Quiriguá. Rich beds of jade existed upstream on either side of the Motagua River. Jade was the most valuable commodity in the Mesoamerican world, and traders traveled down the river to the Caribbean, passing through the southern outskirts of Quiriguá. In addition, Copán lost its direct northward trade route to Tikal, that also passing through Quiriguá. The severe reduction of revenue may have played a role in the 17-year cessation of monument building in Copán. The flip side of this coin was that Quiriguá gained everything that Copán lost: an illustrious and long-lived ruler and great wealth.

In front of some zoomorphs are altars. The the low flat stone of the surface of this altar--relating to Zoomorph O--is carved with text and a beautifully rendered dancing figure. This relationship between zoomorphs and altars is found especially at the base of the Great Staircase leading up to the north side of the Acropolis.

Cauac Sky decided to make Quirguá the showplace of his rulership. He began a building campaign that lasted throughout the 47 years he ruled after his triumph over 18 Rabbit. He created the immense Great Plaza, the largest in the Maya world. The Acropolis was expanded and he built fine structures on top. At the end of every katun (five year interval on the Maya calendar) he put up another stelae, celebrating his rule, boasting of his accomplishments, and tying his reign to great figures of the past. He also commissioned zoomorphs and altars, although the best of these appear to have been the work of his successor Sky Xul. 

Detail on Altar to Zoomorph O. Notice the fluid and graceful movement of the dancer and the intricate details of his clothing and jewelry. Carvings like this represent the height of Maya skill and creativity.

Cauac Sky and his successors also commissioned many of the Zoomorphs at Quiriguá. The style used is distinctly that of Copán, indicating that he may have captured some of 18 Rabbit's craftsmen, or perhaps he and his successors lured them away from Copán with promises of lucrative work. In any case, it indicates Quirguá's continued strong cultural identification with its former overlord city.

Zoomorph G is part jaguar, part snake. The inscriptions on the top and sides are carved in panels that may represent the scales of a snake. The text describes the death and burial of Cauac Sky. Sky Xul, his successor, dedicated it to his illustrious predecessor. The great Cauac Sky appears to be emerging from the mouth of the jaguar face. The jaguar is the third largest of the world's great cats, exceeded in size only by the African lion and the Indian tiger. It is a powerful predator and, not surprisingly, became a great religious and political symbol to people in the Mesoamerican world, all the way back to the Olmecs, the "Mother of Cultures".

Cauac Sky had only two known successors, Sky Xul (785-800? AD) and Jade Heaven (800-810 AD). After the long rule of Cauac Sky, these were relatively short reigns. Sky Xul ordered the creation of the greatest of the zoomorphs and altars, while Jade Heaven made some alternations in the Acropolis. 

Zoomorph P (south side). This huge 20-ton boulder contains what is perhaps the masterpiece of zoomorph carving at Quiriguá and one of the great masterpieces of Mesoamerican art. It was commissioned by Sky Xul in 795 AD, not long before his death. The intricate carving covers the whole of the surface, excepting the base.

Throughout the long reign of Cauac Sky and during that of Sky Xul, Quirigua continued to enjoy the benefits of its control over the trade crossroads it occupied. However, clouds were gathering over the Maya world. Incessant wars, soil exhaustion, deforestation, overpopulation, disease, and occasional earthquakes or other natural disasters all combined to weaken the Maya city-states, including Quiriguá. 

Zoomorph P (north side) Sky Xul celebrated his own rule with this carving of himself sitting erect between the jaws of a hybrid crocodile monster. Archaeologists have discovered traces of pigment on this sculpture, leading them to believe that it was originally painted red, as were many of the monuments and structures in Quiriguá.

Quiriguá depended not only on its own resources, but on the trade along the Motagua River between the interior of what is now Guatemala and the Caribbean, as well as that which flowed north and south between Tikal and the other cities of the Petén and Copán. As those cities successively went through collapse and abandonment, trade dried up, and with it Quiriguá's main reason for existence.

Altar to Zoomorph P. Close by Zoomorph P is the altar. It shows, among other intricately carved subjects, a god figure leaping from a crack in the earth. Text on this altar and on the zoomorph itself describe the founding of Quiriguá in 426 AD, shortly after the Maya/Teotihuacan conquerers established Copán.

After Jade Heaven's short, 10-year reign, no other rulers are recorded for Quiriguá. The materials used in Jade Heaven's monuments appear to be inferior to those of his predecessors and his stelae are stunted. Quiriguá managed to maintain its independence from Copán during this period, possibly because Copán was undergoing similar decline. Relations between the two cities were apparently good. In 810 AD, when the last known inscription in Quiriguá was carved, it recorded the visit of the ruler of Copán who helped celebrate the ending of a five-year katun. After that came the silence that engulfed all of the Classic-Era Maya world of the 9th Century. Soon, the ravenous jungle began to creep over the ruins of Quiriguá, Copán, and all the rest. The only sounds remaining became those of the birds and the howler monkeys in the forest canopy above.

This completes my postings on Quiriguá and on Guatemala. It's been a long run, and if you followed the whole series, I appreciate your patience. I hope you have enjoyed Guatemala as much as we did when we visited in March. If you'd like to comment, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for continuing to send these to me. While I can't claim to have read every word, I do find them amaziningly interesting and am in awe each time you send one. I can only imagine the amount of time the photo taking, selection, research and writing they take.

    Hope you and Carol are both well.

    Linda Bruce

  2. Recently returned from Quirigua and this was invaluable information to help make sense out of my photos. Our 2 1\2 hours was just enough time to thoroughly visit the site, but not properly document our visit.
    Bob Johnson

  3. Recently went to Quirigua and your blog was a heaven send trying to remember which stela and alter belonged to which photo I took. Thanks for the good work.


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