Archaeology Magazine Archive

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If you're visiting the ancient Maya city of Copán in Honduras, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Robert Sharer recommends taking a side trip to the seldom-seen city of Quiriguá, Guatemala.

The Site Occupied from A.D. 400850, Quiriguá is just a two-hour drive north of Copán in Guatemala's Motagua River Valley. Once the most important city ruled by Copán, Quiriguá secured the trade route connecting the Maya highlands with the Caribbean. But Quiriguá's relationship with the capital deteriorated under the rule of Copán's king Waxaklajuun Ubaah K'awii, and the two cites went to war in A.D. 738. Quiriguá won a resounding victory after which Waxaklajuun Ubaah K'awii was decapitated, opening the way for the city to become independent. But a century later, like many other Classic Maya centers, Quiriguá went into decline and was abandoned.

Why you shouldn't miss it Quiriguá may be small, but among its 22 monuments are the largest sculptures ever carved by the Maya. They include sandstone stelae standing as tall as 35 feet that were commissioned by the city's rulers to commemorate important political and dynastic events, as well as a number of "zoomorphs," large boulders covered with figures and glyphs and carved to represent kings and animals.

When you go Sharer recommends taking some time to seek out the life-size glyphs on Stela D, left, and the sculpted portrait of the king Sky Xul in the mouth of a crocodile monster on Zoomorph P. And be sure not to miss the carved hieroglyphic texts inside Structure 1B-1, a small temple on the south side of the Acropolis Plaza. They bear the last known date recorded at Quiriguá—June 810. To get the most out of the trip, pick up a copy of Matthew G. Looper's readable Lightning Warrior: Maya Art and Kingship at Quiriguá.