Las Marías

Map of location The Las Marías site, located in the uppermost reaches of the Zapotitán Valley, appears to have been one of Cihuatán's most important satellites. The site location controls movement and trade coming from the Acelhuate Valley towards the rich and important Zapotitán Valley (where Joya de Ceren and San Andrés are located).

Las Marías was discovered in 1978 by Manuel López, then working for the National Museum of El Salvador. He located the main pyramid in the middle of a thick forest. During the civil conflict of the later 1970's and 1980's this forest was burned by the Salvadoran army to keep guerrillas from hiding in it. While this was in some senses an ecological disaster, it did reveal for the first time the large and important site of Las Marías, one of the principle archaeological sites of El Salvador.

Las Marías exhibits strong similarities to Cihuatán. The main site is located on a terrace above the flood plain of the Río Sucio; it covers the terrace and spills over to an unknown distance to the north and the east, covering at least 120 ha. The site center consists of a series of interconnected walled rectangular compounds containing low rectangular platforms with one higher pyramid (about 8 or 9 m. high) in a central position. Immediately to the north of the pyramid is an I-shaped masonry ball court which is a smaller replica of the ball courts at Cihuatán. A series of smaller pyramids (5 or 6 m. in height) and a number of 1-2 m. high rectangular platforms which originally must have supported elite residence and civic buildings surround the pyramid and ball court. The most interesting aspect of Las Marías is a long avenue that leads from the west side of the main plaza along the edge of the terrace to the residential area. Such avenues are very uncommon in southern Mesoamerican sites and were previously unknown in El Salvador.

Estimated extent of the Las Marías site.

Air photograph of central Las Marías.

The monumental center of Las Marías is surrounded by residential areas in which there are visible hundreds of low platforms. These platforms are identical to the platforms that supported ordinary houses at Cihuatán and the number of them indicates that Las Marías too was an urban center. There may actually be a greater degree of nucleation of residences at Las Marías, although the site in total is only about 25% of the size of Cihuatán.


Main pyramid of Las Marías.View from the main pyramid out towards the residential area. A series of lower pyramids are visible in the near distance. San Salvador volcano can be seen in the far distance.


View towards ball court from the pyramid.The ball court at Las Marías. All buildings are in a relatively good state of preservation and there has been surprisingly little looting.

Surface materials indicate clearly that Las Marías is a Guazapa Phase site. The most notable artifact found there is a series of ceramic toads, but Tlaloc incensarios, the feet of feline statues, and large ollas have been found on the site and all tie Las Marías closely to Cihuatán and other Guazapa Phase sites.


A local girl with a large burial urn, now used for storing water. On the right, a ceramic toad from Las Marías. The toad has his tongue out as if he is thirsty and is wearing an elaborate ornament of ribbons and feathers.

Las Marías's future is in doubt. This stake represents the parceling out of the site by agrarian reform agents. Unless CONCULTURA acts swiftly to save Las Marías one of El Salvador's largest and best preserved sites will disappear.

Survey stake
Late breaking news: as the parcelization of Las Marías continues, progressive deforestation is threatening the monumental structures. Below are two photographs taken in June 2000 and December 2000 of the main pyramid of Las Marías. Compare them to the photograph above taken in 1996.

June 2000 December 2000

All photos by Paul Amaroli.


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