A Mayan Legacy in Stone

Randy Johnson

Unpublished photo essay
Copyright © 1978, 1996-2013, Randy R. Johnson, all rights reserved

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Through the lowlands of southeastern Guatemala, the Río Motagua winds toward the Caribbean. Beside broad farmlands and discrete river groves it flows between the smooth steep slopes of the Sierra de las Minas and the rugged Montaña Espíritu Santo.

In a silent clearing among the trees, a thirty-five foot sandstone monolith rises from the still grasses of the Motagua basin. The hardness of the stone and the moderation of the elements have preserved its surface much as it was carved by the hand of man over 1,200 years ago.

This gigantic marker stands as a monument to the Ancient Maya Civilization, and to the Mayan lord of the forgotten city of Quiriguá who is depicted, over three times life size, on its face. His somber face, carved in the half-round, is unmistakably Mayan. His body is intricately adorned, from ornate boots to a full headdress. He holds the staff of authority, and looks down with immutable severity across his city, oblivious to its extinction.

Who was he, and what power did he hold over the people of this small city? The mystery of the Maya is deep. We may never know how they achieved such a high degree of civilization in the Central American jungles, or why that civilization vanished so suddenly, so completely, and without a clue over 1,000 years ago -- leaving the people themselves as simple and uncultivated as they were before its rise.

Twenty-one other monuments -- the finest examples of Classic Mayan stone carving -- stand nearby. But the city itself has declined into piles of rubble, which archeologists are only now piecing into the temples and acropoli that enclosed the plaza of the monuments.

The production of such monolithic stone monuments, called stelae (singular stela, or stele), with their dated texts of hieroglyphs, defines the beginnings -- and the end -- of the Classic Period of Maya Civilization, from about 300 to 900 AD. This golden age was also characterized by polychrome pottery and use of the corbeled, or 'false' arch in architecture. The stelae remain the principal written chronicles of this lost civilization, as well as the key to their highly advanced calendric system.

Other Mayan centers erected stelae much earlier and in greater profusion, but the stelae at Quiriguá are unsurpassed in their style and technique. Like most Mayan monuments, they were erected to commemorate the passage of time, and significant historic events. During its brief period of erecting stelae, from the early 8th century until 810 AD, Quiriguá was one of only two cities to regularly erect monuments marking the end of five-year periods -- the quarter-katun, or hotun.

Stela E, mentioned above, was dedicated at Quiriguá in 771 AD, and is the largest known quarried stone in the Maya world. It stands 35 feet tall, 5 feet wide and 4 feet thick; it weighs in at 130,000 pounds.

It seems likely -- because of its sudden burst of mastery -- that the artisans, and perhaps the rulers of Quiriguá came from Copán, Honduras, a major Mayan center less than 100 kilometers south across the mountains. Copán had been erecting monuments for 250 years before Quiriguá, and both cities apparently ceased within five years of each other.

These huge stone monolithic sculptures, weighing up to 65 tons, were artfully carved without the benefit of metal tools. Stone chisels, driven by other stones or wooden mallets, were the only tools available; and yet the Mayan sculptors achieved not only a high level of artisty, but also a remarkable degree of naturalism and refined detail. Most of the monuments face north, allowing the early morning sun to highlight the relief of the carvings.

The sandstone used at Quiriguá is considerably harder than the limestone found at most other Mayan sites, and held the artist to relatively more simple designs than the rococo detail achieved, for example, in the more manageable andesite at Copán. It is perhaps worth considering that the Mayan elite might have established the small ceremonial center at Quiriquá largely because of its proximity to this resource of more enduring stone-carving materials.

The monuments at Quiriguá are unique in several other respects. Few other sites display full frontal views of the human figure, a later departure from the traditional profile depictions. Quiriguá also has numerous excellent examples of a fairly rare form of 'longhand' Mayan glyphs which use full animal and human figures, instead of smaller symbols or variations on abbreviated 'head-type' glyphs to represent the same meanings.  There are only three other known examples of the  full-figured glyphs in the entire Mayan world.

The most striking of the sculptures at Quiriguá, however, are the zoomorphs, great unquarried sandstone boulders carved to represent animals. The boulders are covered with figures and glyphs in the characteristic Quiriguá mixture of low and high relief, and represent some of the most intricately carved designs in the Maya world. Nothing like them is found at any other site.

Zoomorph P and its altar, Altar O, dedicated in 795 AD, sit before the stairway of a ruined palace facing the main plaza at Quiriguá. It stands seven feet high and over eleven feet wide, covered with figures, masks, and small glyphs. Another huge zoomorph nearby is in the form of a tiger (jaguar), which has a human face in its open mouth, with glyphs all around its body. The altar of Zoomorph O, which flanks Zoomorph P in front of the ruined palace, is exceptional for its flamboyantly executed dancing figure and a series of large full-figure glyphs.

This fine collection of gigantic stone sculptures is arranged in a regular pattern on the main plaza at Quiriguá. None of the stones were simply carved in situ at the quarry; each one was carried in and erected in place before the carving began. Together, the regular arrangement of monuments set off the surrounding temples.

Today, the temples of Quiriguá lie in rubble around the pleasant green park that was once the great plaza of the city. But the silent stone monuments among the trees still speak of a great civilization -- one we may never fully know, but can always admire.


Update April, 1997:  The following information about Quiriguá is provided in a handout currently provided at the site, as generously sent to me by Fred C. Chu, who was recently there.  Thanks, Fred!

Archeological excavation has shown an early stage of occupation and construction at Quiriguá from as early as 550 AD. Around 720 AD. significantly more advanced construction occurred on the Acropolis, and included a ball court. From 740 to 810 AD, even more ambitious building occurred at Quiriguá, using harder sandstone blocks for the first time, in massively larger buildings. This peak period of construction covered the old ball court, added a new one, and included the erection of most of the monuments found at the site. A final period of construction is identified between 810 and 850 AD, beyond which no new buildings were undertaken. It is not clear if the site was abandoned at this time, or if occupation continued.

The great leader of Quiriguá is now identified as one Cauac Sky, (or Kawak Sky) founder of the Sky Dynasty, who ruled the city from 725 to 748 AD. The most significant event of his reign -- and of Quiriguá's history -- occured in 738 AD ( when his forces defeated the city of Copán, captured its ruler, XVIII Jog (18 Rabbit), and had him beheaded. From this time on, it appears that Quiriguá was an autonomous city and controlled the main trade route from the Caribbean to the Maya world, which passed through the Motagua basin, as Copán declined. This event is recorded in inscriptions at Quiriguá and corresponds with a 20-year hiatus in inscriptions at Copán, and the disappearance of any furthur mention of XVIII Jog at Copán. 

Current evidence leads to the conclusion that Cauac Sky died in 748 AD, and Zoomorph G seems to have served as his funeral marker. Several other Sky rulers reigned at Quiriguá in ensuing years -- Sky Xul for 11 years, and three others, Imx Dog, Scroll Sky, and Jade Sky -- each for about five years. But naturally no inscriptions mark the end of the dynasty; the inscriptions, monuments, and building simply ended in silence.

The source document also speculates that the downfall of Quiriguá might have occured as the result of an earthquake. This is based on evidence that several of the ancient buildings were heavily buttressed, possibly as the result of recurring earthquake activity. In addition, the massive Guatemalan earthquake of 1976 revealed a major fault passing through the site, and the nearby village of Quiriguá was quite devastated when I first visited in 1977.  However, a number of major Mayan highland cities were already in decline by 850 AD, including Palenque.

This update information is based on work performed by the University of Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Robert J. Sharer. For more information contact the Pre-Columbian Society of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at 3260 South St., Philadelphia, PA, 19104. Their regular newsletter, "The Codex", is available at a nominal subscription rate, and if you're in the area, they conduct a number of symposiums and workshops focused on Mayan archeology and glyphs.

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