Zaculeu, or Saqulew, meaning "white land" in K'iche', an archaeological site located in the Huehuetenango Valley of the western Guatemalan highlands, occupied from the Early Classic (ca. a.d. 300) until the arrival of the Spaniards. During the Late Postclassic period, Zaculeu served as the capital of the Mam (Maya) ethnolinguistic group. It sits on an easily defended plateau, protected on three sides by steep cliffs, and may have once had a wall on its fourth side.
Zaculeu was an important center in the Classic period (ca. 300–900). Caches and burials discovered by archaeologists have contained numerous well-crafted goods, such as pyrite plaques and jade carvings.
Many of the structures at Zaculeu were either built or modified during the Late Postclassic period, a period when the population of the settlement is thought to have been substantial. Much of the original residential area presumably lies beneath the modern town of Huehuetenango, 5 kilometers away, so more precise population figures cannot be determined.
The architectural style of the Late Postclassic structures is similar to those at K'iche' and Kaqchikel centers to the east, bearing influence from Central Mexico rather than Maya. The arrangement of buildings on the landscape differs, however, presumably reflecting earlier patterns. Temple pyramids with altars, palaces, plazas, residential complexes, and a ballcourt comprise the site. Zaculeu does not contain hieroglyphics or carved monuments. In the 1940s, the United Fruit Company sponsored archeological excavations and restorations, the latter, unusually, involving the layering of walls and surfaces in thick white plaster.
Zaculeu and the area it controlled were conquered by the K'iche' sometime between 1425 and 1475, and the K'iche' continued to dominate the area until the arrival of the Spaniards. In 1525 Gonzalo de Alvarado led Spanish forces that conquered the center.
Richard B. Woodbury and Aubrey S. Trik, The Ruins of Zaculeu, Guatemala, 2 vols. (1953).
John W. Fox, Quiché Conquest (1978), esp. pp. 143-150.
Ferguson, William M., and Richard E. W. Adams. Mesoamerica's Ancient Cities: Aerial Views of Pre-Columbian Ruins in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.
VanKirk, Jacques, and Parney Bassett-Van Kirk. Remarkable Remains of the Ancient Peoples of Guatemala. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.