Preclassic Maya monuments and temples at Cival, Petén, Guatemala

Francisco Estrada-Belli, Nikolai Grube, Marc Wolf, Kristen Gardella & Claudio Lozano Guerra-Librero

Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of Cival, Petén, Guatemala. Survey by Marc Wolf and Kristen Gardella with adaptations from Ian Graham's 1984 map.
Click to enlarge.

In 2002 the Holmul Archaeological Project recorded one of the earliest monumental complexes of religious and political structures in the Maya Lowlands, at Cival, a ceremonial centre 6.5km north of Holmul (Figure 1). First mapped by Ian Graham in 1984 and investigated since 2001 (Estrada-Belli 2002), the 1000 x 500m area recently surveyed reveals monumental architecture arranged along an E-W axis. The main structure, Group 1, is a 27m-high temple platform measuring 70x40m on top, where it supports 5 small temple-pyramids. The triadic layout of this group recalls a pattern well-known at Preclassic sites and most closely that of Uaxactun’s Group H-5 (Valdez 1989): two smaller pyramids flank the tallest, eastern, temple and to the west is an inset stairway topped by two small buildings (Strs. 4 and 5). A looters’ trench in the south-eastern building (Str. 5) revealed a three-structure building sequence, the earliest of which is covered by well-preserved red-painted stucco.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Phase 1 of Structure 5. Buried red painted stairway and terrace mouldings.
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The first building phase was a 4m high three-terrace pyramid with an inset eastern stairway, flanked by sloping terrace walls decorated with apron mouldings and inset corners (Figure 2). Second and third phase white-stuccoed buildings decorated in similar style reached a height of 5m (Figure 3). Associated ceramics date these construction phases to the Late Preclassic (400 B.C.-A.D. 200). The latest construction on Structure 5 and Group 1 employed an upright stone block technique similar to Structure 5D-54-4 in Tikal’s Mundo Perdido, of the 1st century A.D. (Laporte 1999: 18-19).

Group 1 faces a 130m-long range structure (Str.7) which, paired with a 20m high pyramid to the west, forms a layout similar to "E-Groups" at Preclassic sites such as Uaxactún, Tikal and Nakbé. As these sites’ earliest stelae were found within "E-Groups", so Cival Stela 2 was located on the axis of Structure 7 (Figure 4). This irregularly shaped limestone monument, first photographed in 1911 by Raymond Merwin of Harvard and only now relocated, is carved only on the front. Now measuring 177cm high and 107cm wide with a maximal thickness of 21cm, the top portion of the figure is missing.

The incised design shows a striding human figure in the fluid and dynamic style known only from the earliest sculptures of the Maya lowlands. Its features, feet pointing in the same direction and legs not overlapping at the knees, distinguish pre-Bak'tun 9 monuments from those of later periods after A.D. 435 (Proskouriakoff 1950: 19-21). The feet lack sandals, and the arms are adorned only with a slip-knot around the wrist, indicating that the sculpture antedates Early Classic and late Late Preclassic monuments, such as Nakbé Stela 1 (Hansen 1992). Sandals are similarly absent on Middle Preclassic and early Late Preclassic sculptures such as Kaminaljuyú Stelae 9 and 11, Abaj Takalik Stela 3, the Loltún relief and Uaxactun Stela 10. The figure wears a simple loincloth tied to a belt. The only adornment is a mask with three celts attached to it, covering the area of the chest and belly. The anthropomorphic mask has a square forehead and an elongated snout, resembling Olmec and Izapan deity masks (Norman 1976 Figs. 6.28-6.31) more so than images known from Maya iconography.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Excavated remains of Phase 3 bevelled stone architecture (foreground) overlaying Phase 2's white-plastered apron mouldings and inset corners.
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Figure 3
Figure 4. Cival Stela 2. Drawing by Nikolai Grube. Maximum height 177cm high; width 107cm.
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The carving style and absence of hieroglyphs strongly suggest that this sculpture is very early, predating other Preclassic Maya carvings, such as the Dumbarton Oaks pectoral, the San Diego cliff carving and the problematic looted Hauberg Stela. It also predates monuments from Nakbé, which display a much more static style anticipating developments in Early Classic sculpture. The archaic features, including the use of incision, the olmecoid mask and the absence of text are secure indicators that Cival Stela 2 dates amongst the oldest known Maya lowland sculptures.


We thank Vanderbilt University, the National Geographic Society, the Ahau Foundation, FAMSI, and Interco Tire Co, for funding the 2002 field research, and IDAEH, of the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes for granting permission to work, in addition to Norman Hammond, Britta Watters, William McCanne, Marco and Inma Gross and the many individuals who contributed to its success.


  • ESTRADA BELLI, F. 2002. Anatomía de una ciudad Maya: Holmul. Resultados de nuevas investigaciones arqueológicas en 2000 y 2001. Mexicon 24(5).
  • HANSEN, R. 1992. El proceso cultural de Nakbé de Petén nor-central: las epocas tempranas. In V Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicas en Guatemala. J.P. Laporte, S. V. de Brady, H. Escobedo (eds.) pp. 81-96. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala.
  • LAPORTE, J P. 1999. Preclásico a Clasico en Tikal: proceso de transformación en el Mundo Perdido. In The Emergence of Lowland Maya civilization, Acta Mesoamericana 8, Grube, N. (ed.) pp. 17-34. Verlag Anton Saurwein, München.


  • Francisco Estrada-Belli
  • Nikolai Grube
  • Marc Wolf
  • Kristen Gardella
  • Claudio Lozano Guerra-Librero