There are hundreds of known Maya sites
spanning two millennia. It can get quite
confusing so I built the table below as a quick reference of where some of the more
important sites are located (southern highlands, central lowlands and northern lowlands)
and the period they are best associated with (pre-classic, classic and post classic).
The highlighted sites are linked to one of the pages of this website. The others provide
a minimum of information on each site.
I hope this table will help you to get an overall picture of Maya history
through its archaeological sites. The underlined names are links to more information on that site.
Abaj Takalik halfway between Quetzaltenango and the Pacific coast is another significant
link between the Olmec culture, modified at
Izapa, and the Maya
of the southern highlands. Maya styled stela 5 bears the long count date of 126 AD
while a pure Olmec style were-jaguar is carved on a nearby boulder.
Altar de Sacrificios
This small site reached its apogee between 613 and 771 when it was the capital
of the Rio de la Pasión region in the Petén. The last date recorded
here was 910 AD.
Altun Ha (stone water), in Belize was founded in 600 BC and was actively trading
with cities in central Mexico and others in the Maya world around 200 BC. The
last buildings from that period date from 150 AD. The site was occupied again
in the late classic (550 to 800).
In 1968 excavations yielded a nine pound jade head of the Sun God Kinich Ahau which
is the largest jade piece ever found in the Maya world..
This early pre-classic site, west of Río Bec in southern Campeche, is famous
for its "House of Four Kings" and its magnificent stucco frieze showing
masks of monster amphibians.
There is no evidence of sustained large scale warfare between the Maya city-states
during the classic period but occasional raiding and prisoner taking did occur. Most
cities were situated in terrain vulnerable to attack. Becán (path of the serpent),
in southeast Campeche is one of the notable exceptions to this rule as it had a great
dry moat 17 feet deep and 50 feet wide dating from the early classic.
vases and figurines of the same epoch found in Becán suggest trade or war involving
Tikal and Teotihuacán.
The late and terminal classic Bonampak (600 to 900), is renowned for its remarkably
well preserved frescos depicting richly adorned Maya warriors dominating prisoners
and slaves, evidence of the growing gulf between the elite and the common people and
of the increasingly important role of warfare in the terminal classic period..
Calakmul in southern Campeche was an important regional capital during the early
classic, its influence extending to Petén in the south. It reached its peak
between 500 and 850 and re-emerged in 900 only to decline in the 15th century. Its
ruins held almost 150 stelae but many of these have been stolen so the history of
Calakmul will never be known completely.
Caracol in Belize was inhabited since 300 BC. It reached its peak in 562 AD when
Tikal thereby gaining
dominance over Belize and northern Guatemala for a century. It then had a population
of 150 000. The principal structure, the "Caana" (Heavenly Palace), is the
highest pyramid in Belize (42 metres).
Chakanbakán (surrounded by savannah), in southern Quintana Roo, was built
between 300 and 50 BC. It has one of the largest buildings with jaguar masks of the
Chiapa de Corzo
The site of Chiapa de Corzo, that has been occupied since 1500 BC, was part of
the Olmec zone of influence. It has the further distinction of having yielded the
oldest long count date inscribed on stela 2 dated December 9th 36 BC, five years earlier
than stela C of
Tres Zapotes. It lies at the extreme western
limit of the Maya area in central Chiapas, a long way from the original Olmec area.
Cobá (ruffled waters), is a large group of sites built around shallow lakes in
northern Quintana Roo and connected by masonry ceremonial causeways (sache), one of
which reaches 100 km all the way to Yaxuna, 12km from Chichén Itzá. Related
to the Sun god, the site has several large structures up to 42 metres in height, bearing
witness to the presence of a large population.
Carbon-14 dating shows that the site of Cuello near Orange Walk in Belize was occupied
between 2500 and 2200 BC. Well made pottery found here included jars, bowls and plates
decorated with simple incised designs. They constitute the oldest pottery found anywhere
in the Maya region.
This huge site, covering 19 square kms in northern Yucatan, was occupied since
1000 BC up to the Spanish conquest. It contains more than 8000 structures of which
only a few have been excavated. The most important being the Temple of Seven Dolls
oriented such that the sun comes through the door at each equinox.
Edzná, 60 km Southeast of Campeche, was settled from 600 BC to 1500 AD.
Most structures are of the classic period Petén style with Puuc influence.
The main temple, the 30 metre high Temple of Five Levels features an impressive roof
Ek Balam (black jaguar),20 km north of Valladolid, was the principal centre in eastern
Yucatán during the late classic. It featured three massive structures of which
the tallest rose to 31 metres. It was fortified with two concentric walls.
The El Baul site is known for its stela 1 showing a Maya warrior with an elaborate
head dress held by a chin strap, an early Maya practice. The stela bears the long
count date of 36 AD placing El Baul in the late pre classic along with nearby
The small site of El Rey is ideally located for tourists, being close to the beach
hotels of Cancun. El Rey was occupied from 300 BC to the Spanish conquest.
El Mirador on the Guatemala - Mexico border in northern Petén is a large
Maya site that flourished from 150 BC to 250 AD in the late pre classic. It was a
thriving centre of religious, political and economic activity with a well established
elite class, a stratified society and spectacular public buildings. It was probably
Tikal at its zenith 8 centuries later.
Izamal, 50 km east of Mérida, was the centre for worship of
the Mayan supreme god and Kinich-Kakmó the Sun god. The Spanish built a
huge Franciscan monastery there to overshadow the two pagan gods.
Founded in 1500 BC Izapa, the largest civic and religious centre on the Pacific
plain for a thousand years, absorbed the Olmec culture and transmitted it to the Maya
settlements in the southern Guatemala highlands. It is listed here in the non Maya
category because the tongue of the ancient inhabitants was Tapachulteco and not Maya
but it could also be classified as early pre-classic Maya. Here, the Olmec Long Lipped
God is transformed into the Maya rain god Chaac. Izapa is a very large site with 160
pyramids and platforms and some 250 stone monuments including 89 engraved stelae
Kaminaljuyú near Guatemala City saw the development of a truly distinctive Mayan
style beginning in the middle pre classic with the exquisite Las Charcas pottery embellished
with masks and abstract elements painted red on a white background. More than one
hundred pyramids and platforms were erected in Kaminaljuyú's Miraflores phase
in the late pre classic. Some of the remaining mounds rose to 65 feet and covered
elaborate tombs containing rich funerary offerings that bear witness to the power
the Mayan elites had already acquired in pre classic times. Unfortunately, what is
left of the site has been partly built over by the expanding suburbs of Guatemala
Lamanai (submerged crocodile), near Indian Church in Belize, was occupied as early
as 1500 BC but the buildings date from 800 to 600 BC. The majority of its 700 structures
have yet to be excavated but the largest, the 34 metre N10-43 has been artfully restored.
At its apogee the city had 50 000 inhabitants.
La Venta became the centre of Olmec culture after the destruction of
around 900 BC but it was also destroyed violently around 600 BC. Colossal
Olmec heads, some weighing up to 24 tons had to be moved 100 km from the quarries
where the basalt came from. The Olmec invented the long calendar later used by the
Maya, glyph writing, the numeral zero and a system of arithmetic based on 20 instead
of our 10. They also invented the were-jaguar,
Female figurines found in La Victoria, not far from
possibly dating as far back as 1500 BC are thought to be related to a fertility cult.
A large 25 feet high mound is thought to have been a temple platform.
Broken water jars uncovered on the edge of a cenote at Mani in Yucatan are
earlier than 1000 BC as they are overlaid by typical middle pre classic pottery.
Uxmal and the Puuc culture
was predominant throughout the classic period until 1000, then came the Itza-Toltec
hegemony based in
which lasted until around 1200 and finally it was the turn of
Mayapán to rule until it disintegrated into a
dozen small kingdoms around 1441.
Monte Alban (white mountain), a few kms west of Oaxaca, was occupied around 500
BC by Zapotecs enriched by the Olmec heritage. It came to dominate the central valleys
of the state of Oaxaca by the late pre classic and reached its zenith between 300
and 700 AD as a priest dominated society under the influence of
Sophisticated ceramics, plates, pots and figurines, found in Ocós, on the
Pacific coast of Guatemala near the Mexican border, are evidence of an early civilisation
that dates as far back as 1500 BC.
Piedras Negras, a short distance downstream from
on the shores of the Usumacinta river is one of the major sites of the classic period
in the western lowlands, ranking with
It flourished from 608 to 810 under a succession of brilliant leaders but then rapidly
Quiriguá on the Motagua river in eastern Guatemala is only 50 kms from its
Copán in Honduras. Quiriguá
was a dependency of Copán for most of the classic period until Cauac Sky took
King 18 Rabbit of Copán prisoner in 737 and had him beheaded. Quiriguá's
buildings are rather ordinary but it is renowned for its immense sandstone stelae
one of which is over 11 metres high from root to top. Quiriguá and Copán
were among the first Maya sites to be abandoned early in the 9th century, probably
subsequently to internal strife.
Río Bec is the name given to a group of 17 small sites in a 50 sq km area
Xpuhil, that have developed a characteristic style
of low buildings with doors made to look like huge serpent mouths and facades decorated
with small masks. The Río Bec style dates from around 700 AD.
The first significant civilisation in Mesoamerica arose around 1200 BC on the
hot humid plain of the Gulf coast near the Coatzacoalcos river close to the Veracruz
- Tabasco border. The earliest site, at San Lorenzo, of the culture that became known
as Olmec is a gigantic man made plateau containing 3 million cubic metres of fill,
silent testimony of a powerful government capable of directing considerable resources
of human labour (50 m high x 700 m wide and 1.2 km long). Ten huge Olmec heads were
found there. Around 900 BC the San Lorenzo site was destroyed and the centre of Olmec
culture moved to
La Venta near the coast, a hundred km to
the east. The Olmec disappeared suddenly but they had time to invent major cultural
themes that would influence all the mesoamerican cultures that followed.
The earliest signs of civilisation in the Petén were ceramics dated just
after 100 AD found at Seibal along with jade objects showing an Olmec influence.
Seibal was occupied throughout the classic period and was invaded around 830 by the
Putún or Chontal Maya from the Gulf coast known by the Maya as the Itza, "people
who speak our tongue poorly". Seibal's last stela is dated 889.
Tenochtitlán had little to do with the Mayas, other than trade relations,
but it has to be mentioned considering the importance of the Aztec in this part of
Teotihuacán (place of the gods), was founded early in the first century as a
religious centre in a fertile valley 50 km northeast of today's Mexico City where,
according to the legend, the gods had met to determine which of them would bring light
to the earth that was still dark and lifeless. Two volunteers had approached the sacrificial
fire, handsome Tecciztecatl and ugly Nanauatl who jumped in without hesitation
and was transformed into a bright sun while Tecciztecatl, who hesitated, was transformed
into a pale moon.
The cult of the Sun and the Moon was successful in arousing religious fervour mobilising
large populations into building an empire that dominated the central Mexican highlands
for more than seven centuries. The 70 m pyramid of the Sun, built in 100 AD is the
third largest in the world. Teotihuacán adopted some Olmec memes (elements
of Olmec culture) such as the plumed serpent but not the long count calendar. The
city grew into a large commercial centre with an extensive trade network and a population
reaching 200 000 at its peak in 600 AD.
When Teotihuacán invaded the southern highlands around 400 AD they became
a foreign elite and the Mayas in that region adopted the Mexican style and stopped
using the long count calendar. By the end of the fifth century the Mexican influence
reached as far as
By 700 however, Teotihuacán had completely declined. People were still living
in and around the city but its elites had lost the power to mobilise them.
Toniná, 14 km east of Ocosingo in Chiapas, has large structures, dating
from the late classic, on terraces cut from a hillside. Its claim to fame is to have
Palenque around 690 and
to have held the last Palenque leader Kan-Xul II prisoner until killing him around
Topoxte is located on an island in the Yaxhá lake 20 km from
It has two pyramids and a temple dating from the post classic.
The Olmec civilisation was hard hit by the destruction of
San Lorenzo (900 BC) and of
La Venta (600 BC) but it survived
in a weakened state in Tres Zapotes near San Andrés Tuxla in southern Veracruz.
An Olmec were-jaguar found there was inscribed with a long count calendar date equivalent
to 32 BC in our calendar.
Around 750, the disintegration of the Teotihuacán empire left a vacuum soon
to be filled by warlike Toltec - Chichimec tribes from the northwest who energised
people already established in the region by adding their fierce god Tezcatlipoca to
the existing wise Quetzalcoatl. They built their capital at Tula, 50 km north of Teotihuacán,
from which they established a new hegemony in the central plateau that would last
from 900 to 1200.
Apparently, followers of the two gods did not get along too well and Quetzalcoatl
followers were exiled around 1000 AD. They joined with the Putún Maya (Itza),
invaded the northern lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, learned Yucatec and set themselves
up as the new elite of the post classic Maya civilisation.
An elaborate stucco covered 24 foot pyramid discovered under classic period structured
at Uaxactún, 20 km north of Tikal, shows that large organised populations existed
in the Petén during pre classic times. Uaxactún was occupied throughout the
classic period and there is evidence of continued occupation after the collapse of
the Maya civilisation around 900. The evolution of temple architecture from open platforms
where the ritual activities were visible to all towards elaborate palaces enclosing
the ceremonial areas into courtyards hidden from the view of the common people reveals
the growth of a powerful elite class isolated from the masses before the abrupt decline
of the Mayas.
Xpuhil (place of the cattails), flourished between 400 BC and 1100 AD in the
Rio Bec area between Campeche and Quintana Roo
in the Yucatan peninsula.. It is famous
for the Building of the Three Towers of Río Bec style, built in the late classic.
Yaxchilán on the Usumacinta River in the Lacandon rain forest flourished
from 250 to 900 AD. It was the base of the powerful Jaguar dynasty that ruled when
the city was at its peak, from 680 to 800. It is renowned for the carved lintels and
stelae decorating its 120 structures.
Yaxhá (unchanged over time), features 40 stelae, about 500 structures of which
9 pyramids of more than 40 metres and a complex network of saches. It is located on
the shore of the Yaxhá lake 18 km from Tikal.
Zaculeu, three kms from Huehuetenango in the Guatemala highlands flourished from
600 AD onwards in its strategic emplacement well defended by natural barriers formed
by deep gullies and the river. Its architecture is strongly reminiscent of structures
in Yucatan. It served as refuge for the Mam Maya defending their independence from
the Quiché Maya but it finally fell before the invading Spanish led by Gonzalo
de Alvaredo in 1525.