Guatemala, when thought of archaeologically, usually recalls rainforests and the ruined temples and palaces of Tikal. For the most part we think of the lowlands of the great Department of El Peten, well to the north of Guatemala City, and of the fabulous ruins that cover so much of the low limestone plateau of that region. Yet the volcanic highland region, in which Antigua Guatemala is located, is one of equally extraordinary prehistory. Travelers in the Guatemala Highlands see the fountains and the other Colonial splendors of Antigua, the Sunday markets of Chichicastenango, and, of course, Lake Atitlan—and then leave to fly to Tikal, or to Copan in Honduras, without ever realizing what is archaeologically accessible from the city of Antigua.
Iximché, the ancient fortress capital of the Highland Maya-speaking Cakchiquel people, is but an hour and a half drive from Guatemala City. Located in the Department of Chimaltenango, the site is about one and a half miles south of Tecpán Guatemala, itself a few minutes off the Pan American Highway. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, Iximché is spread out over a high plateau surrounded by ravines and pine-forested hills that dominate this part of Guatemala.
The name of the country, Guatemala, derives from Tecpan Cuauhtemallan, the pre-Conquest Mexican name for the site of Iximché. At the time of the Conquest, Iximche became the site of the first City of Santiago as capital of the country.
Iximche, now partially excavated and restored, offers us a rarely equalled opportunity to study conditions of Maya Highland life just prior to the Spanish Conquest and to link Maya archaeology directly to Spanish historical description.
Iximche was what is called a “contact site,” and it was brought to an end by the Conquistadores, led there by Pedro de Alvarado as Captain General of Hernan Cortes, in the name of Charles V.
Many structures are known to have been decorated with elaborate polychrome paintings, sometimes on stucco, sometimes on a fine clay facing applied to the adobe walls. The architecture of Iximche was indeed impressive, particularly in the generously spaced settings. The principal part of Iximche consists of four large plazas and two smaller ones. They occupy the highest part of the deliberately leveled plateau. The terrain here has been so heavily modified by ancient terracing, leveling, and construction that no natural surface survives. The ceremonial plazas are well marked and, although interdependent, they can be considered as forming separate groups. Plaza levels, groupings and, particularly, orientation differ markedly, yet these discrepancies appear to be responses to the variable terrain. Each plaza group has from one to three temple-style structures and a number of residential structures of palaces. Two groups have a ballcourt.
Many small structures, of ceremonial use, cluster in these plazas. There are eleven of them in Plaza A alone. These large paved areas were drained by a light slope in the plaza floors. Cement-lined gutters were built at certain spots along their peripheries. By and large, the center of Iximche consists of the substructures of temples and the platforms of houses. The construction cores of these substructures comprise, for the most part, rough stones in a clay matrix. The outer faces of these structures were made of solid stone blocks laid in mortar and covered with a lime cement facing. The buildings that rested on these substructures were made of adobe. The adobe walls and columns carried roofs of pole-and-thatch. A major fire is recorded in the Annals on a day equivalent to January 1, 1514. And, as noted, the Spaniards burned the city once again in 1526.