Proyecto Itza Goals (2013-2015)


From 2013 to 2015, Proyecto Itza investigated a Postclassic community in the southwest corner of Nixtun-Ch’ich’. This community covered over 500 meters of the south shore of the site (Sectors PP, QQ, and RR). In addition to the focus upon these sectors, we excavated test units across the site. The primary goal of the project was to investigate the Chak’an Itza.

Alien Contact

Contact and colonialism are often imagined as indigenous vs. settler/colonist relationships, but cultural entanglements are rarely, if ever, so straightforward. Both native and interloper groups can include factions whose varied intentions play critical roles in the power relations that emerge during situations of contact. During such entanglements, factional struggles transcend boundaries, as factions compete with one another while possibly allied with outsiders. Competing factions have varied perspectives and goals in the aftermath of conquest (Restall 2003:48-51). It is through such divergent objectives that one might gain a glimpse of the agency involved in the colonial process.

Power Dynamics

The proposed project will investigate these complex negotiations of power, as they are manifest in material culture at two sites in Petén, Guatemala and Muralla de Leon. These sites were associated with a faction of the Itza Maya called the Chak’an Itza. The project is exploring how the Chak’an Itza constructed themselves in relation to other Itza factions as well as with the Kowoj, the main rivals of the Itza, in response to the colonial efforts of the Spaniards, from the Contact period (A.D. 1525-1697) through the early Spanish Colonial period (A.D. 1697-1750). It is examining how Spanish “trade good politics” prior to the conquest affected Itza social organization and political power. Spanish colonialism involved taking advantages of factions within indigenous societies in order to gain local allies and divide their adversaries (Restall 2003:48-51). These policies melded well with Maya strategies that predated contact with the Spaniards in which factions sought outside aid to compete with rival factions.


Both strategies brought about unintended consequences. Specifically, we are examining the hypothesis that European trade goods that flowed into Petén transformed the Itza political system before the conquest by weakening central authority and increasing factionalization. The factionalization and conflict led to alliances between Itza factions and outsiders (the Spaniards and the Kowoj). This hypothesis is being tested through a multiyear archaeological program of survey and extensive horizontal excavations of the upper levels of select structures in several settlement areas at Nixtun-Ch’ich’ and Muralla de León.

project co-director Carlos Sanchez supervising the work (photo by Evelyn Chan)

project co-director Carlos Sanchez supervising the work on QQ1/1 (2013)

Project goals

  1. Explain how the relationships of internal factions of indigenous groups are transformed by situations of contact and colonialism
  2. Understand how external social relationships (between discrete indigenous groups) are transformed during cultural contact and colonialism
  3. Conclude how elites compete with one another and create legitimacy in the face of an expansionistic empire

Initial expectations are that the Spanish trade good politics transformed the Itza power structure before the conquest. It is also expected (following Restall 2003:64-76) that the Spanish conquest of Petén was incomplete and that indigenous politics survived the fall of Nojpeten, the Itza capital.

Nixtun-Chich Str QQ1/1-1 East Side with Ivo Romero(photo Timothy Pugh)

Nixtun-Chich Str QQ1/1-1 East Side with Ivo Romero(1995)