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Go to page: This magnificent head of a wrinkled, old deity (variously known as a bakab or pawahtuun, plural pawahtuunoob) was once part of a full-body sculpture. Pawahtuunoob are often depicted in Maya art in their role as skybearers, crouching and lifting with their hands sky or earthbands above them. This was one of two such representations in very large scale found at Structure 11, and it has been proposed that the pair once held aloft a "celestial monster" (a large reptilian symbolizing the sky) across the doorway of the temple atop this structure. The head of the second Pawahtuun, unfortunately, rolled down all the way to the plaza below when the temple collapsed, becoming all but destroyed in the process.
Go to page: View of Copan's justly famed Great Plaza, as seen from the summit of Structure 11, looking northward. In the foreground is Copan's beautiful ballcourt, the pavement of which has survived, along with six macaw-head markers. The ballcourt is closed at its farthest end by a platform crowned by Stela L. In the middle of the picture, slightly to the left, is the small pyramidal body of Temple 4. In front of it (and a tree) stands Stela 3, while behind it one can discern some of the Great Plaza's famous monuments, including Stelae C and D, which can be seen behind and slightly to the right of Temple 4.
Go to page: Once marking one end of a now-gone sculpted band, this reptilian creature is one of two that survive on the southern façade of Structure 11. Although the three-dot motif (common on representations of toads) has prompted scholars to identify it as a toad, the appearance of this animal is more iguana-like, but without its context its associations are hard to understand.
Go to page: Set on a wall of the important Structure 22, this witz (mountain) mask marks the whole structure as being a symbolic mountain. In the ancient Maya cosmovision, pyramids were thought of as mountains, while the temples crowning them were conceived as caves. A strong argument can be made that, in the Maya mindset, these associations were not allegorical: their structures were thought of as becoming actual mountains and caves by virtue of the all-important act of naming them as such.
Go to page: Detail of the carving on Copan Stela F. While much destroyed, enough fine detail remains on this monument to understand what makes Copan sculpture so unique in the Maya world. Not only is the degree of three-dimensionality attained remarkable (most Maya monuments are carved in low to high relief), but the amount of iconographic information included in every nook of the stone is nothing short of overwhelming. This particular monument marks a half-k'atuun period ending (22.214.171.124.0) by Copan's best-known king: Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, popularly known as 18 Rabbit.
Go to page: The back of Stela 4, showing the inscription, and the couple of stone monuments that stand in front of it. The inscription is somewhat obscure, as it involves possible ritual activities that are poorly understood, involving the taking or tying of a bundle and the taking of a black headdress. The square stone sitting in front of the stela was found buried under the stela's foundation as part of a dedication cache, while the oval-shaped stone in front of the square stone is thought to represent a tied rubber ball of the type used in the ballgame.
Go to page: Looking east from behind Stela A, this partial view of the Great Plaza allows one to imagine how magnificent this space must once have been. The open plaza space was conceived of as the surface of the primordial sea that existed before Creation. This association may have been vividly enhanced by the water that collected in the plaza after a tropical rainstorm. This would have been so by virtue of the plaster that once sealed the plaza's pavement. The entire plaza space would have thus been seen as becoming a huge watery mirror out of which rose the magnificent monuments of the Copan rulers, commemorating politico-religious events that were thought of as essential for the continuation of Creation.
Go to page: Stela H, Great Plaza. For a long time, this monument was taken to be the portrait of a woman ruler, based upon the fact that the sculpted figure wears a jade bead skirt. New insights into the meaning of the iconography now allow us to identify the figure as a male playing a part in a creation myth involving the young Maize God, one of whose attributes is a jade bead skirt. Advances in epigraphy have led to the identification of the individual depicted as Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil (whose name means Eighteen Images of K'awiil -a Maya deity-), the thirteenth king in the Copan dynastic line.
Go to page: View of a corner of the East Court. The loose stones strewn over the steps in the middle ground are all sculpted pieces meant to fit together to form complex mosaics that conveyed information regarding the functions of the different buildings. It has been said that Copanecs resorted to their famous mosaic stonework and three-dimensional sculpture because of a critical shortage of stucco with which to model the imagery on their buildings. This shortage would also have led to lime mortar being abandoned in favor of a mud-based one, which resulted in the collapse of buildings (and their mosaic motifs) once the city was abandoned and upkeep of its buildings discontinued.
Go to page: Detail of an area in the West Court known as the Reviewing Stand. This bleacher-like space is really the counterfaçade of Structure 11. The name Reviewing Stand, as many other popular names for structures in Maya cities, is the product of a flight of fancy and has nothing to do with the actual function of the space, which can only be speculated about. The sculpture of a huge sea snail was probably intended to produce an association between this space and water, as a reference perhaps to either the primordial sea of Creation or the watery Underworld.
Go to page: Judging by the abundance of inscriptions everywhere at this site, Copan must have been one of the most literate places in the Maya world. Here, a text in the Reviewing Stand relates historical events. A fair amount of texts at Copan have proved difficult to understand, since they deal with ceremonies the nature of which remains obscure.
Go to page: Detail of the face of a character at the Reviewing Stand. Though fully human in body, the ape-like face of this character puts him squarely in the realm of supernatural beings. The rain god Chaak is usually shown with a snake coming out of the corners of his mouth just as this character, but it is unlikely that this is a representation of Chaak, because he lacks any other of this deity's attributes. It is more likely that this is a wind-related being, as he holds an Ik' (wind) rattle in his left hand (see photo #20 for a wider view of this character).
Go to page: This three-quarter view of the back of Stela H shows the refinement Copan sculpture attained. It is also an example of the mastery its artists had for integrating iconography and textual information so that they became impossible to separate. The feathers of Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil's elaborate backrack, spilling from the front and around the sides of the monument (see photo #16), frame the representation of a sacrificial plate at the back, followed by a brief text that relates a little-understood event and the erection of the monument itself.
Go to page: Occupying a prominent position in the Acropolis East Court, this deity, which is elsewhere identified with the Night Sun, appears here to have had a close relationship with Venus, as suggested by the prominent star signs on either side of the god's face. Venus is known to have been associated with both warfare and sacrifice. It has also been suggested that the East Court functioned as a mock ballcourt for the purpose of conducting sacrifices, so the Venus imagery here would not be at all out of place.
Go to page: General view of the Great Plaza's northeast, showing an important cluster of monuments: the edges of Altars G3 and G2 (to the right) and Altar G1 seen from its southern sculpted side (center left). Beyond G3 and G2, stands Stela F with its related altar in front of it.
Go to page: Detail of the exquisite carving of Stela H. King Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil is bedecked with jewelry, including a large, complex headdress. In the nook of his folded left arm, he holds a ceremonial bar from the open maw of which emerges the deity K'awiil. The right half of this picture shows a literal shower of quetzal feathers adorned with jade disks. From this jungle of plumes emerges a small young Maize God, reinforcing the corn associations of the main figure in this monument (see photo #16).
Go to page: Although not standing at the time, Stela I was discovered by Stephens and Catherwood and is thought to have been originally erected in this niche. It was meant to be paired with the altar in the foreground, as the stela's inscription continues on the altar. The stela depicts a standing ruler whose face is covered by a mask of the deity known as Chaak Xib Chaak. It has been suggested that the ruler is wearing a mask to convey the message that he is already dead, but a Yaxchilan ruler wears an almost identical mask on that site's Stela 11 as he presides over three bound captives at a time preceding his accession, so the interpretation of the ruler being dead here is far from certain.
Go to page: A wonderful example of Copan architectural mosaic sculpture, this representation of Itzam Ye, an avatar of Itzamnah (the main deity in Maya religion) is shown opening its beautiful wings and displaying its fearsome tallons. The diagnostic Itzamnah ak'bal (darkness) flower with flowing elements crowns the composition, unequivocally identifying this supernatural character.
Go to page: General view of the northern edge of the West Court. The narrow platform, accessible from the Court through the use of steps, is part of the counterfaçade of Structure 11. It is popularly known as the Reviewing Stand, although its actual use remains to be determined.
Go to page: This character flanks the steps leading up to the Reviewing Stand from the floor of the West Court. It combines a human body with an ape-like face, but its proper identification within the supernatural realm remains puzzling. He holds what appears to be an ornate rattle marked with an Ik' (wind) sign, which would suggest an association with wind. (See photo #12 for a detail of this character's face).
Go to page: Partial view of the Hieroglyphic Stairway's southern ballustrade. A repeated scroll pattern is internally composed of complex iconography and was probably not meant as mere ornamentation, but as a carrier of symbolic information. Nevertheless, most research on this monument has understandably focused on the large text carved on the steps of the Hieroglyphic Stairway itself. Although collapse of the structure has hopelessly jumbled a large proportion of it, it remains the longest single text in all of the Maya area.
Go to page: In this view of the Great Plaza looking west, the back of Stela F (in the foreground) provides yet another example of the seamless integration of iconography and text Copan sculptures came to master. The feathered backrack worn by king Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil spills from the sides of the monument to the back, where it frames medallion-like shapes formed by descending twisted ropes which, in turn, contain a text. This arrangement, to quote Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, treats the text "as if the glyphs were part of Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil's backrack".
Go to page: Stela A stands at a short distance from Structure 4. Its handsome greenish stone depicts yet again Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, by far the most active raiser of lakamtunoob (stelae) in Copan history. Though the head-on, standing pose holding a zoomorph ceremonial bar in folded arms would appear to be a monotonous repetition of other monuments, the monuments' iconography varies importantly. This would communicate to the knowledgeable viewer what the ceremony celebrated by any given stela was about, and/or what deity's role the king was assuming on the occasion. It has been suggested that the king was assuming here the guise of Kan Te Ajaw, one of the patron deities of Copan, but the particularly obscure text of this stela does not help in confirming this.
Go to page: Stela B. Celebrating the 126.96.36.199.0 period ending, Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil is depicted here using the typical Copan "turban", while his bicephalic ceremonial bar emits two tiny images of the rain deity Chaak. It has been suggested that this is due to the fact that, on 188.8.131.52.0, Venus was at its maximum elongation in the area of the sky that corresponds to our constellation Virgo, which the Maya saw as associated with Chaak. Aside from talking about the monument's erection, Stela B's text specifically mentions that the monument was meant to display the king as the Lord of the Macaw Mountain, which may have been either a real or mythical place associated with Copan.
Go to page: Stela D and its associated altar (in the foreground). Though the imagery on the stela appears to be heavy on the bloodletting theme, the text, albeit one of the most beautiful examples of calligraphic art at the site, speaks of little else but the erection of the stela itself. The altar's visible side in this view represents a skeletal jaguar head of unknown associations. The other side represents a personified mountain (also known as a witz monster). Either this bicephalic monument represents some kind of duality as has been suggested or else it may be a toponym (i.e., the Skeletal Jaguar Mountain) stating where the king's actions pertaining to the stela's erection took place.
Go to page: In the foreground, the eastern side of Stela C, with Stela B in the background. Both monuments represent king Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, although the occasions and times talked about on each are different. Stela C's date is 184.108.40.206.0, which marks the king's first k'atuun ending after his accession, while the date of Stela B is exactly one k'atuun (almost 20 years) later. Between the two stelae, in the distant background, Stela E can be discerned, standing in a stairway, under a tree.
Go to page: Although being the first one in Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil's series of monumental masterpieces, Stela C is of the most detailed and beautifully rendered works in the whole Plaza. Shown here is the monument's western side, which depicts the king perhaps performing a ritual act at the time of either the erection of the stela or the closing of the fourteenth k'atuun, which was the reason for commissioning the work. The unusual fact that this monument has two representations of the king (one on the east face -see photo #26- and the other one on the west one), in effect having the king look both to the east and to the west, may have astronomical associations. It might be worth noting that the fourteenth k'atuun period-ending marked the first appearance of Venus as Eveningstar.
Go to page: Another angle of the western face of Stela C. A change in the color of the stone in the monument's bottom left marks an ancient breakage line. This monument was found shattered and lying in pieces on the plaza floor, as shown in an 1840s dramatic engraving by Frederick Catherwood and in Alfred Maudslay's photographs of Copan at the end of the nineteenth century. There is abundant evidence of physical violence done to these monuments in ancient times, which some scholars have taken to signal a violent end to the city. Though this cannot be ruled out, it is a fairly common practice throughout Mesoamerica, where monuments and buildings were considered to be living beings, to have power as objects that was terminated, either as a hostile act by foes or as a needed ritual practice before the renewal of structures and public art.
Go to page: The slender Stela E stands atop the low platform known as Structure I. Though there is good evidence that this structure, Late Classic in date, was the place where the monument stood at the time of the city's abandonment, the text on the stela and its style mark it as a much earlier object. The lack of the customary dedicatory cache also supports the idea that the monument was moved from its (unknown) original location and re-erected on Structure I. Notice how the monument is worked in relief, rather than in the three-dimensional style that Copan sculpture attained in later years.
Go to page: The back of Stela B (foreground) is occupied by a huge mountain monster mask, meant to represent a cave. Inside the right eye of the mask, the artist even tells us what specific cave we are dealing with: Mo' Witz or Macaw Mountain. The monument's main text (carved on its sides and not visible here) tells us that the other face of the stela depicts the Copan king "in the guise of the Lord of Macaw Mountain" (see photo #24), for whatever ritual he was commemorated as conducting. To the left and back, we see Stela C with its turtle altar and in the far background, Stela F.
Go to page: A partial side view of Stela A, looking south. This monument's distinctive greenish stone contrasts sharply with the darker mass of Structure 4, which stands in the middle of the Great Plaza. The text on Stela A, though poorly understood, has always fascinated scholars in that it seems to establish some kind of association between Copan and the distant Maya cities of Tikal, Calakmul and Palenque.