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  • Panel 1
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  • Stela 1
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  • Stela 2
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  • Stela 3
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  • Stela 4
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  • Stela 5
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  • Stela 6
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  • Stela 7
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  • Stela 8
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  • Stela 9
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  • Stela 10
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  • Stela 11
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  • Stela 12
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  • Stela 13
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  • Stela 14
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  • Stela 15
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  • Stela 16
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  • Stela 17
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  • Stela 18
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  • Stela 21
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  • Tablet 1
Site name: Seibal Site volume and author reference
Location and Access
Principal Investigations
Notes on the Ruins
References Cited



Sactankiki El Ceibal

LOCATION AND ACCESS From its source in Alta Verapaz, the Rio de la Pasion funs northward for about 80 km before changing course abruptly to the west, a course it then follows until it joins the Rio Salinas to form the Usumacinta. For most of the 20 km preceding this bend, the river funs (or crawls, for it is sluggish) along the foot of an escarpment, which reaches its greatest height of about 110 m above the river some 4 km before the bend. It was precisely on this highest ground that the city of Seibal came into being, with its outlying settlements spreading over a broad stretch of terrain to the west, which falls gradually toward the Arroyo Petexbatun.

Until the early 19605 the only known approach to the ruins was from El Ceibal, once a monter/a, or lumber camp (and since then usually the site of a single dwelling), from whence a trail used to lead gently uphill for 4 km to Group A of the ruins. Then in 1961 a Peabody Museum reconnaissance party (Adams 1963) opened up the most direct feasible route to the ruins from a river landing. Now one can climb rather strenuously up a ravine that cuts into the escarpment, emerge near the southeast corner of the partial plan reproduced in this work, and follow the path to Group A.

At the beginning of the museum's Seibal Project, the old trail from El Ceibal was widened into some semblance of a roadway, up which all the provisions, water, and equipment were brought in by a four-wheel-drive pickup. Water is always scarce at Seibal, for the "little spring" that Maler mentions (1908, p. 11) has never been found, probably because it has ceased to flow. In 1966 FYDEP, the development agency responsible for Peten, opened a graded road from the town of Sayaxche, 14 km to the west, as far as the Project's camp, which had been built just south of Structure A-24. At the time of writing, this road from Sayaxche remains in good condition as far as the junction with a road leading south to Raxuja and thence to Coban, but the rest of the way to Seibal is often impassable for vehicles during the rainy season.

PRINCIPAL lNVESTIGATIONS AT THE SlTE The discoverers of Seibal were almost certainly timber scouts working for the Hamet Mahogany Company, which established a lumber camp at El Ceibal in 1890.

The chain of events that was soon to bring these ruins to public attention began with the nomination of Federico Arthes in 1892 as the Guatemalan government's special commissioner charged with the task of collecting material for a Guatemalan exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Graham 1991). Since part of his mandate was to secure molds of Maya relief sculpture, Arthes engaged the services of a highly intelligent mestizo from Alta Verapaz, Gorgonio Lopez Toledo, who had mastered the technique of making papier-mache molds while serving as Alfred Maudslay's assistant. With this man and a small retinue of peteneros, Arthes set out for Tikal, and there Lopez successfully made at least one mold (of Stela 5). But then Arthes and Lopez, daunted by the practical difficulties of working at such a remote and nearly waterless site, decided that, instead, they would try their luck at ruins near Sayaxche, where, according to reports heard in Flores, a number of splendid stelae had recently been found. Logistically, this site, now known as Seibal, would be far more convenient since it was accessible by water from Paso Real, 9 km downstream from Sayaxche, where a ferry-crossing of the Pasion was maintained by the government as a vital link in the route between Flores and Guatemala City.

At Seibal Lopez successfully made molds of Stelae 2 (in two sections), 3, 5,6,7,8,9,10,11 (in two sections) and of two stones from the hieroglyphic stairway. In due course plaster casts taken from these molds were exhibited in Chicago, labeled as coming from the ruins of Saxtanquiqui. Arthes (1893, p. 100, and 1991, p. 84) explained that this name derives from four monosyllables in the Lacandon dialect: "Sap - aclarar 0 amanecer, Tan delante 0 antes, y Qui, bueno 0 sabroso," Maler, however, states that this fanciful name (Sactankiki in his version) was concocted by his guide under the following circumstances: "Eusebio Cano also told me that Senor Federico Artes considered the name Seibal too insignificant, and had asked him if he did not know a better name for the forgotten city, which still harbors such splendid monuments of a bygone civilization .... Cano helped Artes by an invention of his own. He told him that an aged Lacandon called Jose Couoh (Tarantula), who lived on the banks of the Chacrlo, when he became communicative in his cups, had often told him with tears in his eyes that Seibal had been the capital city of his ancestors, and in the glorious days when they still ruled the land, before the accursed 'Sacmaax,' white monkeys, came in and ruined everything, the city had borne the proud name of 'Sactankiki: The Comisionado especial seems to have been much pleased with this communication" (Maler 1908, p. 27).

After the Exposition closed, the casts were given to the Peabody Museum, where photographs of them are still catalogued under the name Sactankiki. In the 1950s the museum agreed to transfer casts of three monuments as exchanges with other museums: Stela 2 and Stela 5 went to the Davenport Public Museum in Davenport, Iowa, and Colgate University received Stela 7.

In 1895, on the first of his two visits to Seibal, Teobert Maler spent four days photographing the stelae, among them Stela 1, which he himself had discovered; and in 1905, by then working under Peabody Museum auspices, he returned for three more days of photography. Maler's photographs and description, supplemented by photographs of the Chicago casts of Stela 9 and the tablets, were soon published (Maler 1908, pp. 10-28 and pIs. 3-10). It was in this work too, that the name Seibal was bestowed on the ruins. Some purists have disapproved of the spelling with initial s (one that Maler naturally inclined to, since in German c is used only in ligatures), but, as pointed out in this work (1:11, n. 2), it may not be too heinous an infraction of the rules of Spanish orthography to use this spelling because the word derives from a Caribbean language (Taino). A practical and perhaps more compelling consideration is that at this late date a change from the spelling consistently employed in archaeological literature would cause confusion and wasteful cross-referencing. Probably for the same reason the Mexican Instituto de Antropologia e Historia has chosen to retain an absurd pseudo-Maya site-name, "Kohunlich," when it is no more than a garbled version of the name bestowed by Belizean lumbermen, "Cohune Ridge."

Sylvanus G. Morley paid two visits to Seiballasting a total of two days.

On his first visit in 1914, he was accompanied by Herbert Spinden, and their activities were mainly confined to making notes on the inscriptions. His second, in the following year, was the occasion of his being shown Stela 12 in an outlying area called by him Group B, although no group worthy of the name exists in that area. When Morley published his survey of Seibal inscriptions, incorporating the results of these visits (1937-38, vol. 2, pp. 239-289), he retained Maler's numbering of Stelae 1-11, while rightly rejecting Maler's naming of the inscribed tablets from the hieroglyphic stairway as Stelae 12-15.

No further contributions to knowledge of the site were made until 1948, when the vertebrate palaeontologist Barnum Brown (then aged 75) spent a day at the site, in the course of which he discovered Stela 13 (Adams 1963, p.93).

In 1961, when Gordon R. Willey had decided that excavations at Seibal should follow those he was directing at Altar de Sacrificios, he arranged for two exploratory trips to Seibal to be made by his students, the first by John A. Graham and Timothy Fiske, the second by Graham and R. E. W. Adams. On those trips they discovered Causeways I-III and Stelae 14-18; test pits were also dug, and a better plan made of the central area of Group A (Adams 1963).

In the following year, I made two one-day visits to Seibal, the first to record Stela 13, the second to examine Stela 12 (I. Graham 1967, pp. 100-103).

In 1964 I returned to Seibal for the first of two seasons as topographer for the Peabody Museum, assisted briefly by Fiske, then by Gair Tourtellot. In 1965 the museum began its four seasons of excavation, consolidation of structures, extended settlement survey, and the repair and resetting of stelae (Willey et al. 1975, Sabloff 1975, Willey 1978, Smith 1982, Tourtellot 1988,J. A. Graham 1990, Tourtellot 1990, Willey 1990). During the museum's later seasons I returned more than once to photograph and draw some of the sculpture. In 1989 and 1993, with this volume in view, I did further work of the same kind.


NOTES ON THE RUINS For the environmental setting of Seibal the reader is referred to passages in chapter 2 of Willey's introductory volume (Willey et a1. 1975). A fuller general description of the site is given by Smith (1982, chapter 2), and detailed descriptions of Groups A, C, and D can be found in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of the same work.

The principal, or ceremonial, zones of Seibal were built on three pieces of high ground, which lie in a nearly east-west line. The largest, and by a small margin the most elevated, of these is the westernmost, Group A: it is an area measuring some 400 m north-south by 200 m east-west now seeming almost level, though test pits revealed uneven bedrock leveled with heavy deposition of fill. Here were erected buildings that define two very large plazas and one smaller one.

The North Plaza (or Northeastern, as it might perhaps more fittingly have been named) is the smallest plaza and is of interest chiefly for the cere-monial passage betvveen the two low mounds along its eastern edge. This gives access to a stairway leading down to Causeway IV, which runs parallel to Causeway I for about 80 m before turning abruptly to the northeast for another 110 m. At the terminus there is a small rectangular terrace, locus of the plain Stela 23 and a carved altar, which was evidently the focus of much ceremonial activity (Smith 1982, p. 139 and fig. 101). A photograph of the altar is reproduced here, since none has yet been published. The altar's dimensions are: Ht 1.10 m, MW 1.50 m, MTh 0.23 m, Rei 1.0 cm.

The Central Plaza is dominated by tvvo connected mounds standing side-by-side on its east side, Structures A-14 and A-IO. Structure A-14 was a long, palace-type building, accessible from the plaza by a projecting stairway 38 m wide. The three lowermost steps of this stairway had hieroglyphic panels (Tablets 1-9) set into them at the north end, the center, and the south end. There is evidence (Smith 1982, p. 65) that these tablets were removed from an earlier building and reset in correct order in this later one, a view supported by a discrepancy of perhaps a century between the date of events recorded in the tablets and the very late date that ceramic evidence gives this possibly unfinished building (Smith 1982, p. 75). In contrast, the adjoining Structure A-IO was apparently constructed to support a temple built of perishable materials. It was ascended by a stairway relieved, a few steps up, by a terrace with flanking wall-panels (the socalled Stelae 5 and 7) and with Stela 6 set in the center.

In one sense, the great Central Plaza is dominated by Structure A-24, at 18 m high about as tall as Structure A-10; but a small temple placed at the center of the plaza, Structure A-3, though only about 6 m high, is the focus of all attention, as once it must have been to an even greater degree when its upper fat;ades were embellished with modeled stucco painted in bright colors. Its importance in late times is still proclaimed by stairways ascending all four sides of the substructure, each with a magnificent stela standing at its foot, while another stela of more ordinary quality stands within its vaulted chambers.

Directly east from Structure A-3, a wide stairway with balustrades leads down from the edge of the Central Plaza; at its foot the balustrades continue as borders of Causeway 1. This runs a little south of east for 250 m to reach a T-junction in the form of a rectangular platform, and this is the locus of two large stelae, numbers 14 and 15, and a fragmentary miniature stela, number 16. From here, Causeway III proceeds with unchanged direction, and Causeway II cuts off to the south-southwest. The junction is located on the middle piece of high ground of the three that were referred to above; on it stand about 40 other structures, a few of them obviously of ceremonial function, including a ball court. The existence of these in a topographically separate area led to its denomination as Group C.

Some 400 m from the junction, Causeway II crosses an embankment at the head of a barranco, or ravine, and swings south for another 100 m to reach a square platform on which stands a circular structure with a jaguarheaded table-altar set in front of its stairway.

One hundred meters after leaving the junction, Causeway III dips down into a gully (the beginning of another barranca) and from the lowest point a stairway climbs upward, providing access to Group D. In fact this is the only convenient access to Group D, for, unlike Group A, this group is very sharply defined by steep, even precipitous, declivities all round. So advantageous would these have been for defense during the Late Classic wars that perhaps the construction of special defensive works was considered unnecessary; none, at least, has been identified.

Group D was settled in the Late Preclassic Period, abandoned in the Early Classic, and developed again in the Late Classic. Though smaller than Group A, it has more structures packed into it, with many of these arranged round five plazas and several courts. The largest structure, D-32, 14 m high, stands on the east side of the Central Plaza with a plain stela set in front. From its top, a superb panorama unfolds (unless obstructed by trees in the foreground) across the low, swampy area on the other side of the river to hills in the distance.


Stelae 1-21 Panel I Tablets 1-9

For the purposes of this work, the portion of Stela 6 that broke off and was later reset separately as a monument (Stela 22) is treated as part of Stela 6. For its setting as a separate stela see Smith 1982, pp. 138-9.


1963 "Seibal, Peten: nna secuencia ceramica preliminar y lU1 nuevo mapa,"

Estudios de Cu/tura Maya, Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, voL 3, pp. 85-96. Mexico, D.E


1893 "Breve descripci6n del departamento del Peten," El Guatemalteco: Diario

oficial de la Repl-iblica de Guatemala, en Ia America Central, vol. 23, pp. 97-103 (31 May). Guatemala.

1991 "Breve descripci6n del departamento de Peten," Anales de la Sociedad de

Geografia e Histona de Guatemala, vol. 65, pp. 77-93. Guatemala.


1967 Archaeological Explorations in the Departmellt of EI Petell, Guatemala. Middle

American Research Institute, Publication 33. Tulane University, New Orleans.

1991 "Federico Arthes y la presencia de Guatemala en la Exposici6n Mrmdial

Columbina de Chicago." Anales de la Sociedad de Geografia e Historia de Guatemala, vo1. 65, pp. 71-77. Guatemala.


1990 Excavations at Seibal, Department of Petell, Guatemala: Monumental Sculpture

and Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. 17, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


1908 Explorations of the Upper Usumatsintla and Adjacent Regions. Memoirs of the

Peabody Museum, vol. 4, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Explorations in the Department of Peten: Tikal. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. 5, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. MORLEY, SYLVANUS G.

1937-38 The Inscriptions of Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 437, 5 vo1s. Washington, D.C.


1975 Excavations at Seibal, Department of Peten, Guatemala: Ceramics. Memoirs of

the Peabody Museum, vol. 13, no. 2. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


1982 Excavations at Seibal, Department of Pelell, Guatemala: Major Architecture and

Caches. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. 15, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


1988 Excavations at Seibal, Department of Peten, Guatemala: Peripheral Survey and

Excavation; Settlement and Community Patterns. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. 16, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Excavations at Seibal, Department of Peten, Guatemala: Burials: A Cultural Analysis. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. 17, no. 2. Harvard

University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


1978 Excavations at Seibnl, Department of Peten, Guatemala: Artifacts. Memoirs of

the Peabody Museum, vol. 14, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Excavations at Seibal, Department of Peten, Guatemala: General Summanj and Conclusions. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. 17, no. 4. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.






Excavations at Seibal, Department of Peten, Guatemala: Introduction: The Site and its Setting. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum, vol. 13, no. 1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.



SITE VOL/Part Monument Side Page Pub.year Notes Peobody Number
SEIBAL 7.1 Map 5 1996
SEIBAL 7.1 Map of Ruins 10 1996
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 1 front 13 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 2 front 15 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 3 front 17 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 4 front 19 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 5 front 21 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 6 front 23 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 7 front 25 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 8 front 27 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 9 front 29 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 10 front 32 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 11 front 34 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 12 35 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 13 front 37 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 14 front 39 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 15 front 41 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 16 front 43 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 17 front 45 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 18 front 47 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 19 front 49 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 20 front 51 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Stela 21 front 53 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Panel 1 front 55 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet1 front 57 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 2 58 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 3 58 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 4 59 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 5 59 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 6 60 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 7 60 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 8 61 1996 2004.
SEIBAL 7.1 Tablet 9 61 1996 2004.


SITE (by Vol) VOL/Part Author(s)
SEIBAL 7.1 Ian Graham, Vol. 7.1, 1996