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Copan


Also spelled Copán. Maya-region site listed in The Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions "Sources of Sculpture and their Codes" and designated CPN (Graham and Mathews 1999).

The city ... lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction. All was mystery, dark, impenetrable mystery, and every circumstance increased it (Stephens 1841:1:105).

With these words, the 19th century writer John Lloyd Stephens evoked the mystery and ruined splendor of Copan, the first Maya city encountered in his travels with artist and fellow antiquarian Frederick Catherwood. The two explorers were suitably impressed by their first sight of a Maya city, although they had no way of knowing at the time that Copan, on the furthest periphery of the Maya world, would prove to surpass the heartland in its mastery of three-dimensional sculpture (Martin and Grube 2008:191).

The careful documentation of the site by Stephens and Catherwood set a precedent for extensive investigations that have been carried out in the intervening years, particularly since 1983 by institutions under the leadership of William Fash. (For the definitive introduction to the site, see Fash's Scribes, Warriors and Kings, the revised edition of 2001.)

Research at Copan has been immeasurably aided by an act of nature. By cutting into the Acropolis, the Copan river has exposed a cross-section of the many layers created by the site's sixteen known rulers building atop the constructions of their predecessors (Martin and Grube 2008:191). This "cut" has made it possible for archaeologists to tunnel in at the various levels, in the lowest of which they exposed what is probably the tomb of the dynastic founder himself (ibid:191, 193). Archaeological and epigraphical investigations at Copan have provided important insights into the foundation of Maya dynasties as well as the intriguing connection between the Maya and Teotihuacan (ibid:191).

While the Acropolis is the cumulative record of four centuries of rulership beginning with the Founder, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', there are indications of prior elite occupation. Investigations in the Las Sepulturas district, not far from the site core, have revealed large platforms and rich tombs dating to the Middle Preclassic (ibid:211).

Although they may as easily amount to a manufactured history, inscriptions may provide a glimpse of the elite supplanted, perhaps forcibly, by Yax K'uk' Mo' (ibid:193). One text carries a date of 321 BC, and there are at least two references to the 8.6.0.0.0 (AD 159) k'atun ending; on this latter date, a character nicknamed Foliated Ajaw is involved in the dedication of a monument and a sacrifice (ibid.:193). A character with a similar name appears in the inscription on a carved peccary skull from Tomb 1, which states that he "wrapped" a stela in AD 376 (ibid:193).

The foregoing is based on Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube (2008:191-193, 211).


David Stuart (2004:216) defines Copan's pre-dynastic era as the time prior to the accession of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' on 8.19.10.10.17 (September 6, AD 426). Six dates are known from this period. The earliest of these, 7.1.13.15.0 9 Ajaw 13 Kumk'u (October 14, 321 BC), is not likely to be historical, but the next two, falling in the second century of the current era, can reasonably be considered to record the first events of the pre-dynastic era.

On 8.6.0.0.0 10 Ajaw 8 Ch'en (December 18, AD 159), "six K'atuns ended" at a location identified by a "bent Kawak" glyph. This took place under the auspices of (or was "governed" by) a ruler named glyphically as K'INICH ya-?-na, where the undeciphered sign has been described as a "three-leaves Ajaw" (or "foliated Ajaw"). Stuart (ibid.:219) speculates that the "bent Kawak" place was near Tikal, as Tikal Stela 31 records that a k'atun-ending sometime before 8.14.0.0.0 (AD 317) was commemorated at the same location. The Tikal ruler who supervised the event is nicknamed Foliated Jaguar because one of his nominal glyphs is the same "three-leaves Ajaw" found in the name of the Copan king, suggesting some connection between them (ibid.:220). The "bent Kawak" place is also mentioned at Yaxchilan in connection with the founder of its dynasty. The possibility that it might have been in the vicinity of Tikal — and that K'INICH ya-?-na might have come from there — leads Stuart to suggest that "Copan's explicit connections to the Petén could have come as early as 8.6.0.0.0 — nearly 280 years before the time of a far better-known political 'outsider', K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'" (ibid.:221).

Dates as early as 8.6.0.0.0 are rare in Maya inscriptions, but Stuart (ibid.:219) points to a number that cluster within a fairly narrow range, on Naranjo Stela 25 (8.5.18.4.0, which may also be associated with a "foundation" event), Abaj Takalik Stela 5 (8.2.2.10.5 and 8.4.5.17.11), La Mojarra Stela 1 (8.5.3.3.5 and 8.5.16.9.7), the Tuxtla Statuette (8.6.2.4.17) and Chiapa de Corzo Stela 2 (8.7.3.2.13?).

The next date in the pre-dynastic history of Copan falls 208 days after the 8.6.0.0.0 k'atun-ending, on 8.6.0.10.8 10 Lamat 16 Pop. Unfortunately the event, recorded on Stela 4, is effaced, but there is only room in the missing passage for a verb, with no personal name intervening before the next glyph, which is the bat emblem of Copan. This led Stuart and Linda Schele to hypothesize that "this passage recorded a key event in the advent of Copan's political identity, perhaps even a time of formal 'foundation' of the bat polity" (ibid.:219).

(In the Stela 4 inscription, the Copan emblem glyph is followed by CHAN-CH'EEN, "sky and cave", a pairing which "carries the sense of 'universe' through two opposed spaces — something along the lines of 'the realms above and the realms below'" [ibid.:219].)

The date 8.10.10.10.16 (April 6, 249) is given on the doorjamb of Structure 10L-7 in an inscription that may be augmented by future archaeological excavations (ibid.:223).

The Calendar Round 1 Ajaw 8 Ch'en, which must represent the k'atun ending 8.17.0.0.0 (October 21, 376), is inscribed on the peccary skull found in Tomb 1. The event is the period-ending ceremony of "stone-binding" (and the carving depicts a stela shape marked with "stone" signs and apparently wrapped in textiles). The glyph following the verb is the same "foliated Ajaw" name that was seen in connection with the 8.6.0.0.0 date, although as Stuart (ibid.:223) cautions, "despite the overlap in the names, the rulers are of course different individuals, overseeing K'atuns separated by 220 years." Two seated individuals are depicted in the carving. One of them is named with a macaw in his headdress, evocative of the pre-accession name of the Copan founder: K'uk' Mo' Ajaw ("Quetzal-Macaw Lord"). Although this is about fifty years before the accession of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', it could conceivably be him since we don't know his birth date (ibid.:223).

It is far more likely that K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' was present for another stone-binding dated to 8.19.0.0.0 (March 25, 416). This is ten years before his "arrival" at Copan, as recorded on Altar Q, suggesting "the possibility that K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' had an earlier political and ceremonial life, perhaps even at Copan" (ibid.:240).


In a discussion of the development of the buildings around the Early Classic precursors of Temple 26, William Fash, Barbara W. Fash, and Karla Davis-Salazar (2004:82) indicate that the plaza floor in front of the Motmot phase of Temple 26 lips up to an early version of Temple 11. Investigations have yet to determine whether there are still-previous versions of the latter structure dating to the reign of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' or even earlier. The authors also point to the Northwest Platform, north of the Acropolis by the Central Plaza, where test pitting has found Preclassic deposits.


According to Robert Sharer (2004:310):

...between A.D. 554 and 564, nearly all of Copan's royal monuments, the most visible political legacy of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', seem to have been smashed, along with the destruction of at least two buildings and other likely disruptions during this same time span. Two general hypotheses can be advanced to account for the A.D. 554-564 destruction seen at Copan. The first is that this was due to internal events, including local political upheaval, periodic ritualized destruction, or a destructive event spawned by calendrical prophecy or an attempt to rewrite history. The second hypothesis would seem to remove most of the inconsistencies arising from the internally induced scenarios. This would see the destruction as being due to an outside incursion, most likely carried out directly or indirectly by Calakmul, the victor in a major confrontation with Tikal at this very same time. Following this episode, Copan's 10th ruler, Moon Jaguar, succeeded in renewing Copan's dynastic fortunes by dedicating a new monument in the ancient precinct of Group 9.


Maps of the Copan Valley from the large map at the entrance to the site:

Overview - the complete map.

Western valley - with Stela 10 (labeled "Estella 10") at upper left.

West-central valley - town of Copán Ruinas in center, Principal Group of site in red.

Uplands to north of Principal Group.

Central valley - town of Copán Ruinas (location of Stela 7) and Principal Group, with Stelae 5 and 6 on road in between.

Wider view of central valley.

Northeast valley - with the Petapilla Stela ("Estella Petapilla").

Close view of Petapilla Stela area.

Uplands east of Las Sepultural (with Los Sapos, site of rock carvings) and Stela 12.

Closer view of Principal Group, El Bosque and Los Sapos.

Los Sapos and Stela 12 area.