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Altar de Sacrificioslocked

  • Elizabeth P. Benson

Site of Pre-Columbian Maya ceremonial centre in the Río Pasión drainage, near the source of the Usumacinta River, El Petén, Guatemala. It was occupied nearly continuously from the Middle Pre-Classic period (c. 1000–c. 300 bc) into the Early Post-Classic period (c. ad 900–c. 1200). Known since 1883, the site was explored early in the 20th century and excavated by Harvard University of Cambridge, MA, during 1958–63, particularly because it was hoped that it would shed some light on problems of the Classic ‘Maya collapse’ of c. ad 900. The site is strategically located on a major river system, between highlands and low country on the southernmost edge of the Lowland Maya region, and the ceremonial centre consists of three architecturally independent groups. The North Plaza has the largest mounds and most of the stelae.

The corpus of stone sculpture includes: 26 circular altars, most of them plain, although 7 are carved with hieroglyphs; 21 stelae carved with glyphic panels and rulers holding symbols of office; 3 ‘censer’ altars (basins behind deity masks); and various panels and obelisks. The earliest known monument is Stele 10, with a date of ad 455 in the Maya Long Count calendar (see Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian §II). Monuments erected before ad 633 are made of local red sandstone, and the site is named after one of these. Later monuments are of limestone and are less finely carved. Some stelae were found in fragmented condition and may have been used in construction fill. Earlier architectural block masonry was also of red sandstone, then of limestone. The earliest masonry found is dated c. 500 bc, when lime-encrusted shells set in mud mortar were used for platform facings. Superstructures were made of wood and thatch.

The ceramic sequence begins earlier in the Middle Pre-Classic period, c. 900 bc. There are solid, hand-modelled figurines, depicting human beings and animals, as well as vessels. During the Classic period (c. ad 250–c. 900) Altar de Sacrificios potters produced fine polychrome and low-relief vessels, and mould-made, hollow figurine-whistles representing humans (often warriors) and animals of various kinds. The best-known ceramic piece is a polychrome cylinder vessel of Long Count date ad 754 called the ‘Altar Vase’ (Guatemala City, Mus. N. Arqueol. & Etnol.), discovered in Harvard excavations. It has a complex scene of supernatural figures, dancing humans (one in jaguar-skin garments), a drummer, a singer, and possibly an autosacrifice. The jaguar figure is named by hieroglyphs and may portray Bird-Jaguar, the contemporary ruler of Yaxchilán. Worked obsidian, flint, and some jade were also found at the site.

The last dated monument is ad 771, and after this the site declined for several reasons. It was a time of disorganization throughout the area, and the final ceramic phase (after c. ad 900) seems to represent an intrusive, non-Maya group towards the end of the Late Classic period (c. ad 600–c. 900). Construction of major monuments ceased c. ad 909, but the site was not abandoned until the mid-10th century.


  • G. R. Willey and A. L. Smith: The Ruins of Altar de Sacrificios: An Introduction, Pap. Peabody Mus. Amer. Archaeol. & Ethnol., vol.62(1) (Cambridge, MA, 1969)
  • R. E. W. Adams: The Ceramics of Altar de Sacrificios, Pap. Peabody Mus. Amer. Archaeol. & Ethnol., vol.63(1) (Cambridge, MA, 1971)
  • J. A. Graham: The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions and Monumental Art of Altar de Sacrificios, Pap. Peabody Mus. Amer. Archaeol. & Ethnol., vol.64(2) (Cambridge, MA, 1972)
  • A. L. Smith: Excavations at Altar de Sacrificios, Pap. Peabody Mus. Amer. Archaeol. & Ethnol., vol.64(2) (Cambridge, MA, 1972)
  • G. R. Willey: The Artifacts of Altar de Sacrificios, Pap. Peabody Mus. Amer. Archaeol. & Ethnol., vol.64(1) (Cambridge, MA, 1972)
  • G. R. Willey: The Altar de Sacrificios Excavations: General Summary and Conclusions, Pap. Peabody Mus. Amer. Archaeol. & Ethnol., vol.66(3) (Cambridge, MA, 1973)
  • A. A. Demarest: ‘After the Maelstrom: Collapse of the Classic Maya Kingdoms and the Terminal Classic in Western Peten’, The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Collapse, Transition, and Transformation (Boulder, CO, 2005), pp.102–24