Photo: Topographical map of El Achiotal's South Group

Topographical and schematic maps of El Achiotal's South Group, a preclassic lowland Maya site in Western Petén. An important component of the research during the first season at El Achiotal was the reconnaissance and mapping of the site center. Here you see the site’s epicenter, specifically the area on the ridge top.

Image courtesy of Marcello Canuto

In 2009, NGS/Waitt grantee Marcello Canuto explored the archaeological site of El Achiotal in Western Petén, Guatemala. It is a small site located 20 km east of the classic site of La Corona built upon a karstic ridge surrounded by seasonally-flooded lowlands (bajos).

The site's primary occupation appears to have been between 400 BCE and 550 CE, the Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods, and perhaps beginning earlier in the Middle Preclassic, between 800 and 400 BCE. Preliminary explorations revealed the presence of a royal dynasty painted on a mural that depicts royal insignia of divine kingship in a style unknown elsewhere in the Petén lowlands. Moreover, the iconographic representation suggests an affiliation with imagery associated with the earlier Olmec civilization of the Gulf Coast. El Achiotal's location to the west of the core area of Petén is perfect for understanding what relationship existed between early core Maya centers and frontier sites connecting the region with the western lowlands and the Gulf Coast. The Middle and Late Preclassic are critical periods in the history of emerging city-states in the Maya lowlands, and El Achiotal is likely to reveal exciting new data about the role that smaller frontier sites played during these changes. With its strategic location west of the core region and its unusual features, El Achiotal provides an opportunity to explore early Maya socio-political integration at a local and regional level.

As most archaeological sites in the Petén, El Achiotal has suffered severe depredation by looters. Most buildings contain very large looters’ trenches, some of which reveal relatively well preserved masonry walls. The tallest pyramid at the site not only has looters’ trenches but was deeply penetrated by a series of tunnels. These tunnels exposed an architectural sequence perhaps initiating as early as the Middle Preclassic period (800 – 400 BCE), but certainly dating from the Late Preclassic through the Early Classic periods (400 BCE – 600 CE). This discovery is significant, particularly because of some painted murals on their exterior, revealing styles and techniques rarely found in the Maya area.

Canuto and his team's archaeological investigations revealed interesting data that point toward an early and strong occupation during the Preclassic period, particularly during the Late Preclassic. The construction sequence identified in the tunnels inside Structure 5C-01 in the South Group suggest the initial settlement was during an early facet of the Late Preclassic, perhaps even during the Middle Preclassic, and lasted through the Early Classic. It is during this latter phase that evidence reflects the ceasing of construction activities, at least in Structure 5C-01, the temple locus at the site. To date, the results from test excavations in the plaza and patio of the South Group do not allude to a Late Classic occupation, although other areas of the site remain to be investigated.

Image: Illustration: El Achiotal mural

Mural of a head in profile facing south wearing the trefoil crown jewel, or huunal. The knot beneath the head indicates it is a bundle that has a head/mask on it. Knots of this kind indicate bundling in a variety of scenes (Guernsey and Reilly 2006), many dating to the Late Preclassic. The concept of bundles with heads is found in a variety of media, such as sculpture and decorated pottery, throughout Preclassic Mesoamerica and particularly Olmec sites (Guthrie, et al. 1996)

Drawing by MJ Acuña

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