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History of Archaeological Research

The archaeological site of Ucanal was probably well-known by Mopan Maya peoples and their descendants as well as by various other peoples (Spanish, latino, European, other Maya groups) traveling through or living in the Mopan River Valley throughout the 18th- 20st centuries. The site was first noted on a western-style map by the famous German-Austrian explorer, Teobert Maler, at the turn of the 20th century (1908; Fig 2).  The site, however, was not documented in any detail until the 11th Peabody Museum Expedition in 1914.  During this expedition, Raymond Merwin and C.W. Bishop made a cursory map of part of the monumental site core and documented 17 of the site’s stela monuments whose dates spanned the Late Classic and Terminal Classic periods.  These field notes and maps were first published by Sylvanus Morley in the second volume of his multi-volume, The Inscriptions of Peten  (Morley 1938, III:186–201).  

In the 1970s, Ian Graham (1980) also made a reconnaissance visit to the site, further documenting the stone monuments (Stela 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7, Altars 1, 3, Misc. Monument 1) and remapping part of the ceremonial site core.  Of particular significance was his finding of Miscellaneous Monument 1, a rectangular block with a carved cartouche containing well-preserved hieroglyphs. He recognized it as being from the same monumental program as Naranjo’s Hieroglyphic Stairway, assigning it the additional designation of Step XIII in that program (Graham 1978:107, 110).  While Graham had suggested that the Ucanal block was transported from Naranjo to Ucanal, later research indicated that it was once part of a 7th century monumental program at the site of Caracol, a hieroglyphic stairway that had been dismantled and parts seemingly removed as war trophies (Martin 2000, 2017). This involved not only Naranjo and Ucanal but also the site of Xunantunich, where two additional blocks from this stairway were recovered in 2016 (Helmke and Awe 2016).  He was also the first to map in Ucanal’s Ballcourt #1, the subject of later investigations by the Proyecto Atlas Arqueológico de Guatemala and the PAU.


Map by Raymond Merwin and C.W. Bishop


Map by Ian Graham

Naranjo Hieroglyphic Stair (after Maler 1908:Pl.24)


Ucanal Miscellaneous Monument 1 (after Graham 1978: 110)

The first excavations at the site were conducted in the late 90s and early 2000s by the Proyecto Atlas Arqueológico de Guatemala directed by Juan Pedro Laporte.  Their excavations, which focused on both monumental and residential architecture, revealed a longstanding occupation at the site from the Middle Preclassic period to the Early Postclassic period (Corzo, Alvarado, and Laporte 1998; Laporte and Mejía 2002a, 2002b; Laporte et al. 2002; Mejía 2002). Their research also revealed that many monumental buildings had Terminal Classic period construction episodes, and some monumental buildings were built from scratch during the Terminal Classic, such as the Group A ballcourt (Ballcourt #1), Temple-pyramid A-5, Temple-pyramid A-12, and Structure A-6.   The Proyecto Atlas Arqueológico also significantly expanded the map of the site. 

More recent research at the site by the Proyecto Arqueológico Ucanal (PAU) (2014, 2016-2018), directed by Dr. Christina T. Halperin from the Université de Montréal and Jose Luis Garrido from Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, expanded the map of the site in 2014 and began extensive excavations of the site’s residential, canals, and civic-ceremonial groups during the 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 field seasons.  This research reveals that the site of Ucanal was not just a monumental center, but a large, dense city composed of a core zone of approximately 7.5 km2 of continuous settlement and a wider periphery that extends in all directions for at least 26 km2, including east of the Mopan River.  Excavations in 21 different residential and monumental architectural complexes of the city confirm earlier findings by the Proyecto Atlas Arqueológico that the site was most heavily occupied during the Late Classic and Terminal Classic periods, and indicate that activities within the ceremonial plaza spaces continued into the Late Postclassic period. 


See our Site page and Resources page to further explore findings by the PAU.


References Cited

Corzo, Lilian A., Marco Tulio Alvarado, and Juan Pedro Laporte

1998  Ucanal: Un Sitio asociado a la cuenca media del río Mopan. In XI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 1997, edited by Juan Pedro LaPorte and Hector Escobedo E., pp. 191–214. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Etnología, Guatemala City.


Graham, Ian

1978 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 2: Naranjo, Chunhuitz, Xunantunich. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.


1980 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Vol. 2, Part 3: Ixkun, Ucanal, Ixtutz, Naranjo. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.


Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime J. Awe

2016 Dealth Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich, Belize. The PARI Journal 16(4):1–14.


Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Héctor E. Mejía

2002a Ucanal: Una Ciudad del Río Mopan en Petén, Guatemala. Vol. 1. 2 vols. U tz’ib Serie Reportes. Asociación Tikal, Guatemala City.


Laporte, Juan Pedro, and Hector Mejía E.

2002b Tras la huella del Mopan: Arquitectura del Clásico Terminal y del Postclásico en el sureste de Petén. In XV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2001, edited by Juan Pedro LaPorte, Hector Escobedo E., and Bárbara Arroyo, pp. 59–88. Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City.


Laporte, Juan Pedro, Hector E. Mejía, Mary Jane Acuña, Silvia Alvarado Alvarado, Karla Alvarez, and Ana Lucía Arroyave

2002 Las exploración de grupos habitacionales en Ucanal, Melchor de Mencos. In Reporte 16, Atlas Arqueológico de Guatemala, pp. 127–179. Instituto Nacional de Anthropología e Historia, Guatemala City.


Laporte, Juan Pedro

2004 Terminal Classic Settlement and Polity in the Mopan Valley, Petén, Guatemala. In The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Collapse, Transition, and Transformation, edited by Arthur A. Demarest, Prudence M. Rice, and Don S. Rice, pp. 195–230. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, CO.


Maler, Teobert

1908 Explorations of the Department of Peten Guatemala and Adjacent Region: Topoxté; Yaxhá; Benque Viejo: Naranjo. Vol. 4. 2. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.


Martin, Simon

2000 At the Periphery: The Movement, Modification and Re-Use of Early Monuments in the Environs of Tikal. In The Sacred and the Profane: Architecture and Identity in the Maya Lowlands, edited by Pierre R. Colas, Marcus Kuhnert Delvendahl, and Annette Schubart, pp. 51–62. Verlag Anton Saurwein, Markt Schwaben, Germany.


Martin, Simon 2017The Caracol Hieroglyphic Stairway. Maya Decipherment Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography. Article online,


Mejía, Hector E.

2002 Ucanal: Aproximación a su Espacio Político Territorial. In XV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2001, edited by Juan Pedro LaPorte, Hector Escobedo, and Bárbara Arroyo, pp. 285–303. Museo Nacional De Arqueología y Ethnología, Guatemala.


Morley, Sylvanus G.

1938 The Inscriptions of Peten. Vol. III. Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington D.C.

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