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MAYAN ARCHAEOLOGY

Copán, Honduras

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Copán  

 

all rights reserved 2000

 

 

     From its’ beginnings, Copán grew rapidly, experiencing its peak about 750 A.D. Here in the lowlands of the southern Mayan area, the collapse occurred around 850 A.D., having lost around two-thirds of its peak population.  No one, repeat, no one knows exactly why that within 30 to 40 years, the population decreased so sharply. There are a lot of possibilities: war, drought, the land played out, sickness, erosion, a hurricane, the land wouldn’t feed the drastic increase of population, no one knows.

     “Most stunning, perhaps, of all the discoveries are those that have been made in the tunnels dug into centuries of early construction underlying the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the Acropolis.  Just a few years ago, it was thought that the early fifth century ruler Yax K’uk Mo’ (Blue Green Quetzal Macaw), repeatedly acknowledged by later kings to have been the founder of the Copán dynasty, was either mythical or a vaguely remembered leader of a small village that once stood at the site.  Deep beneath the Acropolis, archaeologists have uncovered buildings dating to the time of his reign, including a stela erected by his son and a small temple containing what are probably the remains of Yax K’uk Mo’ himself.” 1

        A late great find is the Temple “Rosalila”, called that for its rose color.  This beautiful, ornate temple, with its sculptures was buried beneath Temple 16, in the center of the Acropolis at Copán.  The temple has 3 levels, totaling about forth feet in height.  This is equivalent to a modern day 4 story building. According to the Honduran newspaper “La Prensa”, the front of the building faces west, and in the center on the front has a very large stucco gargoyle. 2  This is a representation of the face of the sun god “Ah Kin ó K’inich Ahau”.  This theme is repeated throughout the first level and along its’ base.  The image of this sun god has wings on its sides,  upside down serpent heads with feathers coming out of its jaws.  Springing out of the feathers, is a medallion with a face profile with the same image of himself coming out of his jaws.  Below and to either side is another image of the same sun god.  Also, according to “La Prensa”, over the head of the central figure, like a crest, is the head of a quetzal bird but with the eyes of a macaw.  This entire figure is the representation of the founder of the Copán dynasty.  You might say it is his “crest”.  It might also be added that on Altar Q, as well as in other hieroglyphs one finds other heads of quetzals with the eyes of a macaw.  That is to say that the founder is mentioned repeatedly throughout the archaeological park at Copán. 3

 

     Inside the Temple Rosalila, there were many offerings, scepters in strange shapes, made of flint, incense burners made from clay that had burned charcoal it them, carved sculptures of felines, as well as objects made of shells and jade.

 

     On the steps of the base of Rosalila, a carved hieroglyphic text was discovered that indicates that the Temple was a work of the 10th governor of Copán, Moon Jaguar, and commemorates the year 571 A.D.   From there it is evident that Rosalila was a sanctuary dedicated to the god of the sun, the patron god of Copán, and K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’, the founder of the dynasty, whose name literally translated means: “eye of the sun–shinning-quetzal-macaw”. 4  ­

 

 

     The “Prensa” goes on to say that the results of archaeological investigations indicate that in the last few decades, the city, as well as the entire Copán Valley suffered a population explosion without precedent.  They were forced to plant on the mountainsides in an attempt to feed the population.  Studies in paleontology show that even the forests disappeared.  This was probably due to the fact that they needed wood for construction, to illuminate their homes, and firewood to cook with.  La Prensa” states that the founder of Copán probably came as a representative from a more complex social and political society, being interested in expanding political and commercial links to the east.  Copán had access to ancient commercial trade routes from the Pacific and El Salvador, and made available cocoa, cotton, obsidian, feathers from exotic birds, and other products.  Robert Sharer thinks that K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’, being backed by  the military power of Teotihuacán, married a high ranking local girl, and brought stability, peace and prosperity to the region, founding the first Copán dynasty.

 

     Archaeological works show that the first of the Copán growth was very gradual.  This was around 400 A.D.  This was when the hieroglyphic writings were being developed (“La Prensa”).  The city increased progressively over the next 400 years, growing in size and diversity, eventually forming a State that controlled a vast territory.  La Prensa said that William Sanders and his team of archaeologists from Pennsylvania State University knowing the ancient method of farming and the agricultural potential of the Copán valley concluded that during its’ final decades, Copán was not self-sufficient, and depended on food imports from neighboring regions.  They said that in the final years, in the 9.25 square miles around the Central Plaza of the ruins, that there had been about 3,450

buildings, and that within those, about 1,000 were located within one half mile of the  Acropolis.  Further out, toward the outer natural geographical limits of Copán, Sanders counted 1,425 other archaeological sites with 4,507 buildings.  This data allows one to estimate that during the 8th century A.D., Copán was a city with a population of more than 27,500 inhabitants. 5

 

           Archaeologically, the Honduran “Prensa” reports that the oldest structure found at Copán dates about 1,400 B.C.  It is the remains of a house with rounded corners.  In this house were artifacts and utensils from areas to the south and to the west, but nothing from the northern lands of the Mayans.  This may indicate that the earliest inhabitants of the Copán valley were not originally Mayans, but that later became Mayans. 

 

     Archaeologist William Fash, in 1991 found that in the middle pre-classic period (900-300 B.C.) the most numerous and sophisticated remains were found.   He found platform construction of multiple homes with rock walls around them.  Inside of these homes he found numerous sophisticated burials  that indicate a more complex cultural development from an earlier time period.  The ceramic jars that accompanied these burials indicate that Copán had ties with the Olmec culture from southern Mexico.

 

     The “Prensa” (Milenio Edition) further states that at the end of the Pre-classic period (300 B.C.-100 A.D.), when the Mayns area had its great cultural peak, that Copán it seems, lagged behind in history, because archaeological finds of this era are very scarce in Copán. 6

     Later, in the Protoclassic period (our era), portable objects such as vessels, pots, particularly made of ceramic, show that Copán continued its contacts toward the south and the east, with heavy traffic, like the highland Mayans of Guatemala had toward the west.  It was during this time that the first houses made of quarry rock appear.

 

     In the Classic period which started about 400 A.D. the remains found during this time mark the impressive Mayan traditions that quickly spring up to the west of Copán.  It is possible that this is the time of the first dynastic governor, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’,  according to La Prensa” of Honduras. 7

 

             Further information from La Prensa” say that archaeologists studying homes from the simplest to the palaces of the governors find 4 types of houses that fir the same number of social classes.  First, there is the most humble home associated with the country people or farmers.  Secondly, there was more formal homes constructed of rock for the common people.  Thirdly, there were more complicated rock houses with multiple patios, for the lower noble class , perhaps such as merchants, craftsmen, and warriors.  Fourthly, the upper nobility, those assigned to the royal court, with richly decorated, grand palaces.

 

     The architecture of the houses of the upper class shows a  complicated and sophisticated architecture, including 11 patios surrounded by about 50 buildings, with almost 100 rooms.  These were build in about the year 781 A.D.  The principal building was dedicated to a noble who belonged to the court of the governor Yax Pasah (1st dawn).

In the rooms next to the principal chamber of the palace probably lived the wives and offspring of the royal personage. 8

 

 

     One remarkable note about Copán is that about  4.3 miles to the precise north of the main plaza, on the current Guatemalan border, there is a lone stela, a marker of some type.  From the stela in the main plaza of Copán to the precise south, in the middle of no where, is another lone marker, a stela if you would.  Although these three stelas are in an exact alignment north to south, because of the many tall hills throughout the Copán valley, there is no way of visably seeing from any one stela to the next stela.  How did they do that?

           On the west side of the main plaza, over the hill, one finds Altar Q.  Unfortunately, many of the tour guides that work the ruins, if not all of them, say that the 16 figures seen around the square “table” are Mayan kings who came from other places for a meeting in Copán.  It is probably 4 feet by 4 feet square, flat on top, and has 4 sculptured kings on each side.   It was not a Copán conference.  These figures are the likeness’ of the 16 Kings of Copán dating from 426 AD until 820 AD.  It was carved out during the reign of the 16th King, Yax Pac, and is a commemorative monument, honoring the 16 Kings of the Dynasty of Yax-K’Uk-Mo (Quetzal-Blue Macaw). 

     Following, are brief comments about each of the Kings:

 

1st King,    K’inich Yax-K’uk’-Mo.  Reigned 426 – 435 AD. He introduced hieroglyphic writing.  He originated the emblem glyph for Copán. His position on Altar Q  is second figure on the west side.

 

2nd King,  Petate en la Cabeza (Equipment for navigation on the head), son of Yax-K’uk- Mo.  Reigned 437 – 485 AD.  Erected stelas 20 and 63.  His position on Altar Q is the first place on the west side.

 

3rd King,   Unknown.  Reigned 485 AD.  Unknown if he made any stone works.

 

 4th position on the north side of Altar Q.

 

4th King,   Cu Lx.  Reigned 485 – 495 AD.  Built the steps on the Parrot structure. He is placed in the 3 position on the north side of Altar Q.

 

5th King,   Unknown.  Reigned 495 – 500 AD. Unknown if he made any monuments.  Found in place 1 on the north side of Altar Q.

 

6th King,   Unknown.  Reigned 500 – 504 AD.  Unknown if he made any monuments.  Second place on north side of Altar Q.

 

7th King,   Nenúfar Jaguar.  Reigned 504 – 544 AD.  Erected stela 9 of the 9th group, stela E in the principal group, and he appears on stela 16 in Caracol, Belize.  Appears in position 4 on the east side of Altar Q.

 

8th King,   Unknown, son of Nenúfar Jaguar.  Reigned 544 – 551 AD.  Unknown if he erected any monuments.  Placed in 3rd position on east side of Altar Q.

 

9th King,   Unknown, son of Nenúfar Jaguar.  Reigned  *544 – 551 AD. Built step

number 18 on the hieroglyphic stairway.  Appears in position 2 on east side.

 

10th King, Luna Jaguar (Jaguar Moon).  Reigned 553 – 578 AD. Erected stelae 9 in 564 AD.  It carries Mayan date 9.6.10.0.0   also built structures in front of the Temple Rosalila, and the temple itself, in honor of the sun; and built the main sanctuary in the 6th century.  He appears on step 9 of the hieroglyphic stairway.  His likeness is the first sculpture on the east side of Altar Q.

 

11th King, Butz’ Chan, Humo Serpiente, Humo Cielo  (serpent smoke, sky smoke).  Reigned 578 – 628 AD.  He assumed the throne at 15 years old.  Erected stelae  7, P, and Altar Y.  Of all the kings, his tomb is the most spectacular, with the largest number of funeral offerings.  Bottles of paint were found, and a piece of decorated ceramic with the image of patron god of the scribes.  His image is the 4th on the south side of Altar Q.  He also appears on the 8th step of the hieroglyphic stairway.  (I imagine he was an artist and liked to paint)

 

12th King, Humo-Imix Dios K (also called  Humo Jaguar- “Jaguar Smoke”).  He reigned  628 – 695 AD.  He himself was a great scribe.  He erected stelae  1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, 12, 13, and 19.  He also erected altars H, I, and K, as well as the emerald  structure.  He appears on steps 6 and 7 of the hieroglyphic stairway.  His image is the 3rd one of the south side of Altar Q.  

 

13th King, 18 Conejo (XVIII Jog)  18 Rabbit. He is perhaps the most famous of the kings.  He reigned 695 – 738 AD.  He erected stelae A, B, C, D, F, H, J, 4, 10L-4, 10L-9, and 10.  He also had the famous “Ball Court” constructed, 10L-22,

 and 10L-26III.  He also did additional work on the Emerald structure.  He  appears on steps 30, 38, 58 and 61 of the hieroglyphic stairway image if.  His  number 2 on the south side of Altar Q.

 

 

14th King, Humo Mono (monkey smoke), He is known as the timid king.  He reigned  738 – 749 AD.  He constructed the “Community House” (structure 10-22A).  He did not erect any stelae because of the great political instability that dominated his reign.  He appears on steps 39, 40,  41, 43, and 54 of the hieroglyphic stairway.  On Altar Q, he is number 1 on the south side.

 

15th King, Humo Caracol (Humo Ardilla).  He was called by 2 names:  Shell Smoke, and Squirrel Smoke.  He reigned 749 – 763 AD.  His works include stelae M and N; the hieroglyphic stairway and its Temple (structure 10L-26).

He also constructed a community house (the Popol Nah), also known as the House of Advice (Casa del Consejo).  He appears on steps 39, 40, 41, 43, and  54 of the hieroglyphic stairway.  His image appears as number 4 on the west   side of Altar Q.

 

16th King, Yax Pac (sun on the horizon).  He is also called  “First Dawn”, and  “Dawn”.  He reigned 763 – 820 AD.  His works include stelae 8 and 11;   altars G1, G2, G3, D, O, Q, R, T, U, V.and Z.  He also carved incense burners

from rock, with rock lids that had inscriptions.  He also had texts inscribed on  structures 10L-32, 9N-82, CV43A, and on Altar W.  This was the last king,  or governor of the Mayan Copán Dynasty.  His image is the third on the west  side of Altar Q, which he had built as a memorial to the Copán kings.   

       To me,   it appears obvious that Yax Pac knew he was to be the last governor of this  royal dynasty that officially lasted for 395 years.   Is it possible that the beginnings of Copán began 5 years before the first king took his place on the

throne, and that Yax Pac mandated that the Copán Dynasty should last only  One Mayan Period of 400 years? 

 

 

Bibliography:

1  Archaeology magazine, Sept/Oct 1998, p.51

2  La Prensa Online; www.laprensahn.com/milenio/mile4.htm (p.1)

3  ibid; (p.2)

4  ibid; (p.2)

5  www.laprensa.com/milenio/mile2.htm

6  www.laprensa.com/milenio/mile.htm (p.1)

7  ibid; (p.2) 

8  www.laprensa.com/milenio/mile3.htm