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Exploring Tazumal and Casa Blanca in western El Salvador

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we journey to the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador to explore its pre-Columbian past.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Though part of the Mayan world, archaeological sites in El Salvador have largely remained unvisited by all but the most avid adventurers. But this tiny country boasts several interesting sites full of unique features and blends of cultural traditions. 

Structure B-1 in Tazumal exhibits several features more consistent with the architecture of Central Mexico than with the Maya architecture one may expect to find in this region. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Tazumal and Casa Blanca are Mayan archaeological sites in western El Salvador near the Guatemalan border. The names of both sites are contemporary as their ancient names have been lost to time. 

Large carved stone near the entrance to Tazumal exhibits a high degree of Olmec artistic influence. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Tazumal, the larger of the two, is a surviving architectural complex within what had been part of the Mesoamerican city of Chalchuapa. 

Tazumal exhibits architectural and cultural influences from several Mesoamerican regions including Teotihuacan and Olmec lands in what today are the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. 

Tazumal is believed to have had significant political, diplomatic, and trade relationships with city-states in the Yucatán Peninsula and lower Central America. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first construction boom in Tazumal took place during the Preclassic period sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. However, the eruption of the Ilopango volcano, some 75 kilometers to the east of the city, appears to have created widespread havoc in the area and caused massive levels of destruction. 

The remains of the earliest structures at Tazumal date back to the Pre-classic, but evidence suggests the region was inhabited as early as 5000 BCE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Sometime in the 3rd century CE, a sense of order seems to have been established in the region, and with it came a second phase of construction and cultural development. By the 5th century, Tazumal had become an important regional player in Meso-American power politics and established an important relationship with the Maya city of Kaminaljuyu in the Valley of Guatemala.

Pyramid-like structure in Tazumal dating to the 5th century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As the influence of city-states of the classic era began to give way to new powers in the north, Tazumal began to shift its strategic aims in the direction of emerging cities in the Yucatán such as Chichén Itzá. 

Though Tazumal is often thought of as a Maya city, it is important to keep in mind that in reality it was made up of a mix of peoples including the Naha-speaking Pupils and Poqomam migrants from the highlands of Chiapas. 

Tazumal was excavated and restored in the early 1940s by American archaeologist Stanley Boggs. In his reconstruction, Boggs took the unusual approach of relying heavily on cement and what many contemporary archaeologists would characterize as overzealous guesswork. As a result, the reconstruction effort is generally considered to be fairly poor and unscientific by modern archaeologists. 

The over-dependence of cement in Boggs’ reconstruction of Tazumal gives it a much more “smooth” appearance than is typical in Meso-American archaeological sites. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The largest temple at the site, known as Structure B-1, was built upon an artificial platform and exhibits several construction phases ranging over hundreds of years.

 Structure B-1 measures 73 by 87 meters and is one of the largest pre-Columbian structures in El Salvador.

Adjacent to Structure B-1 is Structure B-2. This pyramid-like temple is made up of three stepped levels in the Tablero-Talud style and measures 25 by 25 meters. The fourth and final phase of construction was badly damaged by the collapse of the structure in 2004. 

A group of new-age practitioners performing a ceremony next to Structure B-2 in Tazumal: Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Tazumal’s on-site museum features several examples of high-quality stone and ceramic sculptures found in and around the site. Most of these sculptures date to the postclassic period and exhibit a great deal of influence from central Mexico. 

An exceptionally preserved sculpture complete with a headdress is on display in Tazumal’s onsite museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though considerably smaller, the archaeological site of Casa Blanca exhibits many of the same architectural hallmarks as nearby Tazumal and was likely also part of the larger sphere of influence of Chalchuapa.

The partially restored foundation of a Mayan ceremonial platform of Casa Blanca in Western El Salvador. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The extent of archaeological research at Casa Blanca has been relatively modest. Only a handful of structures have been partially reconstructed.

The largest and most structure in Casa Blanca is a pyramid-like temple called Structure 5-A but more commonly was known simply as “La Piramide.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though Casa Blanca is not particularly large, several mounds and unrestored pyramids can be seen on its grounds. 

One of many large Ramón trees on the grounds of Casa Blanca, El Salvador. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Excavations at Casa Blanca have been undertaken mostly by Japanese archaeologists from Kyoto University. Though work is currently stalled, there have been talks regarding the resuming of excavations in the near future.

Like in Tazumal, Casa Blanca’s onsite museum has several artifacts on display including ceramics and a wide range of tools. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go 

Unlike countries in the Maya world with more developed tourism industries, El Salvador can be fairly difficult to get around. In my personal experience, your best bet to explore this tiny country’s archaeological sites is to hire a driver for the day — though this has the potential to get a little expensive.

A map shows the location of Tazumal and Casa Blanca in Central America. Image: Google Maps

Unless you plan to fly into El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, you will likely enter the country by land via Guatemala. As the highways in several parts of the country have become somewhat dangerous, it is perhaps a good idea to avoid driving or taking buses at night. Road blockages and closures by indigenous anti-government protesters are also fairly common. 

Entrance fees to both Tazumal and Casa Blanca are 3 USD. It is a good idea to do some research and ask around right before making your way out to these sites as their opening hours seem to vary — especially in the case of Casa Blanca. 

Several tools and ceramic fragments were found within the rubble of collapsed structures in Casa Blanca. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Next week, we explore more of El Salvador’s fascinating archaeological sites and learn why Joya de Ceren is known as “The Pompeii of the Americas.”

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