The Guazapa Phase

The Early Postclassic ( roughly AD 850/900-1200) in El Salvador is called the Guazapa Phase after the Volcán de Guazapa, around which there are many sites of this time period. Guazapa Phase sites are characterized by architecture in the Mesoamerican Postclassic International style, featuring I-shaped ball courts and stepped temple platforms ("pyramids") with talud/tablero design. Most ceremonial centers are on platforms with walls and/or palisades surrounding the main buildings. Construction is clay and rubble fill covered with either volcanic tuff (talpuja) slabs (lajas) or masonry and plaster.

A new feature in El Salvador is that some Guazapa Phase sites are urban. Cihuatán and Las Marías certainly are and sites like Monte Redondo were large towns, if not true cities. This pattern alone indicates that the Guazapa Phase was not Pipíl. Conquest Period Pipíl sites are very different. It may be the invasions of the historic Pipíl that caused the end of this new urbanism in El Salvador. There were no cities before the Postclassic and there were none after the Guazapa Phase until the Spanish introduced their own urban tradition into El Salvador.

The strong Mexican flavor of the Guazapa Phase indicates that El Salvador was a full participant in events to the north and west, probably both through trade and through being invaded. Especially marked is a Gulf Coast /Toltec influence. One can see this most clearly in the ceramics, which include depictions of Mexican deities, wheeled figurines of Gulf Coast type, ceramic flutes, Mazapan style figurines, Tohil Plumbate ceramics, and fancy painted pottery from Mexico and Guatemala as well as from lower Central America, all of which show that El Salvador was actively participating in the greater Mesoamerican economic and cultural sphere.

A Guazapa Phase incensario cover depicting Tlaloc, the Postclassic Mexican rain god with his huge fangs and eye goggles. This Tlaloc wears elaborate ear tubes, bracelets, and necklace with a pendant formed by a Toltec style butterfly and human maxilla (detail lower right). These incensario covers were placed on a bowl filled with burning copal incense. The smoke exited through the large holes in the side. This Tlaloc holds a human longbone piercer of the sort used to take blood for offerings from the ears, tongue, and genitals (upper right).


Three ceramic pieces typical of the Guazapa Phase: a flanged and spiked jar, a Mazapan style figurine of a woman wearing a quechquemetl, the central Mexican blouse, and a small jar in the shape of the head of Tlaloc.

A polychrome cup excavated at Cihuatán. The design and shape link this cup closely to the Mixteca-Puebla polychromes of southern Mexico. The cup was an offering buried in the center of the floor of house SS-53, excavated in 1977 by Karen Olsen Bruhns, graduate students from San Francisco State University and Earthwatch volunteers. It contained a small trapezoidal piece of polished jade.


Examples of Tohil Plumbate ware. These unusual ceramics were fired to the point of vitrification and are dark gray to a bright orange in color with a characteristic glazed appearance. Despite their name they contain no lead. Tohil Plumbate was apparently mostly manufactured in western Guatemala and widely traded. One is an unusual anthropomorphic quadruped wearing a necklace with a Maya style face pendant. The jar is of a common Plumbate form; its hollow feet have clay balls which make a noise when the jar is picked up or moved.

Photos by Paul Amaroli, except polychrome cup by Karen Bruhns.


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