Altar de Sacrificios

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Altar de Sacrificios

Altar de Sacrificios, a modest Formative and Classic-Period Maya site at the strategic junction of the Usamacinta and La Pasión rivers on the modern Mexico-Guatemala border in the department of Petén, Guatemala. It is readily linked to the larger Yaxchilán, downstream, and to Seibal, upriver on La Pasión. Though relatively small, this ceremonial center was from 455 ce the region's capital city due to its control over commercial water routes between Petén's central highlands and lowlands. Ceramic evidence (the Xe Ceramic Complex, about 900–700 bce) shows that Altar was occupied quite early. A 12-foot-high platform facing a plaza has been dated to the Middle Formative Period and demonstrates the early construction of civic-ceremonial architecture. Dated stone monuments at Altar begin with Stela 10, 9.1.0. 0.0. (455 ce) and close with Stela 22, (849 ce).

In addition to its early occupation, the site is noteworthy for providing ceramic evidence, as does nearby Seibal, of occupation by foreigners (Putun or Mexicanized Mayas) moving up the Usamacinta and La Pasión rivers during the Terminal Classic Period. Scholars also suggest that inhabitants developed a new artistic style synthesized from classic forms, independent of foreign influences.

A tomb excavated beneath Structure A-III at Altar provides evidence for several additional lines of thought regarding both political relationships and other factors involved in the Classic Maya collapse. The fully extended elite internment included the Altar Vase, which illustrates a funeral rite dated to 754 ce. The scenes show ritual dancing and sacrifice ceremonies by six individuals, including, apparently, ruling elite from three other sites. The vase also shows a young woman committing ritual suicide (by cutting her throat with a flint knife). A similar (or the actual) knife was recovered near the vase itself. The skeletal material from Altar dated to the Late Classic Period also indicates increasing nutritional deficiencies near the time of the Classic Maya collapse.

See alsoMaya, The .


Ledyard A. Smith, Excavations at Altar de Sacrificios: Architecture, Settlement, Burials, and Caches (1972).

Gordon R. Willey, The Artifacts of Altar de Sacrificios (1972).

Richard E. W. Adams, "Maya Collapse: Transformation in the Ceramic Sequence at Altar de Sacrificios," in The Classic Maya Collapse, edited by T. P. Culbert (1973), pp. 21-34.

Additional Bibliography

Demarest, Arthur. Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Lucero, Lisa J. Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Pring, Duncan. The Protoclassic in the Maya Lowlands. Oxford: John and Erica Hedges, dist. Hadrian Books, 2000.

                                    Walter R. T. Witschey