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Mayan pyramid of Tazumal			Source: Joey / Adobe Stock

Tazumal, El Salvador: Where Chiefs and Shamans Ruled and Victims Burned


The Maya were one of the many amazing Pre-Columbian cultures that flourished in the Americas before the coming of the Europeans. They have left many splendid architectural remains throughout much of Central America, one of which is Tazumal, located in El Salvador. This ceremonial center, part of the Chalchuapa archaeological zone, is one of the most important historical sites in the Central American nation.

History of Tazumal

Tazumal is located near the ancient Maya city of Chalchuapa and dates from the pre-Classical period.  It is widely regarded by experts to have been a separate urban settlement with its own chiefs and priest / shamans. Based on the archaeological evidence, Tazumal was built at a very early date but work on it ceased for several generations, possibly because of a volcanic eruption in about 250 AD.

It was built as a ceremonial and religious site and was possibly the main one in the region. The site is known in the local indigenous language as “the place where the victims were burned”, perhaps indicating that human sacrifice was practiced by the Maya at the complex.

Tazumal was also an urban center and a central trading hub, built up around the original sacred complex. Construction of the site continued up until 750 AD even though Chalchuapa was by then in decline.

Based on the construction design and some of the ornamentation, the site was much influenced by other Mayan cities such as Chichen Itza and the great Mesoamerican metropolis of Teotihuacan. Tazumal had extensive trade links to the Pipils, a tribe in what is now western El Salvador. The influx of Poqomam Maya into the area sometime during the 1200s may have been the reason the site was abandoned.  

The Controversial Restoration of Tazumal

The site became overgrown by the jungle and was completely uninhabited by the time of the Spanish conquest. The first survey of the site was conducted by the local historian Santiago Barberena who found the remarkable Stone of Victories, which is now in the El Salvador National Museum.

Steps of the main pyramid structure of Tazumal (Bede/ Adobe Stock)

Steps of the main pyramid structure of Tazumal (Bede/ Adobe Stock)

The first archaeological survey of the site only took place between 1940 and 1944 by Stanley Boggs. He later oversaw restoration work at the site, controversially using modern concrete during the project. Many, however, argue that Boggs was in a race against time to save the site because of the expansion of the modern city of Chalchuapa. Much of the complex has not been excavated because it is located in a Roman Catholic Cemetery.

The Fascinating Remains of Tazumal

Thirteen monuments have been found at the site, including platforms and mounds. A great pyramid marks the center of the site. A series of platforms are connected by a 200 ft (80 m) high a classical step-pyramid, built out of several platforms.

Stone steps lead up to the pyramid which measures roughly 240 by 285 ft (79 by 81 m) and served as a temple. The great pyramid was rebuilt and re-modeled at least three times. A platform to the west of the pyramid has a superstructure known as the temple of columns. To the south-west sits a smaller pyramid composed of three stepped levels and is built on a low platform in a distinctive style of architecture which may have been inspired by temples at Teotihuacan. This structure is about 20 feet tall (7m) and measures 81 by 82 feet (25 by 25 m).  Unfortunately, a portion of this building collapsed in 2004.

The Maya ball court and temple at Chichen Itza (jkraft5/ Adobe Stock)

The Maya ball court and temple at Chichen Itza (jkraft5/ Adobe Stock)

There two unexcavated mounds at the site are thought to have been Mayan ball courts where ritual ball games were played, with the losers often sacrificed. As well as a variety of amazing finds, statues and jade offerings have been discovered and many are now among the most treasured items in the National Museum of El Salvador.

Getting to Tazumal

The site is not far from the Salvadoran capital, San Salvador. Guided tours are available, and a small admission fee is charged to visit the Tazumal site.

Accommodation in the modern city of Chalchuapa is plentiful. Hiring a car would be the easiest way to travel to the other Mayan sites in and around Chalchuapa, including the Stanley Boggs Museum which displays fascinating artifacts and has exhibitions on the history not only of Tazumal, El Trapiche and Grupo Peñate.

Top image: Mayan pyramid of Tazumal                          Source: Joey / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


Bruhns, K. O., Amaroli, P., & Brito, R. (2008). Archaeological Parks of El Salvador: History and Current Status. Ponencia presentada en la, 73

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Fowler, W. R. (1984). Late Pre-classic mortuary patterns and evidence for human sacrifice at Chalchuapa, El Salvador. American Antiquity, 49(3), 603-618

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Sharer, R. J., & Gifford, J. C. (1970). Pre-classic ceramics from Chalchuapa, El Salvador, and their relationships with the Maya lowlands. American Antiquity, 35(4), 441-462

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Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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