The Quirigua Project, 1974-1979

A brief outline of the development and structure of the research

By: Robert J. Sharer

Originally Published in 1980

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In December 1973, after over one year of feasibility studies and negotiations in Guatemala, a contract forming the Quirigun Project was signed by representatives of the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, and the Ministry of Educa­tion, Government of Guatemala. Once ratified by the President of Guatemala and his Council of Ministers, the Quirigua Project commenced its investigations, beginning slowly in 1974, and then con­tinuing with full-scale field seasons in 1975 through 1978, before finishing its work with a final, small-scale effort in 1979. These investigations centered upon the Classic Maya site of Quirigua, but also included an extensive investigation of the site’s natural setting, the lower Motagua Valley.

The University Museum was responsible for all funds for the conduct of the archaeological research, while the Govern­ment of Guatemala financed the consolida­tion of the major structures at Quirigua. Now that this research has been completed, it seems fitting to look back and review some of the results of our investigations. Thus, we have gathered together a series of papers written by members of the Quirigua Project, summarizing some of the results of their own research. But to begin with, it seems appropriate to review the origins of the Quirigua Project, and to outline some of its principal objectives.

With the beginning of a new decade in 1970, the American Section of the Univer­sity Museum, and its curator, Dr. William R. Coe, began to make plans for a new archaeological research program in the Maya area. The location and goals for a new investigation were conditioned by several findings from the just-completed Tikal Project. The University Museum’s work at Tikal had shown that this, the largest known Maya center, had reached its apogee during the Classic period (co. A.D. 250- 900), but also found tantalizing clues from a lingering occupation during the subse­quent, and much less known, Early Post-classic era (ca. A.D. 900-1250). A smaller site, known as Tayasal, located on the shores of Lake Peten not far south of Tikal, seemed to promise further information about Postclassic society in the Maya low­lands. Thus, in 1971, the American Section launched a pilot excavation program at Tayasal to ascertain whether or not there had been a sizable Postclassic occupation at that site.

The results of the Tayasal study were disappointing. While abundant remains of Classic period construction seemed to cover the Tayasal peninsula, the evidence of Postclassic occupation was concentrated in a few house platforms strung along the lake shore. Reluctantly, it was decided not to continue the work at Tayasal and to abandon, for the time being at least, this project’s principal objective, namely the search for a major Postclassic site.

Thus, in 1972 the University Museum once again began to search for a likely Maya site to investigate. In that year I joined the staff of the American Section, and assisted Dr. Coe in this endeavor. Together we agreed that the criteria for selection should center on two points. The site and its surrounding region had to he archaeologically unknown, at least by modern standards of investigation. Further more, a prospective site had to have a good potential for revealing significant new information about the ancient Maya. Using these criteria, some seven sites were considered during this period. For a while attention focused upon Cuba, a Classic center in the little-known northeastern district of the Yucatan peninsula. But after negotiations with the Mexican government were unsuccessful, a new candidate emerged, Quirigua.

The archaeological site of Quirigua, located at the head of the lower Motagua river valley in the southeastern corner of the Classic Maya area, fulfilled both of our criteria. Very little was known about the duration or extent of Classic Maya occupa­tion at either Quirigua proper or its surrounding lower Motagua valley region, despite the fact that the site had been visited, recorded and probed by numerous archaeologists since the 19th century.

Frederick Catherwood was the first to report to the outside world Quirigua’s now famous sculptured monuments. In the late 19th century, Alfred P. Maudslay spent several seasons photographing these monu­ments, taking molds of several sculptures, and sponsoring the first known excavations at the site. In the early 20th century the Archaeological Institute of America con­ducted excavations led by Edgar Lee Hewett and Sylvanus G. Morley. These were followed by investigations sponsored by the Carnegie Institution of Washington that included test excavations and the re-setting of several fallen monuments.

But very few records of these investiga­tions have survived, and the published accounts of the work provide little infor­mation about the origins, development and demise of Quirigua. Beyond the rather short time span recorded on Quirigua’s monuments, almost nothing was known about the time Quirigua was occupied. Thus, a thorough archaeological investiga­tion at Quirigua promised to reveal a great deal of information about the site and its surrounding area. Furthermore, since Quirigua was located in an almost unknown area, research would also provide new information about the southeastern Maya lowlands, and add to our knowledge about the diversity of Maya civilization.


For instance, the application of settle­ment archaeology during the Tikal investi­gations had transformed our concepts about the organization and function of Classic Maya centers. The revealed extent and density of dwelling remains (“house platforms”) at Tikal effectively negated the former view of Maya sites as “ceremonial centers” serving low-density and dispersed populations subsisting by slash and burn agriculture. Rather, Tikal could be seen as a large and highly complex urban center, different in many respects from the more densely settled highland cities of ancient Mexico, but a focus for a host of diverse activities nonetheless. Tikal was certainly a center for ceremonial and cult activities, but it was also a political and administra­tive capital, a major marketing and craft manufacturing center, a pivotal link in the trade routes across the base of Yucatan that connected the Caribbean with the Gulf coasts, and the largest known Classic Maya population center.

But the first archaeological settlement study in the Maya area was carried out in the Belize River valley, to the east of Tikal. There, in an alluvial valley setting unlike Tikal’s, archaeologists from the Peabody Museum of Harvard University found a series of relatively small population cen­ters throughout the flood plain. There was no single large “capital” to dominate the entire region, as Tikal clearly dominated its region.

With these findings in mind, as we planned our research at Quirigua we were concerned to discover what kind of settle­ment had existed in the lower Motagua valley. Would Quirigua prove to be a dominant and functionally-urban center like Tikal, or would its alluvial valley setting contain a more dispersed population similar to that of the Belize River valley? At the onset of our research, we knew that Quirigua was the only identified Classic Maya center in the lower Motagua valley, so that it had usually been viewed as a “capital” for its surrounding valley region. But other sites were known to exist in the valley, and our research would seek to identify further examples. The question remained as to their relationship with Quirigua; as our research began no one knew whether or not these other sites were even occupied at the same time as Quirigua.

These questions provided the basis for a specific hypothesis to be tested by our investigations. That is, did Quirigua func­tion as a political and administrative capital for the lower Motagua region, con­trolling a series of subsidiary centers and their economic resources? As part of this question, our research would seek to determine whether Quirigua had controlled the production of such cash crops as cacao, oil palm, cotton, and the like. To test the latter proposition, we sought ecological evidence, both to reconstruct the ancient environment and, although this later proved impossible, to obtain pollen samples that could demonstrate the ancient existence of certain cash crops. The best evidence actually recovered at Quirigua in support of this idea was a small number of pottery effigy cacao pods.

From the beginning of the Quirigua research several other hypotheses were to be tested. The site is located along the Motagua River, the major route between the Maya highlands to the west and the Caribbean to the east. This suggests that Quirigua once served as a trading center, controlling river traffic as well as overland commerce between the lowlands to the north and the major Maya center of Copan to the south. This hypothesis was further strengthened by the fact that the source of the most prized of all Maya substances, jadeite, is located in the middle Motagua valley, a little more than 100 km. up river from Quirigua. Motagua jadeite almost certainly was traded down the Motagua to the Caribbean, and then up the coast and by river into the heart of the Maya low­lands. It also reached lower Central America, probably via both the Caribbean and overland trade routes. Thus, Quirigua was in a position to control a good portion of jadeite commerce into both areas, It should be added that an additional critical commodity, obsidian, was mined at Ixtepeque, another 100 km. southwest of Quirigua and reached by a tributary of the Motagua. Obsidian trade probably followed the same Motagua route through Quirigua to the lowlands.

The trade center hypothesis could he tested by looking for commercial facilities at Quirigua. Support could also came from the discovery of jadeite and obsidian processing or manufacture. Indirect evi­dence of trade could be seen in various indications of accumulation of power, wealth and prestige at Quirigua, especially on the part of its rulers.

Another long-standing idea to be tested involved the ancient relationships with Copan, a much larger Classic center located across the mountains some 50 km. to the south. The traditional theory held that Quirigua was founded in the Late Classic period (ca. A.D. 600-900) as a colony of Copan. This supposition could be tested by dating the founding and occupation span of Quirigua. The question to be answered was whether Quirigua was founded well after or at about the same time as Copan. If the latter situation could be archaeologically demonstrated, it might indicate that both sites were founded as colonies from the outside. Furthermore, the material remains recovered at Quirigua might reveal whether or not close cultural ties existed between the two centers, Finally, further epigraphic information from additional decipherments of Quirigua’s hieroglyphic texts could be used in conjunction with excavations to identify and interrelate the ancient events bearing on this question.

However, before these and similar hypotheses could be tested, our Quirigua investigations had to address several prob­lems basic to most archaeological situa­tions. In the first place, a chronological framework had to be determined in order to date as precisely as possible the archaeological remains uncovered by our research. As at most Maya sites, the most reliable chronological indicator turned out to be pottery, although the ceramic industry of Quirigua appears to be unlike that revealed at any other Classic Maya site. A spatial framework was also needed to define the areal extent of Quirigua and other sites in the lower Motagua valley, and, ultimately, to help determine the kinds of relationships that once existed between these centers. These frameworks would eventually allow us to place reconstructed activities and events in a proper temporal and spatial relationship.

To achieve these objectives, our research at Quirigua was organized into a series of interrelated programs. The overall adminis­tration of the Project was directed by David W, Sedat, Research Associate in the American Section, throughout all phases of its research. The site core program con­ducted excavations within the main group at Quirigua. Its first goal was to document the sequence of occupation and construc­tion activity within the architectural and monumental core of the site. This program was directed by Dr. Coe during the first year of intensive investigations (1975), and then by Dr. Christopher Jones (1976 and 1977), and finally by the author (1978 and 1979), In conjunction with the site-core program, the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia of Guatemala (IDAEH) undertook the consolidation and conservation of the major buildings in the main group at Quirigua. This work was directed by Arq. Marcelino Gonzalez C., and super­vised on a day-to-day basis by Sr. Enrique Monterroso during most of the period of research. The consolidation work com­menced in 1975 and continues as of this writing. The sculptured monuments of Quirigua, once heavily encrusted with lichens, were successfully treated for the removal of these growths under the expert supervision of Dr. Mason E. Hale, Jr., of the Department of Botany, Smithsonian Institution.

The site-periphery program concentrated its research upon the area surrounding the site core. This zone, some 95 km. (23,475 acres) in extent, was intensively investi­gated to determine the nature and limits of settlement at Quirigua. The site-periphery program was directed by Wendy Ashmore over a period of five seasons (1975-1979). Her summary of this research follows the paper by Dr. Jones and myself dealing with the site-core.

Beyond Quirigua itself, the valley pro­gram undertook to identify and investigate sites within the lower Motagua valley, a vast area of some 2,125 km.2 (525,000 acres]. In its initial stages, Timothy Nowak, a graduate student at Harvard University, directed the archaeological reconnaissance of the valley (1974-1975). During the program’s final three seasons (1977-1979), when survey and excavations were con­ducted within a zone on the southeastern side of the valley, this research was directed by Edward M. Schortman, whose summary of these investigations also appears here.

A field laboratory was established at Quirigua in 1975, constructed with funds provided by the Government of Guatemala. The processing and cataloguing of recov­ered artifacts took place in this facility under the expert direction of Mary R, Bullard. The detailed analysis of various categories of artifacts from the core and periphery of Quirigua has been assigned to individual members of the research team. Mary Bullard and the author are currently preparing a final report describing the recovered pottery. Julie Benyo, formerly an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and presently a graduate student at SUNY, Albany, has completed a study of the ceramic incensarios. Andrea Gerstle, a graduate student at the Univer­sity of California, Santa Barbara, is in the final stages of her study of the obsidian artifacts. The ground stone and miscel­laneous artifacts are being analyzed by Greta Z. Borie, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The final reports detailing the results of the Quirigua Project’s investigations are now being prepared by the directors of the various research programs. All of these results will he published as future volumes of the Quirigun Reports. part of the Univer­sity Museum Monograph series. The first volume of these reports was published in 1979 (Museum Monograph 37). Volume 2 is currently in production, under the editorship of Edward Schortman and Patricia Urban.

The papers that follow will consider selected aspects of the findings provided by our research at Quirigua and within the lower Motagua valley. Most of these bear upon some of the questions outlined here as some of the original goals of the Quirigua Project. These include the nature of Classic Period settlement at Quirigua, a problem made more difficult than ever anticipated by the masking of most archaeological remains by flood silts. Quirigua’s political and economic roles will also he discussed, both within the lower Motagua valley and beyond, especially in regard to their rela­tionship to Copan and to the question of the origin of both Copan and Quirigua.

Cite This Article

Sharer, Robert J.. "The Quirigua Project, 1974-1979." Expedition Magazine 23, no. 1 (October, 1980): -. Accessed June 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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