Copán I

Tags: Copán, Honduras, Maya ruins

Date: January 29, 2020

On our first day in Honduras we went to the Mayan archaeological site of Copán. Welcoming us beyond the ticket counter was a large male turkey:

Copán was a large city located in the Copán river vallley founded by initiative of Tikal in AD 426 as the capital of a new Maya kingdom. Its first ruler, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', was probably from Tikal and the city remained closely allied with Tikal. Copán was the ceremonial center of a large inhabited area on the sides of the Copán river and several thousand larger and smaller Maya structures, many of them residential structures, have been found in the Copán valley. Copán has a large number of sandstone stelae, the most characteristic ones erected by the 13th ruler of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, also known as 18 Rabbit. Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil ruled from 695 until 738 when he was captured and executed by the ruler of Quiriguá. Like the stelae we saw in Quiriguá, the Copán stelae depict a ruler often dressed up as a god on the front side of the stelae while the back and sides are usually covered in hieroglyphs. However, the stelae erected by Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil are considered to be the zenith of the so called full in-the-round sculpture style, which means that the carvings are almost completely three-dimensional as opposed to "just" being scratches on a flat stone.

The first stela we saw had a scarlet macaw, the national bird of Honduras, sitting on the top of it:

By spreading its wings, the macaw gave Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil an extra fancy headdress - the eyes and the top of the ears of Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil are visible in the bottom of the picture:

An alter-like monument that looks like a turtle:

Another of Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil's stelae:

The back of the stela shows the same figurative hieroglyphs that we saw in Quiriguá. Also in the left column, the second hieroglyph from the bottom has a large flint stone sitting in the middle of it. The sculptor must have had a bad day when he discovered that the sandstone chosen for this stela had this defect:

Closeups of two of the hieroglyphs:

Yet another of Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil's stelae:

The back of the stela shows five sets of four hieroglyphs framed by strands of umbilical cords:

Another back side of one of Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil's stelae:

A round alter in front of a stela erected by an earlier ruler than Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil. It is not in the three-dimensional carving style but is a lot "flatter":

The scarlet macaw deity was important in Mayan mythology and the ball court in Copán was decorated with carved macaw mosaics. Here is a reconstruction where the macaw's head is sticking out of the wall, its claws are under the head, the wings to each side and the tail feathers are pointing up:

During the reign of Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil the ball court was rebuilt to become one of the largest from the classical period. It was completed in AD 738, the same year that Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil was captured and beheaded in Quiriguá. At its completion the ball court featured 16 macaw mosaics but most of them have not survived until today. Here is an overview of the ball court:

Next to the ball court is the so-called Hieroglyphic Stairway first built by Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil in AD 710. It has 62 steps and large sculpted figures at the center of every 12th step. The figures are believed to represent the most important rulers of Copán. In addition to the sculpted rulers, the steps of the stairway has 2200 hieroglyphs that (if put into order) would form the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text. Unfortunately, when the staircase was discovered by archaeologists, the hieroglyphs had become scrambled due to an earlier collapse of the staircase and only the hieroglyphs on the lower part of the steps are in the correct order:

The stela at the foot of the Hieroglyphic Staircase is named Stela M. It bears a portrait of K'ak' Yipyaj Chan K'awiil (also known as Smoke Shell or Smoke Squirrel) and was erected in AD 756 after K'ak' Yipyaj Chan K'awiil expanded the staircase. The stela, seen from the side is another fine example of the full in-the-round sculpture style:

A carved stone skull lying on the ground:

More stone skulls on the so-called Temple 16 which was dedicated to the first ruler of Copán, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' (also known as Great-Sun First Quetzal Macaw), and placed on top of his original palace and tomb:

Right next to Temple 16 is an area of structures that were elite residences: