Blog Post

El Zotz: An Archaeological Gem in the Guatemalan Jungle

The archaeological site of El Zotz lies nestled in the San Miguel de la Palotada Biotope of northern Guatemala, less than a day’s walk from the grandiose ancient Maya city of Tikal. In antiquity, El Zotz was known as Pa’ Chan, or “fortified-sky,” and was occupied for over nine centuries between 300–1250 A.D. When the city was established in the Maya Early Classic Period (300–600 A.D.), El Zotz was a place of incredible artistic and cultural ingenuity. The clearest evidence of the spectacular florescence of early Pa’ Chan is preserved in the buried temples discovered at the site, which were decorated in elaborate modeled stucco iconography. These incredible vestiges of Maya architectural innovation led El Zotz to be placed on the World Monuments Watch in 2012.

Archaeological investigations at El Zotz began under the direction of Drs. Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Héctor Escobedo (Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes de Guatemala) in 2006, with Dr. Ernesto Arredondo (La Trobe University) and Edwin Román (University of Texas at Austin) serving as later Guatemalan project co-directors. I joined the project in 2009 as the director of regional investigations. As of 2012, I serve as the project director (based at the University of Southern California) in collaboration with Román. During seven seasons of investigation, archaeologists have learned a great deal about Pa’ Chan. Most of our attention has been drawn to the earliest years of occupation at El Zotz and the incredible temples that were dedicated by its first rulers.

The earliest royal palace at the site was placed on a hilltop overlooking the area where the major ruins are now located. This palace, known as the El Diablo Group, would have housed the royal family for about two centuries and included a 13–meter-tall funerary pyramid. Tunneling excavations within this pyramid began to uncover an earlier preserved temple, decorated with exquisite masks. Houston has dubbed the structure the “Temple of the Night Sun” and interpreted these masks as different guises of the Maya Sun God, K’inich Ajaw. The building depicts the Maya vision of a single deity in its totality. Some of the masks include the watery morning sun; the blood-thirsty midday sun; and the jaguar, the night sun. What’s more is that this temple was constructed over an intact royal tomb that we excavated in 2010.

In 2012, I began investigations in the East Group of El Zotz and found another early preserved temple platform. This platform is on the same axis as the pyramid in the El Diablo Group and so far we have uncovered one monumental mask depicting a deity commonly associated with royal authority. As investigations continue with the support of the Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya and the National Geographic Society, we hope to find another temple atop this platform, perhaps a twin to the Temple of the Night Sun. The incredible architectural masterpieces being uncovered at this relatively small Maya site require consolidation and conservation and we are thrilled to be supported by World Monuments Fund in our effort to draw global attention to El Zotz.