Posted May 15, 2000 - Revised June 4, 2001

The ancient Maya site of El Pajaral is located in a remote area of the Petén region of Guatemala. It was originally investigated by Ian Graham about 30 years ago. As reported in a Guatemalan newspaper article, later researchers were unable to find it again, until it was finally relocated last year by the archaeologist Salvador Lopez after he talked to residents of a nearby village.

However, our Guatemalan sources now inform us that the original newspaper article was distorted and sensationalized, and the subsequent Associated Press version in English-language newspapers was a bad translation of the Guatemalan account.

In fact, the site was not lost again after Ian Graham went there. Basic Resources Petroleum, the firm that employs Lopez, made an elementary map of the location about 5 years ago. El Pajaral is in no way larger than Tikal. It is actually a small site.

The rediscovery was reported on May 14 in the Spanish-language newspaper Siglio Veintiuno and picked up by the Associated Press wire service. A partial account was published in English in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The wire service article announced that Guatemalan archaeologists had found the remains of a ruined ceremonial center as large as Tikal, the country's most famous site. El Pajaral is located about forty miles to the southwest of Tikal, sixteen kilometers from the village of La Libertad.

(Map of Maya region, showing the Petén district of Guatemala and the town of La Libertad. Larger file: Map of Guatemala, from the Perry-Casteñda Collection at the University of Texas, also showing La Libertad. Links to more Perry-Casteñda Guatemala maps.)

Archaelogist Salvador Lopez was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the city dates to the Post-Classic period and is between 670 and 800 years old. But the article also says that Lopez could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, the Guatemalan newspaper repeatedly describes the site as dating to the Late Classic, attributing this information to Lopez.

In both articles, a comparison is made to Tikal, which rivals other great Maya ruins such as Mexico's Chichen Itza and Honduras' Copan. Some of Tikal's temples are more than 150 feet high. But Lopez said preliminary research has revealed that El Pajaral may contain ceremonial temples and other structures taller than Tikal's.

Our researches have determined that El Pajaral is located at an altitude of 200 meters above sea level, one of the highest points in the area (though not at the altitude implied by the AP article). The site is inaccessible because of the poor quality of the roads in the area.

The site has been looted in the past. Lopez, who is identified in the Guatemalan newspaper article as working for a firm called Basic Resources, spent time convincing the residents of the area that opening the site to investigation and tourism would be in their best interest. They were afraid that they would lose the land by expropriation if they allowed archaeological work to begin. The residents have now been hired as guardians of the site.

El Pajaral dates to the Late Classic period and Lopez believes that it was a pilgrimage center because of the discovery of two plazas at the site and the absence of residential areas. El Pajaral also has a number of stelae and altars. The main article in Siglio Veintiuno says that the stelae are uncarved but a related article about looting at the site says that there are 30 stelae, most of them broken and that fragments of writing litter the ground in a 40 square meter area.

Ian Graham located five stelae in the upper plaza area, of which only one still remains. We need to wait for further reports to clarify this information. Only three stelae were complete and these measured up to 3 meters in height. (By comparison, according to the published reports, the stelae at Tikal are no taller than 1.7 meters.)

The largest of the thirteen structures in the lower plaza are up to 8 meters in height. Many of the stelae were found on the western side of this lower plaza. The upper plaza is built on a hill that is 300 meters long and 30 meters high that was modified in the process of building the structures in that plaza. The largest of the plaza structures is 20 meters high.

The upper plaza area is accessed by a large staircase with 67 steps. (Tikal's "Temple of the Great Jaguar" has thirty-five according to the Guatemalan newspaper.) Lopez says that the diverse architectural styles visible at the site suggest contact with various other Maya sites. He also believes that several of the buildings in the upper plaza may have been used for astronomical observations.

A related article describes the looting that has been going on at the site, including the information that recently the residents of the nearby village stopped a truck carrying a stela from leaving the site. The looters were armed with AK-47s and shotguns.

Epigrapher David Stuart, who works with Ian Graham on the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphics project, has reported that numerous Hix Witz emblem glyphs have been found at El Pajaral, as well as the neighbouring site of Zapote Bobal. Stuart considers El Pajaral and Zapote Bobal to have been twin capitals of the Hix Witz polity (Stanley Guenter, personal communication, 2001).

Alfonso Morales and Julie Miller
With Joel Skidmore

Mesoweb Reports