Archaeological and archival data suggest that two major Maya groups dominated the 17th century political geography of central Petén, Guatemala: the Itza and Kowoj.   The Itza traced their ancestry to Chich'en Itza in north-central Yucatán, Mexico.  The Kowoj claimed to have migrated from Mayapán in northwestern Yucatán, which correlates with Yucatecan ethnohistory placing the group in the city prior its collapse around AD 1441.  Seventeenth-century Spanish accounts describe the approximate territorial distribution of these groups and their political relations in central Petén (Jones 1998: 16).   However, ethnic connections with Yucatán homelands had not been previously confirmed for either group and no preceding research has investigated social interactions of Late Postclassic-to-Colonial period Petén communities.

The site of Zacpetén occupies a peninsula on Lake Salpetén in Petén, Guatemala and was likely the town of Sakpetén, noted by the 17th-century Spaniards.  The site was initially investigated in 1979-1980 by Don and Prudence Rice of Southern Ilinois University at Carbondale .  This research indicated that Zacpetén’s residents had deity image censers and ceremonial architecture formally arranged in “temple assemblages,” both nearly identical to those of Mayapán (Rice et al. 1998).  These, together with the presence of distinctive red-on-white pottery, coincide with Spanish descriptions of the distribution of Kowoj communities.  Zacpetén is, therefore, an appropriate place to investigate similarities with Mayapán, establish diacritics identifying Kowoj settlements, and in doing so, identify architectural and ritual features that mark Kowoj social and political organization in Petén.  Don and Prudence Rice returned to Zacpetén in 1994 under the aegis of Proyecto Maya Colonial, co-directed with Grant Jones of Davidson College.  From 1994 to 1997, survey and excavations at Zacpetén, directed by Timothy Pugh of Queens College , uncovered the site's defensive system, sixteen ceremonial buildings, and nine structures in residential groups.  The excavations were conducted to define architecture patterns and to illuminate activities areas associated with architecture, plazas, and natural features.  A grid with a 1 x1 m resolution was placed upon each 
architectural group and materials were excavated and bagged according to these units.  In total, 4685 1x1 meter units were included in the horizontal clearings and some units involved deeper vertical testing. Following the laboratory analysis of 307,686 artifacts, directed by Prudence Rice and Leslie Cecil , Timothy Pugh composed distribution maps documenting  relationships between artifact types and architecture and among the various artifacts.  Leslie Cecil conducted detailed stylistic and compositional analyses of the site’s non-censer ceramics and Prudence Rice examined incense burners and other ceremonial ceramics.  The censers included image and non-image varieties, the former of which often includes depictions of deities mounted upon the front of an hour-glass shaped vessel.  Don Rice continues his research on the settlement patterns around Lake Salpetén and domestic patterns at Zacpetén.

Zacpetén’s defensive system rests on the northern end of the peninsula where it meets the mainland.  It included a wall, two parapets and a ditch, and a moat/canal.  It was initially built during the Late to Terminal Classic period, but renovated during the Late Postclassic period.  Chert and obsidian biface knives and numerous small projectile points, which likely tipped arrows, indicate that the defensive system served its purpose at least once.

Test Units excavated at Zacpetén indicated that it was most heavily occupied during the Middle Preclassic (1000 BC to 300 BC), Late through Terminal Classic (AD 600 to AD 950), and Late Postclassic through Contact (AD 1200 to AD 1697) periods.  Sparse evidence of occupation during intervening periods is present, but construction events during these  hiatuses are minimal.  Zacpetén’s Late to Terminal Classic period occupation is enigmatic.  Despite the lack of large ceremonial structure from these periods, several carved stone monuments were recovered---some of which were fitted into the masonry of Late Postclassic ceremonial buildings.  Group B includes a Late to Terminal classic ceremonial group, which was also used by later occupants. Inscriptions on the monuments and the layout of Group B suggest Late Classic ties with Tikal , which lies 25 km north of Zacpetén.  Group F (not pictured on the site map) is a residential group to the north of the defensive system on the mainland and may also date to the Terminal Classic period. 

Zacpetén's Late Postclassic period occupation is concentrated in four of the five groups on the peninsula. Group D and Group E are residential groups.  Group A and Group C are dominated by ceremonial buildings grouped into assemblages nearly identical to those of Mayapán.  Mayapán temple assemblages are precise configuration of five buildings (Proskouriakoff 1962).  The primary building in temple assemblages is a temple, which usually faces to the east or west. A raised shrine stands opposite and faces into the temple, and a statue shrine lies between the temple and raised shrine. Adjacent to the right side of the temple is an oratorio, which faces in the same direction as the temple.  Finally a long, low open hall rests at a right angle to the temple. Open halls have been identified as lineage headquarters; therefore, each temple assemblage may have been a lineage-based civic-religious group (Rice 1988).  In one temple assemblage at Mayapán, the raised shrine lies at a right angle to a western facing temple rather than facing into it.  This specific variant appears at central Petén sites including Zacpetén, Topoxté, and Muralla de Leon, all of which lie within the reconstructed Kowoj social boundaries.  Ceremonial architecture outside these boundaries follows a very different pattern.  For example, Late Postclassic Itza ceremonial groups do not appear to include formal temples.

Group A at Zacpetén was the civic-ceremonial center of the site and contains two open halls rather than one with a small sakbe (causeway) bisecting the plaza and separating the halls.  The presence of two lineage halls in the site center suggests social duality and the sakbe may have been a unifying metaphor (Pugh 2001).  A mass grave of dismembered human remains lay in a borrow pit in the northwest corner of Group A and a deposit of several human mandibles with “articulated” vertebrae and other human remains rested in the center of the western side of the plaza.  William Duncan , a doctoral candidate at Southern Illinois University, is presently conducting an extensive investigation of these remains.  The human remains on the west side of the plaza contrast with temples or “god houses” containing deity effigy censers on the east side and suggest complementary opposition.  Group C contains a temple assemblage nearly identical to that of Group A, but with one open hall and no sakbe.  Excavations have revealed a high degree of correlation in the activity areas of corresponding buildings in Group A and Group C, which indicates standardized ritual practices.

Excavations in five residential groups revealed a consistent pattern in domestic structures and evidence of social differentiation.  The residences correspond with description by the Colonial Spaniards concerning indigenous house forms in Yucatan and Petén (Landa 1941 and Jones 1998).  The residences at Zacpetén are tandem-shaped structures standing in patio groups.  Tandem residences include a front room and back room and the former has a plastered and occasionally painted surface while the latter has a earthen floor.  Household production activities are concentrated in the back room, while socializing and ritual performances were focused upon the front room.

Current and Future Research
Continuing research is comparing the patterns defined at Zacpetén to those of other Kowoj sites and sites of other social groups both inside and outside of Petén.  The next stage of research for the Proyecto Maya Colonial will be an investigation of the Itza region.  This project will focus upon the site of Nixtun Ch'ich, which lies on the western end of Lake Petén Itzá, and other Itza sites in the region.  The goal is to obtain data that can be compared with the materials obtained from Zacpetén in order to discern Itza and Kowoj artifact assemblages, architectural styles, and activity patterns.