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Cotzumalguapa Nuclear Zone

Pacific Lowlands Ceramic Gallery         Lowlands and Highlands Sculpture Gallery

General Area Map

In 1874 Karl Hermann Berendt, settled at Cobán, the center of the German coffee plantations in the Verapaz region of Guatemala. He purchased land with coffee groves, acquired the first printing press in Cobán, and co-founded the local newspaper, El Quetzal (Frey 1938; Terga Citrón 1991:8). He visited Philadelphia during the summer of 1876 in order to examine the manuscripts in Central American indigenous languages at the American Philosophical Society. At this time he probably finalized arrangements with Daniel G. Brinton to purchase his valuable collection of manuscripts. While in the United States Berendt was commissioned by Adolf Bastian, director of the Königliche Museen zu Berlin, to supervise the excavation, cutting-up, and transporting of prehispanic monuments from the site of Bilbao (Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa) on the Pacific coastal piedmont of Guatemala. Together with a German engineer from Koblenz named Albert Napp, he began working at the site in February of 1877. Despite many hardships, Berendt evidently kept meticulous records of the progress of the work from January 1877 to March 1878 in a diary to his wife (Parsons 1967–1969: 2:17–18). He imported special saws to remove the carved surfaces of the sculptures from their backs and heavy bases so they could be moved and shipped with less effort and weight. In a little over a year, although ridden with chronic kidney disease and suffering from hardships imposed by local living conditions, he performed a tremendous task, supervising the excavations, mapping, crating, and preparation for shipment of the monuments. It was fortunate that he expedited the work because he became ill and died on April 12, 1878, in Guatemala City. Most of his reports were sent earlier to Bastian in Germany, who saw to their publication (Bastian 1882). The remainder of the diary and his field drawings and maps were preserved by his son who wrote about them to Bastian on April 12, 1878.

The present location of the notes is unknown. After a series of delays, some 30 major stone monuments and a number of minor pieces were placed aboard the German vessel José Ginebra in late 1880, arriving at the Prussian Baltic seaport of Stettin (Szczecin), in August of 1881. The monuments were finally put on exhibit by Bastian early in1883. Lee Parsons (1967–1969) illustrates 29 of the monuments shipped by Berendt at the Königliche Museen zu Berlin in his monograph on the archaeological investigations at Bilbao. These include Monuments 1–9, 13–15, 20, 26, 30–32, 40, 46, 47, 49, 64, 67, 69, 70, and 72–75. By 1892 plaster casts of thirteen of the monuments were prepared for an exhibit in Hamburg to celebrate the fourth centenary of the discovery of America. Several of the casts were exhibited in the Guatemalan pavilion at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. These eventually became part of the collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Others were donated by the German government to Spain and shown at Madrid in 1892. Today they are in the Museo de América in Madrid. As a consequence of the removal of these sculptures to Berlin, the Guatemalan government realized the intrinsic value of its prehispanic heritage. On November 15, 1893, President José Maria Reyna Barrios passed a decree prohibiting the unauthorized excavation of any Maya ruins, vandalism at archaeological sites, and the exportation of archaeological objects.

The Cotzumalguapa Nuclear Zone is 10 Km2. and contents the Monumental sites of El Baúl, Bilbao and El Castillo, and the minor site of Golón united by Stone paved causeways and bridges due to several rivers between them. Its main Structures were made of earthen Bilbao Mon 1filling and carefully chosen stones. There have been found more than 200 structures and 187 Sculptured monuments here mainly dating from the Late Classic (600-1000 AD), making this site the most important Late Classic center of Politic and Artistic power in the Pacific area of Mesoamérica. Although the Pre Classic  Monument 1 from Bilbao dated from 36 AD shows one of the earliest Hieroglyphic texts known to date.

The inhabitants of Cotzumalguapa, near from the Middle Preclassic site of Monte Alto, developed an original artistic style and a writing system of their own, which found expression in a large corpus of monumental sculptures. These include rock carvings, Stelas, Altars, Colossal Heads, and three-dimensional El Baúl Acrópolis Air viewSculptures, as well as a variety of architectural sculptures such as carved stairs, pillars and pavement stones. There are also numerous portable sculptures. Characteristic of the Cotzumalguapa style is an extraordinary degree of realism in the representation of human figures, which in many cases may be considered as individual portraits, possibly representing kings and nobles. In many cases, these individuals participate in complex scenes, where they interact with other human characters or with supernatural beings. Sacrificial scenes are frequent. Distinctive elements of the Cotzumalguapa style include speech scrolls shaped as vines with a variety of flowers and fruits. Hieroglyphic signs usually are inscribed in circular cartouches, but they may also acquire complex animated forms.

   Cotzumalguapa was most likely the seat of a powerful state, which exerted political control over a vast region of the
Pacific coast. The diffusion of the sculptural style provides a measure of the geographic extension of Cotzumalguapa influence. The style is found along a 200 kilometer stretch of the Pacific coast, from the South Eastern near the modern border between Guatemala and El Salvador to the department of Suchitepéquez. It also had strong presence in some regions of the Central and Eastern Highlands, particularly in the region of Antigua Guatemala and Kaminaljuyú. Some elements of the style are perceptible in sculptures from various sites located in Chimaltenango in the Central Highlands, Western Pacific Coastal area and the Motagua river valley.

  The El Baúl Acrópolis is located 4 km  north from Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, 550 mt. above sea level 50 km from the Pacific, Its southern Acrópolis complex was destroyed in 1997 by an urbanization of this City, and the Main groups are now sugar cane fields. The
Ball Court is Located 500 mt north of the Acrópolis with several residential groups in between, united by 2 causeways. Its geologic context is  Volcanic, The Fuego volcano is Active and located north of the site, this constant activity difficult the Archeological recognition of this sites. This site shows Monumental architecture in its Acrópolis as well as a Sweat bath (Temazcal), and Obsidian Workshops, Analysis of these deposits is particularly important for the study of the ancient obsidian industry. The  pit continued below these deposits to a depth of 3.78 meters, revealing volcanic ash layers derived from the adjacent Fuego volcano. Obsidian debitage continued below these ash layers, suggesting that the area was used as a refuse deposit for a prolonged period.

 The Largest Causeway is 2.5 Km long and ranging from 11 to 14 Mt wide, to communicate the Acropolises of Bilbao and El Baúl. Before entering El Baúl, the causeway ran across a large bridge over the Santiago river gorge. The foundation walls of the bridge, which most probably sustained a wooden structure, are still visible along a 30-meter span of the river course. An excavation carried out on the western side of the river gorge revealed two constructional stages for the causeway at this location, both of which date to the Late Classic period. Many Monumental Sculptures have been found along the Causeways.

Cotzumalguapa sites Maps

3 D view of the El Baul acropolis,
and location of the obsidian workshop

Map Sowing residential areas in Blue

Jaguar Sculpture, El Baúl

Obsidian Blade as offering

Cotz. St 3

Cotzumalguapa Iguana and Man Shape

Sculpture Bilbao

Giant Zoomorph head Bilbao

Cotzumalguapa St 4

A relief sculpture in the sugar cane fields

Cotzumalguapa Altar  Jaguar Head

Sweat House (Temazcal)

Cotz. Monument 42

Classic sculpture, El Baúl
appears to show a
sorcerer transforming into a canine

Ball Court Recreation

Clay Figurines


Palos Verdes and Versalles: Are 2 minor sites located north of The Cotzumalguapa Nuclear Zone, and just 12 Km. from the Fuego Volcano cráter, Palos Verdes is the largest one,  its Acrópolis is on a platform 140 x 105 mt. and 7 mt. high with a mound on top. There are 12 structures and 3 Plazas,  there are Sculptured monuments


Site Map





Interestingly, most of the Sculptures and Stelas come from the smaller Versalles site 800 mt to the south witch leads to the idea of being the ceremonial area of Palos Verdes, there are 4 structures and a Plaza.


Site Map

El Castillo

El Castillo


Stela 1

Stela 2

Stela 3



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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:36 -0500
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