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The Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Project investigates and promotes public awareness of the large Formative period mound site of Chiapa de Corzo in Chiapas, Mexico. The project is directed by BYU archaeologist Bruce R. Bachand and co-directed by Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta, Director of the Instituto Nacional de AntropologĂ­a e Historia-Chiapas. It began in 2008 as a collaborative pilot project between BYU's New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) and INAH-Chiapas. It continues today with financial support from BYU's NWAF, the Fulbright-GarcĂ­a Robles Commission, the National Geographic Society, and private donors.


Structure 1 temple building c. AD 300

Chiapa de Corzo was one of the largest prehispanic settlements in early Mesoamerica. The site's 1800 year occupation from 1200 BC to AD 600 continues to serve as a chronological benchmark for interpreting early cultural developments across the region. The ruins are encroached upon by modern homes and businesses, but Mexican authorities recently launched a formal initiative to protect them. A portion of the site was officially opened for tourism on December 8, 2009.


Archaeological and linguistic findings suggest that Chiapa de Corzo was settled around 1200 BC by Mixe-zoquean speakers who had strong ancestral ties to Olmec people residing in the Gulf and Pacific Coastal regions of Mesoamerica. By 900 or 800 BC, the small Mixe-zoque village of Chiapa de Corzo established a strong, possibly direct relationship with the Gulf Olmec center of La Venta. The earliest pyramidal constructions at Chiapa de Corzo and a ceremonial pond with drainage system appear to date to this phase. The two centers replicated each other's pottery and figurine styles, and seem to have tapped the same obsidian and andesite sources.

The subsequent historical period known as Escalera or Chiapa III (700-500 BC) is among the most important yet least understood at the site. During this era, Chiapa de Corzo became a planned town with formal plazas and carefully arranged public monumental buildings made of clay. The public ceremonial precinct formed 20 of the site's 70 hectares. The people maintained their Olmec heritage, incorporating the early ceremonial pond into their urban design and depositing a massive offering of ritual axes in front of an astronomical building that included, among other things, vessels of Gulf Olmec origin and/or inspiration. Ties were simultaneously forged with the Maya region, as similarites are observable with Lowland Maya pottery and Highland Maya censer pots. Thus, Chiapa de Corzo and a half dozen other newly formed Central Depression townsites became a genuine link between the late Olmec and early Maya civilizations. The emergence of these townsites is believed to represent the crystallization of a distinct Zoque identity from a former Mixe-zoque (Olmec) cultural base. La Venta shares the Chiapas Zoque site plan, but lacks appreciable quantities of signature orange-resist pottery and censers, suggesting that it was only partly Zoque in its heyday.

Monumental buildings were refurbished and enlarged in the succeeding Francesa or Chiapa IV phase, greatly augmenting the size of previous constructions. The pottery was primarily local in origin, save the occasional import from the Maya lowlands. The ceremonial pond was filled in to create a large cemetery, one of three known in Formative Mesoamerica (now radiocarbon dated to 250 years cal BC). Stratigraphic evidence suggests that these individuals, who were of various ages and statuses, were buried around the same time. This event symbolized a further departure from the site's Olmec past, the metropolis of La Venta now largely abandoned.

Greater social distinctions were manifested in the following Guanacaste phase around 100 BC when stone buildings and tombs appeared at the site. Guanacaste was the first of three clearly discernible Protoclassic epochs at Chiapa de Corzo. These periods were characterized by the dominance of economically and socially privileged leaders, artisans, and ritual specialists who resided within the site center. Multi-function palace and temple buildings were constructed at Mounds 1, 3, 5, and 32. Starting in Guanacaste, Chiapa de Corzo's Zoque rulers began to participate in far flung diplomatic and economic networks linking them to privileged individuals across the Maya Lowlands, Maya Highlands, Pacific Coast, and Oaxaca. The first examples of hieroglyphic writing appeared on flat stamps, pottery vessels, stelae, and building panels during Guanacaste. The earliest Long Count inscription in Mesoamerica derives from this phase. The date, or 36 BC, is associated with Stela 2, a small building panel discovered a short distance behind the Mound 5 palace. Protoclassic activity peaked during the Horcones phase (AD 100-300) as tombs became more elaborate and craft specialization soared to new heights in the refinement of pottery, obsidian, shell, amber, and alabaster. A marked social change occurred in the subsequent Istmo phase (AD 300-400). Craft activity diminished and long-distance ties contracted, but powerful lineages seem to have occupied the site as scores of individuals came to be interred in refurbished temple buildings and in large residences.

The final centuries of human occupation remain poorly understood and the fate of the Istmo groups continues to be a mystery. Extraordinary quantities of dark organic soil were spread across the main plazas c. AD 400 at the start of the Jiquipilas phase. An agricultural purpose for this activity is probable, but awaits confirmation. Beyond this date, the site's principal buildings ceased to be maintained. The final "occupational" phases, Laguna and Maravillas, witnessed the occasional burial of important personages in deserted pyramidal mounds, such as Mound 12. By this time, the ruins had become a place of pilgrimage, perhaps for displaced Zoque peoples now ruled by Chiapanec invaders. The Chiapanec chose to occupy the adjacent floodplain of the Grijalva River where the modern town was constructed and to leave the Zoque ruin on the nearby plateau untouched. When the Spaniards arrived in the early 16th century, the Chiapanec had established a large center of power in this adjacent location.