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temple 16 steve mellard
stela H c.1840 frederick catherwood
cemetery group frans-banja mulder
Stela H c.1885 Maudslay
stela P david ooms
ball court adalberto hernandez vega
hieroglyphic stairway peter andersen
detail ballcourt temple gustavo jeronimo
stela N aldaberto hernandez vega
temple 22 hjpd
hieroglyphic stairway elmaki
stela H arjuno3
altar G hjpd
temple 11 detail adalberto hernandez vega
temple 11 plaza view hjpd
stela B detail talk2winik
sepulturas group ogwen
temple 11 west court view hjpd
Copan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was one of the premier ancient Maya kingdoms, and lies on the southeastern frontier of the Maya area. The artistic expression achieved in its rendering of sculptured stelae in the Classic Period (200-600 A.D.) is unsurpassed anywhere in the Americas.
Copan is set in a tropical rainforest along a river and valley of the same name. The Copan river is a tributary of the mighty Motagua River which was an important trade route that linked the Highlands to the Gulf of Honduras, and from there to Belize and on up to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Hurricane Mitch proved the resilience of Maya engineering when it devastated Honduras in March of 1998. A survey of the site in the hurricane’s aftermath showed the effectiveness of the heretofore unknown ancient drainage system which performed admirably and prevented any damage from the massive amount of rainfall that fell on the site.
The site once encompassed 15 sq miles/25 kms. Today, the Copan Archaeological Park covers about 210 acres/84 hectares. It is located in western Honduras about 100 miles/160 kms southwest from the city of San Pedro Sula, and about 16 miles/21kms from the Guatemalan border. Take highway 15 from San Pedro Sula to La Entrada, and then Highway 20 to Copan Ruinas. The site can also be reached from the Capital; on a well paved road from San Salvador; and from Guatemala.
HOURS: 8 A.M-4 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: U.S. $15; extra fees for museum and tunnels.
GUIDES: Available onsite
ON-SITE MUSEUM: Yes, with one in the town of Copan Ruinas as well
ACCOMODATIONS: Food and lodging can be found close by in Copan Ruinas
GPS: 14d 51' 20: N, 89d 09' 33" W
HISTORY AND EXPLORATION
Copan has a settlement history extending back to the Early Pre Classic (1000-800 B.C.). There is archaeological evidence that support links to the Olmec centers on the Gulf Coast. By the late Pre Classic (300 B.C.-200 A.D), monumental architecture commences with calendrical inscriptions recorded on altars, temples, and funerary items. Little, however, is known about the rulers and related history of this time period.
A new dynasty was founded in 426 A.D by K’inich Yax Kuk Mo (Great Sun First/Resplendent Quetzal Macaw ). This started a nearly 400 year long reign of 17 successive rulers. It is thought that K’inich Yax Kuk Mo was born in Tikal and installed at Copan by that cities ruler, Siyaj Chan K’awill II, and became an important trade partner and ally.
Copan than began to expand in population, and economic and political importance. It controlled a wide area with a number of its own vassal states. The most notable of these was the city of Quirigua 30 miles/48kms to the west and situated at the confluence of the Copan and Motagua rivers. This city was greatly expanded under the legendary Copan ruler Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awill (18 Rabbit). He installed Kak Tiliw Chan Yopaat as his vassal in 724 A.D. In an act of treachery Yopaat subsequently captured and sacrificed 18 Rabbit in 738 A.D. This event probably took place under the direction of the great city/state of Calakmul, the bitter rival of Tikal, the two super powers at the time that dominated much of the Maya area.
This catastrophe greatly weakened the political and economic position of Copan, and in turn elevated Quirigua into a prominent and independent entity. Copan continued on, albeit in a much diminished capacity, eventually recovering and expanding building constructions, but its greatest days were behind it. The last recorded ruler was Ukit Took who ascended to the throne in 822 A.D. The site experienced the same collapse syndrome as at other Maya lowland sites, and after a long, slow decline was abandoned in the 10th century.
In the Late Classic Period (600-900 A.D.) a ceramic style was developed that closely links Copan to the site of San Andres in El Salvador. These pieces are widely found at both sites. Many contain a glyphic rim inscription Ox Wi'il, "abundance". The name given to this style is known as “Copador”. What the exact relationship was that existed between these two sites has not been fully examined or determined.
An interesting observation by researchers has been made regarding the historical record of the site. As opposed to most Maya sites, few inscriptions or monument carvings depict scenes of warfare, sacrifice, prisoners, or victory commemorations.
The first reports concerning Copan were made in 1576 by Diego Garcia de Palacio. The next reports come in the early part of the 19th century from Jean-Frederic Waldeck, and Juan Galindo, the military commander of Flores in Guatemala. Colonel Galindo (John Gallagher) was instrumental in capturing the last Spanish stronghold in Central America at the city of Omoa, Honduras. There followed those intrepid explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1841. They produced the first site map and accurate drawings of the ruins and monuments. The site so impressed Stephens that he purchased it for the grand sum of U.S. $50.Their books are a delightful read.
The next notable investigations and contributions were made by Alfred Maudslay (1880’s-90’s), the Peabody Museum of Harvard (1890’s), and the Carnegie Institution (1935-46). Excavation, restoration and consolidation continue at the site to this day.
Copan consists of several structural groups arranged around plazas and courtyards on a north/south axis. There are numerous carved stelae and altars throughout the core site and surrounding environs. The stelae produced here are magnificent examples of the artistic beauty of Maya art. They are unlike any other produced in the Maya World. The carvings of the figures are nearly in the round, with exquisite detail throughout. The facial expressions of these stelae produce an aurora of majesty and serenity. They are carved on the other three sides with extensive, historical glyphic texts.
The Great Plaza encompasses the greater part of the core site. It is surrounded on three sides by a low, stepped platform that gives the impression of walking down into the plaza. It is anchored on the north end by Structure 2, and forms a sub plaza which terminates on the south side by Structure 4. This sub plaza has been known by different names such as the Main Plaza, The Sun Plaza, the Monument Plaza, and the Stelae Plaza.
The sub plaza contains the largest group of stelae and monuments at the site. This group consists of 7 stelae and their accompanying altars, as well as 3 other monuments. Many of the stelae at the site also were found to have a small vault below the support platform that contained offerings of ceramics, stalactites, jade and shell.
Stelae A & B contain a Katun ending date of 188.8.131.52.0, August 20, 731 A.D., which has helped to date the dedication of the plaza. They both depict the 13th ruler of Copan, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awill (18 Rabbit). There are also 4 other stelae that were erected by this ruler in the sub plaza.
Structure 4 is centrally located and is a four tiered truncated pyramid with stairs on each side. It has been suggested that it was designed for astronomical purposes in conjunction with a few of the stelae in the group. At both the northeast and northwest corners of the sub plaza are two small complexes containing low platforms, courtyards, and temple structures.
The north side of Structure 4 opens up to The Grand Plaza proper. This plaza extends significantly to the east where a series of low platforms and structures form the eastern perimeter. There are 5 stelae, 4 altars and 2 other monuments situated in this plaza. The south east portion of the plaza is occupied by the Ball Court Plaza and the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza.
The Ball Court Plaza consists of the ball court with its incorporated temples, and a smaller platform structure that extends from the east side of the ball court, forms a right angle, and encloses the ball court in the classic “I” formation. The ball court as seen today is the third incarnation, and is one of the largest in the Maya World. The slanted walls of the ball court are decorated with the sculptured heads of 6 macaws, three on each side. There is a dedication inscription that took place in 738 A.D.
The Hieroglyphic Plaza is formed by the ball court on the north, Temple 26 on the East, and The Acropolis on the south. Temple 26 is an imposing pyramid whose sub structure contains two tombs of important personages. One of the tombs was covered by a carved stone slab known as the Motmot Capstone, and contains the oldest text from Copan. Exotic funerary offerings from the tombs have been recovered including mercury, jade, obsidian, jaguar pelts, ceramics, decorative incense burners, and at least one rare codex since disintegrated. The structure went through seven construction phases beginning in the 5th century. The temple at the summit has mostly disappeared with only the substructure remaining. Portions of a beautiful frieze that once adorned the temple have been recovered and are now on display in the on-site museum.
What has brought world renown to this temple however is the magnificent Hieroglyphic Stairway that ascends 86 feet/26m from the plaza to the summit. It has a width of 30 feet/10 meters. This extraordinary stairway consists of over 2,000 individual stone glyphs arranged on 63 steps, and relates the history of the ruling dynasty. It is by far the longest glyphic inscription in the Maya World. The stairway was constructed by 18 Rabbit in 710 A.D., and the entire structure was later expanded, with the stairway reinstalled, by Smoke Squirrel in 755 A.D.
There are five beautifully carved sculptures that are centrally interspersed on the steps from bottom to top. All but one is still in place. That one sculpture was removed a hundred years ago and is now in the Peabody Museum, along with a portion of the glyphic stairway. A sixth sculpture once graced the top of the stairway in front of Temple 26.The majestic Stela M of Smoke Squirrel with its associated altar are found in the plaza in front of the stairway.
The Acropolis anchors the south end of the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza with Temple 11 at its base. It is the ceremonial center and probable residential area of the ruling class. It is a massive platform that consists of two complexes containing temples, pyramids, palaces, tombs, and monuments. The complexes are known as the East Group and the West Group.
The East Group backs onto the Copan River. It has a large, bulky wall that extends down to the old river bed as the current river had been diverted to protect the ruins. Parts of this complex have been lost to the erosive forces of the river which include Structures 19- 21, and the east side of structure 18.
Temple 22 forms the northern side of the East Court and backs onto Temple 26. It is also known as the Temple of the Sculptured Doorway, and as the Temple of Meditation. It is a multi-level structure and has a remarkable sculptured doorway representing the Earth Monster, very reminiscent of Chenes style architecture. It was constructed by the ruler, 18 Rabbit, to commemorate his first Katun (20 years) as king in 715 A.D.
On the west side of the East Court is the Jaguar Stairway which leads up to the Venus Altar. The Jaguar Stairway is flanked by sculptured jaguars on hind legs in an animated pose. There are indentations on their bodies that once held obsidian discs. The Venus Altar is centrally set in the wall of a long, temple structure. It depicts a large mask of the Sun God, K’inich Ahau.
Temple 18 is located on the southeast side of the East Court. Its eastern wall has vanished into the Copan River. Steps on the south side extend down to the vaulted tomb of ruler Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat (ruled 763-c.810 A.D.). Ornate pilasters frame the upper temple entrances with depictions of the deceased ruler engaged in a war dance.
Temple 16 sits in between the East Court and the West Court. It is the largest structure in the Acropolis, and faces the West Court. This structure is the last of several built one over the other as was common practice among the Maya, and was the funerary complex of the founder of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo. The outstanding feature of this pyramid is not what one sees, but what lies buried beneath it; the Rosalila Temple.
The Rosalila Temple is a very well preserved structure with an early 6th century date, and was dedicated to Copan’s founder Yax Kuk Mo. It contains intricately molded stucco decorations, and is painted a brilliant red. It was carefully buried by 18 Rabbit when he enlarged the Acropolis. There is a full scale replica of this stunning temple in the on-site museum.
Temple 11, Temple of the Inscriptions, is the other notable structure in the West Court and forms the south side of the Great Plaza. This structure was dedicated on September 26, 776 A.D. by the last great king of Copan, Yax Pak. It has a majestic stairway that leads 33 feet/10 meters to an upper platform. A long palace type structure runs the length of the platform.
On the other side of the structure another stairway leads down into the West Court, and is flanked by a pair of simian creatures holding torches. Through the interior of this structure runs two passageways aligned along the cardinal points. At the intersection of these passageways is located an altar bench. Flanking the bench are interior stairways that lead to a now destroyed second level. The altar contained a beautiful decorative panel 16 feet/5 meters long depicting a series of seated kings much like those shown on Altar Q. These seated kings represent Yax Pak’s royal ancestors, and depicts his accession on July 2, 763 A.D. in their presence. The panel is now housed in the British Museum.
The most impressive and famous monument in the West Court is Altar Q. The altar is made from a huge stone block about 5 feet/1.3 meters square, and 3 feet/1 meter in height. It was remarked upon by both Galindo and Stephens in the early 1800’s. The top of the altar has a panel containing 36 well executed and preserved glyphs. Along the side are 16 seated rulers who have been identified as the kings of Copan, past and present, in an accession ceremony. There is a dedication date of 184.108.40.206.0, December 27, 775 A.D.
Numerous tunnels dug under the Acropolis have revealed five main construction phases that spanned a time frame of two centuries and which are attributed to five different rulers. Besides the Rosalila Temple, other constructions included the Margarita structure containing the intricately carved, and still undeciphered, Xukpi Stone.
Behind the Acropolis is a small complex known as the Cemetery Group. This is a bit of a misnomer as the complex has been identified as a royal residential area. It consists of a number of nicely restored structures arranged around a central plaza.
The Sepulturas Group is located a short distance northeast of the Grand Plaza and was once connected by a sacbe (white stone road) from the Great Plaza. This complex contains the earliest settlement history at the site, and a number of platforms and burials have been dated to the Late Pre Classic. During the heyday of Copan in the Classic era the complex expanded into a privileged residential group. There are numerous structures situated around several plazas. Some of these structures have been restored, the most notable being The House of the Scribe.
There are other residential groups surrounding the core area as well. The modern town of Copan Ruinas is built over an important group. Altars and stelae have been recovered there. To the south is another group, El Bosque, which contains a ballcourt, Ballcourt B.
ballcourt marker hjpd
site plan google earth
rosalia temple talk2winik
stelae plaza talk2winik
structure 10L-22 talk2winik
el bosque ballcourt B hjpd
altar Q detail martijn munneke.
ball court scarlet macaw temple adalberto hernandez vega
stela B hjpd
stela A michel wal
altar Q west court aldaberto hernandez vega