In the early 1900s, archaeologist Sylvanus Morley called Copán “the Athens of the New World,” in recognition of its impressive sculpture and architecture. In 1980, UNESCO agreed with Morley by designating Copán a World Heritage Site. Copán has been the focus of numerous expeditions of exploration and investigation. Starting in 1576, explorers came to investigate tales of ancient kingdoms shrouded in jungles. Beautiful renderings and novel theories abounded, but until scientific explorations began in the late 1880s, there was little gleaned from local inhabitants about the builders of these ancient kingdoms. British and US teams dominated the field until the 1950s when the government of Honduras began funding research. Interest in Copan has continued somewhat uninterrupted since the 1880s due not only to the quality of the sculptures and the architectural grandeur of the monuments, but also the overall beauty and charm of the valley, climate and village.
The Archaeological Site of Copán is comprised of three major elements: the Principal Group, the southwestern residential zone El Bosque (the Forest), and the northwest residential zone Las Sepulturas (the sepulchers). The Principal Group was the political, civic and religious center of ancient life. El Bosque and Las Sepulturas were two elegant neighborhoods connected by ancient causeways to the Principal Group.
The majestic Principal Group – today enveloped in a mantel of giant trees – is composed of the Great Plaza and the Acropolis. Both of these may be subdivided into smaller architectural elements: rectangular patios surrounded by pyramidal platforms and buildings. Both the Great Plaza and the Acropolis reflect enormous amounts of labor: the former because of its more than 3 hectares of artificially leveled terrain (originally paved with white plaster) and the latter due to its mass elevated more than 30 meters above ground level.
The Great Plaza
The Great Plaza, as the name implies, consists of large, open spaces. The two main causeways meet in this plaza. The plaza must have been host to impressive public events, as it could have held perhaps 20,000 people. At its northern end, the plaza is framed on three sides by staircases that served as seats for large crowds. In the center of this open-air theater, there are seven stelae and eleven altars forming one of the most beautiful sculpture gardens of the ancient world. Research by scholars from the National University of Honduras has shown that the stelae and altars served as giant sun dials and position markers, while the lines of the plaza itself served as an arena for large scale ceremonies associated with solar observation. The principal solar events celebrated here registered the cyclical movement of the sun: the solstices, equinoxes and the passages of the sun over the zenith.
At the southern end of the great plaza there is another type of theater; here the performance was sport. Intimate seats on the north side perhaps reflected cost or rank of spectator; on the south side, an enormous terrace rises up to the Acropolis accommodating hundreds of avid fans. As it is still played in a few parts of Mesoamerica, the ancient ballgame was played with ritual importance, sometimes making heroes of both kings and captives.
In contrast to the Great Plaza, the Acropolis is a private area with restricted access and reduced open spaces. The acropolis was the precinct of political and religious power, the royal residence and offices for the ruler and court. Architecturally, the acropolis is composed of two rectangular courtyards: the East (or Jaguar) Court and the West Court. Between the two courtyards, at the center of the acropolis, is Temple 16, where Rosalila lies buried.
A Dynasty Begins
The classic period begins in Copan around 400 AD and is marked by a strong imposition of Maya traditions. These traditions came to Copan from the Maya lands to the north and west and most likely came with the first ruler of the dynasty: K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’. Before this Maya influence, many of the settlements in the Copan Valley were located on high ground, in defensible positions. Archaeologically, it appears that there was a great deal of political fragmentation during this time and skirmishes were frequent. A ruler representing Maya centers to the west came to this valley and changed the history of this region forever.
While archaeologists gather information from many sources, a key piece in our understanding of Copan’s history is Altar Q. It was commissioned by the 16th ruler, Yax Pasah in the year 775 AD, and has been a very important historical document for Maya scholars. On it are carved the 16 rulers of Copan, all seated on their hieroglyphic names and in their dynastic order. On the front of the altar, Yax Pasah receives the staff of rulership from the founder of the dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’, and by doing so, he proclaims the legitimacy of his reign.
On the top of the altar, facing upward and readable only from the stairs of Temple 16, a hieroglyphic text narrates the arrival of the founder of Copan and the establishment of his dynasty in the year 426 AD. The altar’s text ends by describing the dedication of the “K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ altar” by Yax Pasah in 775 AD. The question of the origins of this great leader from the West continue to be subject to debate. Dr. Robert Sharer, a respected archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, directed most of the recent excavations under the East Court of the Acropolis. He believed that the tomb he discovered in the earliest levels of excavation, held the remains of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’. The contents of the tomb, results of bone and teeth analyses, the sequence of constructions on this sacred, central axis and the clear iconographic emphasis given to the veneration of this ancestor give great weight to Sharer’s view.
It is possible that K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ arrived in Copan as the representative of a complex society with advanced social and political organization, interested in extending their political and commercial interests eastward. In this attractive, mountainous region with fresh water springs and a fertile river valley, he encountered non-Maya, fragmented, warring factions.
Located at the eastern edge of the Maya territory, Copan was well situated to offer access to the major trade routes supplying rich resources from central Honduras and the Pacific coast of El Salvador. By controlling this region, the Maya states would have better control over important sources of jade, cacao, cotton, obsidian, exotic bird feathers, and other highly valued products.
K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ was able to make military and political alliances with the leaders of the fractured settlements in the Copan valley, including his marriage to a high-ranking local woman. Her tomb is very close to his and is the most impressive royal tomb yet found at Copan. Perhaps reinforced by military backing of a state with Teotihuacan ties, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ brought stability, peace and prosperity to the region. His arrival marked the beginning of an royal dynasty that would prosper for four hundred years.
Settlement History and Collapse
Intensive archaeological research of population settlements shows that population growth was gradual in the early part of the dynasty. K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ unified the society he found under the rule of one royal lineage; he introduced hieroglyphic writing and commissioned vibrantly painted monumental buildings charged with complex iconography.
The city progressively increased in size and diversity for the following four centuries, forming a state that played a starring role in Maya history and exerted influence over a large area. Studies of the residential settlements estimate a population of 27,500 people toward the end of the eighth century AD.
In its last decades, the city and the valley of Copan suffered unprecedented demographic growth accompanied by the intensification of agricultural systems and acceleration of environmental degradation. Archaeologists and paleo-ecologists have found dramatic evidence that the growing population began to occupy and farm marginal lands, thereby increasing deforestation and erosion.
The impact of this process was extreme on the human population. Physical anthropologists have shown that the skeletons from this time had a lower life expectancy and suffered from malnutrition and disease. Having destroyed their valley, and unable to feed themselves, the city was eventually abandoned. The last carved monument is from 822 AD.
Over the next few centuries, the landscape healed slowly. Devoid of significant human populations, it recovered and had developed into a lush, forested valley by the time of the arrival of the early European explorers in the 16th century.
Today, Copan again flourishes, this time as the principal cultural tourism attraction for the nation of Honduras. After three decades of investment into research, conservation and basic tourism industry infrastructure, Copan serves as a model in the Maya world for sustainable development of an archaeological site, and is a major source of pride for the Honduran people.
Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle