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By John S. Mitchell
In 1841, American explorer John L. Stephens described the remains of Quirigua as "unvisited, unsought, and utterly unknown." Jungle vegetation choked this lost Maya city's Great Plaza, and layers of moss obscured the enigmatic carvings on its toppled monuments.
Much has changed since Stephens wrote about Quirigua in his landmark book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Quirigua's remains have been rescued from the jungle and restored numerous times, most recently by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania during the late 1970s. Like the spectacular Maya center of Tikal and the colonial city of Antigua, Quirigua is also now protected as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. In Stephens' day, visitors had to trek through mosquito-infested wilderness to explore Quirigua. Today, the busy Atlantic Highway passes nearby, putting this park-like archaeological site in easy reach of Guatemala City, only 220 kilometers to the west.
Stephens had hoped to purchase Quirigua and ship its monuments to New York, but local landowners demanded an exorbitant price, and the wily diplomat was unable to strike up a satisfactory deal. The site was eventually bought by the United Fruit Company, which had sufficient foresight to designate the area an archaeological park in 1910. United Fruit also organized the first major excavations at Quirigua through the Archaeological Institute of America and took great pains to protect the city's treasures from looters. Today, Quirigua and its 75 acres of surrounding tropical forest nestle like a verdant island midst a sea of banana trees, living legacies of the United Fruit Company's presence.
Like Copan, in neighboring Honduras, Quirigua is best known for its stelae. These imposing sandstone obelisks were commissioned by Maya kings to mark important royal events and as means of self-promotion. Each sculpture bears a king's likeness adorned with symbolic ornaments and encircled by gods and sacred animals. The sides and backs are etched with Maya calendar glyphs giving dedication dates and those of other significant political and military happenings. The stelae also acted as billboards advertising the kings' standings with the Maya gods, along with tidbits of personal history. One of Quirigua's monuments, Stele D, is so wonderfully decorated that it was chosen to appear on Guatemala's 10-centavo coin.
The Maya somehow transported enormous stones through the jungle from distant quarries, apparently without the aid of either wheeled carts or beasts of burden. Artists then used only rudimentary stone tools to execute the intricate carvings, before raising the ponderous sculptures to their present vertical positions. Stele E at Quirigua weighs an astonishing 65 tons and stretches 10.5 meters in length, with sculptures covering its 8-meter panels. It is estimated that, beginning in A.D. 751, a new stele was installed at Quirigua every five years until A.D. 805.
Now crowned with thatched canopies to protect them from the elements, Quirigua's ancient monuments stand like aloof sentries guarding its Great Plaza. This expanse is 100 meters long and 80 meters wide. However, the plaza is situated on a floodplain, and ensuing centuries have left its original surface buried under layers of silt deposited by the nearby Montagua River. Quirigua is thought to have functioned as an important way station between Copan and Tikal. Goods were shuttled to and from the Caribbean along the river, and throngs of merchants and buyers probably once rubbed shoulders with regal stelae in the city's Great Plaza.
Most of the stelae were erected during the sixty-year reign of Cauac Sky, Quirigua's greatest ruler. Not surprisingly, his image stares out impassively from seven of the nine monoliths of the site. In AD 738, Cauac Sky captured the king of Copan and had him decapitated in the Great Plaza, thereby ending Copan's long-standing control over Quirigua. The date of this turning point in Quirigua history is immortalized on a huge boulder known as Zoomorph G. Half a dozen of these curious rounded sculptures, resembling mythical and real animals, are found in Quirigua. Zoomorph G, planted firmly in the center of the Great Plaza, depicts a jaguar-like creature with what could be the king of Copan's or Cauac Sky's head clenched in its jaws. Zoomorph P at the plaza's northern end shows the omnipresent ruler sitting cross-legged in the gaping mouth of what appears to be another ferocious monster. The entire surfaces of these massive stones are emblazoned with glyphs, plus some of the most intricate and baffling carvings in Mundo Maya.
To the north of the Great Plaza sprawls the Acropolis, a former residential and administrative complex. Steep flights of stairs surmount the quadrangle's walls, which enclose a spacious inner compound. On the Acropolis' south end, the palaces of Cauac Sky and Jade Sky, Quirigua's last known ruler, can be found. These low-slung buildings now lie in ruins, but at one time, they boasted multiple rooms, built-in stone benches, curtains, and even temascales (steam baths). Quirigua's victory over Copan prompted a building boom, which saw the city transformed from a backwater trading post into a major ceremonial center. From A.D. 738 on, the entire west side of the Acropolis was redone. A new ball court was also constructed, along with an elaborately decorated wall sporting busts of Kinich Ahau, the Maya sun god.
The Acropolis offers panoramic views of the encircling forest canopy, which shelters Quirigua from the twentieth century, and the Great Plaza with the mysterious sculptures that have mesmerized countless travelers. British author Aldous Huxley, who passed this way in the 1930's, aptly noted that Quirigua's stelae commemorate "...human triumph over time and matter and the triumph of time and matter over man." Certainly, the ancient Maya were obsessed with measuring great spans of time. Priests used their complex calendar like a time machine, roaming at will through the distant past and future. Archaeologists have decoded inscriptions on stelae F and D at Quirigua; they refer to obscure events that took place some 90 and 400 million years ago.
Ironically, Quirigua's own heyday lasted for little more than a hundred years and the city fell only a few decades after Cauac Sky's death in A.D. 785. Experts think that wars, overpopulation and the resulting depletion of natural resources eventually weakened most great Mesoamerican urban centers. However, the exact reasons for Quirigua's demise are unclear. By the middle of the ninth century, Quirigua's royalty and much of its population had migrated elsewhere, perhaps to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Quirigua lies near a major geologic fault, and there is also evidence suggesting that a devastating earthquake could have dealt a final blow to the city, forcing its remaining citizens to flee and leave their magnificent monuments behind as silent witnesses to the passing centuries.