Altar de Sacrificios
Altar de Sacrificios is a ceremonial center and archaeological site
Archaeological site
An archaeological site is a place in which evidence of past activity is preserved , and which has been, or may be, investigated using the discipline of archaeology and represents a part of the archaeological record.Beyond this, the definition and geographical extent of a 'site' can vary widely,...

 of the pre-Columbian
The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during...

 Maya civilization
Maya civilization
The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period The Maya is a Mesoamerican...

, situated near the confluence of the Pasión
Pasión River
The Pasión River is a river located in the northern lowlands region of Guatemala. The river is fed by a number of upstream tributaries whose sources lie in the hills of Alta Verapaz. These flow in a general northerly direction to form the Pasión, which then tends westwards to meet up with the...

 and Salinas River
Salinas River (Guatemala)
The Salinas is a river in Guatemala. The river is called Chixoy River from its sources in the highlands of Huehuetenango and El Quiché until it reaches the Chixoy hydroelectric dam , where the Río Salama and Rio Carchela converge with the Río Negro...

s (where they combine to form the Usumacinta River
Usumacinta River
The Usumacinta River is a river in southeastern Mexico and northwestern Guatemala. It is formed by the junction of the Pasión River, which arises in the Sierra de Santa Cruz and the Salinas River, also known as the Chixoy, or the Negro, which descends from the Sierra Madre de Guatemala...

), in the present-day department
Departments of Guatemala
||Guatemala is divided into 22 departments :#Alta Verapaz#Baja Verapaz#Chimaltenango#Chiquimula#Petén#El Progreso#El Quiché#Escuintla#Guatemala#Huehuetenango#Izabal#Jalapa#Jutiapa#Quetzaltenango#Retalhuleu#Sacatepéquez...

 of Petén
Petén (department)
Petén is a department of the nation of Guatemala. It is geographically the northernmost department of Guatemala, as well as the largest in size — at it accounts for about one third of Guatemala's area. The capital is Flores...

, Guatemala
Guatemala is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast...

. Along with Seibal
Seibal, known as El Ceibal in Spanish, is a Classic Period archaeological site of the Maya civilization located in the northern Petén Department of Guatemala. It was the largest city in the Pasión River region....

 and Dos Pilas
Dos Pilas
Dos Pilas is a Pre-Columbian site of the Maya civilization located in what is now the department of Petén, Guatemala. It dates to the Late Classic Period, being founded by an offshoot of the dynasty of the great city of Tikal in AD 629 in order to control trade routes in the Petexbatún region,...

, Altar de Sacrificios is one of the better-known and most intensively-excavated sites in the region, although the site itself does not seem to have been a major political force in the Late Classic period
Mesoamerican chronology
Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian , the Archaic , the Preclassic , the Classic , and the Postclassic...



Altar de Sacrificios is located on the Guatemalan side of the international border with Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

, which follows the Salinas and Usumacinta rivers. It is 80 kilometres (49.7 mi) upriver from the important Classic period Maya city of Yaxchilán
Yaxchilan is an ancient Maya city located on the bank of the Usumacinta River in what is now the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In the Late Classic Period Yaxchilan was one of the most powerful Maya states along the course of the Usumacinta, with Piedras Negras as its major rival...

 and 60 kilometres (37.3 mi) west of Seibal. The site is located on a small island located among seasonal swamps along the south bank of the Pasión River near where it joins the Salinas River (also known as the Chixoy River). This island measures approximately 700 metres (2,296.6 ft) from east to west, with the ceremonial architecture located on the higher eastern end and the residential groups on the lower western end.


Archaeological investigations uncovered the long occupational history of the site and revealed that it was one of the earliest settlements in the Maya lowlands, having been founded before Tikal
Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala...

 and other cities in the central Petén Basin
Petén Basin
The Petén Basin is a geographical subregion of Mesoamerica, located in the northern portion of the modern-day nation of Guatemala, and essentially contained within the department of El Petén...

, possibly by Mixe–Zoquean people who arrived from the west. This appears to have occurred around 800 BC, at the beginning of the Middle Preclassic
Mesoamerican chronology
Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian , the Archaic , the Preclassic , the Classic , and the Postclassic...

 period. Later in the Preclassic
Mesoamerican chronology
Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian , the Archaic , the Preclassic , the Classic , and the Postclassic...

 the site was settled by Maya peoples
Maya peoples
The Maya people constitute a diverse range of the Native American people of southern Mexico and northern Central America. The overarching term "Maya" is a collective designation to include the peoples of the region who share some degree of cultural and linguistic heritage; however, the term...

. This site dominated the Usumacinta trade route circa 450 BC, and occupation continued to approximately AD 1000. Its peak period of occupation dates to the Late Classic
Mesoamerican chronology
Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian , the Archaic , the Preclassic , the Classic , and the Postclassic...

 although it was never one of the larger sites in the region. Ceramic evidence suggests that during the Terminal Classic the site was occupied by foreigners and prospered at a time when nearby Seibal was also experiencing a resurgence in its fortunes, in both cases linked to the collapse of the Petexbatún
Petexbatún is a small lake formed by a river of the same name, which is a tributary of the La Pasion river. It is near Sayaxché, located in the southern area of the Guatemalan department of Petén....

 kingdom based at Dos Pilas. It has been suggested that the arrival of outsiders as this time was due to Chontal Maya dominance of the Usumacinta riverine trade route at this time. However, with the collapse of the major cities in the Usumacinta drainage, river trade declined drastically and was unable to be renewed by the newcomers. Altar de Sacrificios, together with the few other surviving polities in the western Petén, declined into stagnating inwardly-focused polities in spite of their longer distance contacts. By the 8th and 9th centuries AD, the population at Altar de Sacrificios was falling away. By the Terminal Classic bone analysis has revealed that the health of the general population was suffering, with increased child mortality
Child mortality
Child mortality, also known as under-5 mortality, refers to the death of infants and children under the age of five. In 2010, 7.6 million children under five died , down from 8.1 million in 2009, 8.8 million in 2008, and 12.4 million in 1990. About half of child deaths occur in Africa....

, decreased stature and the proliferation of disease, although the elite remained healthy. At the same time the reduced population withdrew into defensible locations at the site.


At least ten rulers are recorded on the monuments of Altar de Sacrificios, and there were probably more. Three rulers governed in the period from AD 455 to 524, there was then a sixty-year hiatus. In 589 a new and youthful ruler took office, he governed until AD 633. In the period from 633 to 662 there were four more rulers governing in relatively quick succession, these were probably followed by at least two more rulers although the later monuments are the least well preserved.

Modern history

The site was first discovered in the 1890s by Teoberto Maler
Teoberto Maler
Teoberto Maler or Teobert Maler was an explorer who devoted his energies to documenting the ruins of the Maya civilization....

. Sylvanus Morley
Sylvanus Morley
Sylvanus Griswold Morley was an American archaeologist, epigrapher, and Mayanist scholar who made significant contributions toward the study of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in the early twentieth century....

 described the hieroglyphic inscriptions
Maya script
The Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs, is the writing system of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica, presently the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered...

 of Altar de Sacrificios in his 1938 work The Inscriptions of Peten. The site was investigated by archaeologists A. Ledyard Smith
A. Ledyard Smith
A. Ledyard Smith was an American archaeologist who worked on various projects in the Maya region on behalf of the Carnegie Institution, including Uaxactun. From 1958 to 1963 he led investigations at Altar de Sacrificios in Guatemala together with Gordon Willey on behalf of the Peabody Museum of...

 and Gordon Willey
Gordon Willey
Gordon Randolph Willey was an American archaeologist famous for his fieldwork in South and Central America as well as the southeastern United States...

 of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is a museum affiliated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.Founded in 1866, the Peabody Museum is one of the oldest and largest museums focusing on anthropological material, and is particularly strong in New World ethnography and...

 from 1958 to 1963.

Site description

The archaeological site consists of about 30 large mounds arranged around three plazas in the site core, in an area of approximately 400 by. The site core is located on the higher eastern end of the small island supporting the site, with residential groups occupying the western end. The principal architecture
Maya architecture
A unique and spectacular style, Maya architecture spans several thousands of years. Often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond. Being based on the general Mesoamerican architectural traditions these pyramids...

 includes a fairly large temple pyramid
Mesoamerican pyramids
Mesoamerican pyramids, pyramid-shaped structures, are an important part of ancient Mesoamerican architecture. These structures were usually step pyramids with temples on top – more akin to the ziggurats of Mesopotamia than to the pyramids of Ancient Egypt...

, several palaces and a ballcourt
Mesoamerican ballcourt
A Mesoamerican ballcourt is a large masonry structure of a type used in Mesoamerica for over 2,700 years to play the Mesoamerican ballgame, particularly the hip-ball version of the ballgame. Over 1,300 ballcourts have been identified, 60% in the last 20 years alone...

. Group A contains the palace complexes and Group B is the location of the main pyramid.

The site possesses 29 inscribed monuments, most of them so badly eroded as to be unreadable. Those dated monuments that are still legible span the period from AD 455 to AD 849.

The Ballcourt is of an open-ended type similar to ballcourts dated to the Late Classic at other cities in the western portion of the Maya lowlands. The playing area measures 8.65 by.

Temple B-1 is a step pyramid dating to the Early Classic period.

Burial 96 is the burial of a woman who died in her twenties and was placed in a tomb in Structure A-III, some time later than Burial 128 in the same building. It was simpler than the latter and was accompanied by the offering of a polychrome ceramic vessel.

Burial 128 is an elite tomb built into Structue A-III. It is stone lined with a wooden ceiling and contained the remains of a woman aged in her forties, placed on a straw mat. Offerings included ceramics and a number of artefacts made of jade
Jade use in Mesoamerica
Jade use in Mesoamerica was largely influenced by the conceptualization of the material as a rare and valued commodity among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec, the Maya, and the various groups in the Valley of Mexico. The only source from which the indigenous cultures could...

, pyrite
The mineral pyrite, or iron pyrite, is an iron sulfide with the formula FeS2. This mineral's metallic luster and pale-to-normal, brass-yellow hue have earned it the nickname fool's gold because of its resemblance to gold...

, bone and shell.

Stela 1 bears a hieroglyphic date equivalent to August 662.

Stela 4 is an inscribed monument with a date equivalent to December 642.

Stela 5 is another inscribed monument, this one with a date equivalent to August 644.

Stela 8 is inscribed with a date equivalent to February 628 and is the earliest known monument to bear the Altar de Sacrificios Emblem Glyph.

Stela 9 bears a date equivalent to January 633.

External links

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