COPAN'S FOUNDER

By Joel Skidmore

Text Index

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Go to page: The vaulted tomb chamber known as Hunal "contains the bones of a single individual placed on a stone bier, head to the south, adorned by several large and spectacular jade objects. The bones are of a robust male, a little over 5'6" tall, who was probably 55 or older when he died."

With these words, Robert J. Sharer, Director of the Early Copan Acropolis Program, introduces one of the great discoveries of archaeology, deep beneath the many layers of an ancient Maya temple complex. Dr. Sharer continues, "Several lines of evidence indicate that these are the remains of the historically-identified dynastic founder of the Classic period Copán polity, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'."

Dr. Stuart's article, "'The Arrival of Strangers': Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History", is published in Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, edited by Davíd Carrasco, Lindsay Jones and Scott Sessions, from the University of Colorado. An excerpt from the PARI Newsletter is available online.

Go to page: In a sense, the discovery of the Hunal tomb was the result of a catastrophe. When the Copán River in its previous course cut through the Acropolis of the ancient city, precious architecture was destroyed. But the silver lining was an enormous cross-section revealing the different layers of construction. This made possible a procedure described for Mesoweb by William Fash, overall director of the archaeological work at Copán. Archaeologists were essentially able to choose a level, tunnel in and follow the floor to the side of a given building, then follow the building's perimeter to its stairs and up the stairs into the temple.

Go to page: Like Russian stacking dolls, Hunal was nested under at least eight subsequent structures. Yehnal was the first of these. Its facade was decorated with large masks of the sun god.

Go to page: Above Yehnal was Margarita (another nickname bestowed by the archaeologists). On its stucco facade was a relief sculpture depicting a quetzal bird entwined with a macaw. The quetzal is k'uk' in Mayan, while the macaw is mo', thus forming two parts of the name of the Copán founder, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'. There are yax symbols attached to the birds' heads.

Go to page: Sun gods in the mouths of the birds represent the word K'inich, thus completing the name of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'. Clearly the Margarita temple was intended as a shrine to the Copán founder. This lends probability to the hypothesis that his body is buried in its depths.

Fortunately, the Maya themselves were historians, and David Stuart realized that their texts might hold the key to the mystery. His breakthrough was in large measure made possible by the work of another epigrapher, Barbara MacLeod. A professional airplane pilot as well as hieroglyphics expert, MacLeod had deciphered a glyph meaning "to arrive" as it appeared in calendric contexts. And she had also pointed out that it was used in connection with foreign women "arriving" in a given kingdom to marry into the local nobility, thereby effecting political change. It was David Stuart who realized the implications of a key "arrival" statement on Tikal's Stela 31, and he followed it up with an incisive analysis of this and other texts.

Go to page: Also significant is the fact that Altar Q was placed in front of Temple 16, the final construction phase of the multiple structures atop the Hunal tomb.

Go to page: Sixteen rulers in the unbroken dynastic succession of Copán wrap the four sides of Altar Q. The line starts with the founder, who sits face-to-face with his fifteenth successor, the ruler who commissioned the monument.

Go to page: On Altar Q, the Founder is the only ruler who wears the cut-shell goggles associated with the Central Mexican site of Teotihuacan. His square shield is also characteristic of the highland city, as is the symbol that it displays.

Go to page: The shield of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' bears an image of the War Serpent of Teotihuacan.

Go to page: We actually know the name of the Teotihuacan War Serpent because of inscriptions from the Maya, such as this one from Stela 6 in Copán. The three dots and three bars in the upper left corner stand for the number 18 (each bar counting five). The glyph for "serpent" is clear at the bottom. The name is Waxaklajuun U-b'aah Chan, "Eighteen Are the Serpent's Heads".

Go to page: Significantly, there were eighteen heads of the War Serpent on either side of the central staircase of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacan.

Go to page: All of the evidence together suggests that the founder of Copán was part of the Teotihuacan incursion into the politics of the Maya realm.

Go to page: In a striking parallel to the "arrival" of the Teotihuacanos at Tikal, hieroglyphics expert David Stuart has pointed out that the Copán founder is also said to have "arrived". In this passage from the text of Altar Q, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' takes the k'awiil, an expression used elsewhere for accession to office. The next glyph block has a distinctive crossed-bands sign, together with glyphs for te', "tree" and naah, "structure". Possibly translated "Root House", this seems to be a Teotihuacan-associated building connected with the founding of dynasties.

Go to page: Three days later, according to the inscription, the Founder left the building named with the distinctive crossed-bands glyph. And 152 days after that, as explained by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube in Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' "arrived" at Copán. It is conceivable that the earlier events happened in Teotihuacan itself.

Go to page: This was not necessarily K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo's first appearance on the stage of history. This unique monument from Tikal connects what may well be his name with a date twenty years earlier than the Copán arrival.

Go to page: Here we see a glyph that can be read as k'u, possibly an "underspelling" of k'uk'.

Go to page: And next to it is (possibly) a glyph for mo'. Significantly, the founder of Copán lacks both K'inich and Yax in his name as it appears in an early inscription at Copán, where he is called simply K'uk' Mo' Ajaw ("Quetzal Macaw Lord"). He may have adopted the fuller form of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' upon his accession to rulership.

Go to page: Scientific analysis confirms the inference from archaeology, iconography and hieroglyphic decipherment. The bones of the individual in the Hunal tomb - in all probability those of the Founder himself - bear none of the chemical signatures of a Copán native. And thanks to forensic anthropologist Jane Buikstra we know a great deal more about K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'.

Go to page: In a presentation at the UCLA Maya Weekend in October, 2000, Buikstra detailed what she humorously referred to as "The Cost of Being King". The individual buried in Hunal had a "defensive fracture" of the right arm that had healed in a deformed manner. This is sometimes referred to as a "parry fracture", the type of wound one would get if struck when throwing up the arm to defend oneself (although Buikstra cautions that it might also have been produced by falling onto a hard surface).

Go to page: Provocatively, archaeologist Robert Sharer has pointed out that the square shield of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' on Altar Q covers what appears to be a stunted right arm. Buikstra also points out that the Hunal individual had suffered blunt trauma to the lower chest, which in healing had become distorted. This could have been produced by a large object such as a ballgame ball. Also, the shoulder area had suffered a traumatic episode that had never fully healed; one bone was "polishing" directly on another. If seeing these remains today, comments Buikstra, one would think in terms of a pedestrian vehicle accident.

Go to page: Furthermore, the other arm had been broken, the ribs were fractured, there was a small fracture of the skull, and the first cervical vertebra in the backbone was polishing on the first thoracic vertebra such that one bone was grooving the other. Obviously there was more than one traumatic event involved. Evidently the individual had engaged in some form of extreme behavior, in all probability either on the battlefield or ballcourt or both. In summing up during the question and answer session, Buikstra said that the arm of K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' was probably asymptomatic, though bent; the lower chest pushed in and protruding above; the shoulder pulled medially, though normal looking; the upper back stiff, so that he would have held himself rigidly and tried to minimize movement of the neck. He probably limped on his right foot. "And been very grumpy," added archaeologist Loa Traxler, who was present at the session. (Traxler was a key member of the team investigating the Hunal burial.)

Go to page: Jane Buikstra also revealed some important new findings from the analysis of the strontium isotopes in the Hunal remains. There is a unique signature left in the bones from drinking the groundwater at a given location. The ratio of strontium isotopes at Copán is different from Tikal or Teotihuacan or elsewhere (although some widely separated locations coincidentally leave the same signature). Furthermore, the incisors and premolars that are forming underneath the "baby teeth" give a signature for the first years of life, while the second and third molars are forming later, and so give the signature of the individual's surroundings between the ages of approximately three and five. The bones, which are remodelled throughout life, only give the signature of the last five years or so of adult life. On this basis, we now know that the individual buried in Hunal spent his early childhood years in Tikal or nearby. (Map.)

Go to page: The fifteenth and sixteenth rulers of Copán strongly asserted their Teotihuacan heritage. This was in keeping with numerous Maya sites that used Teotihuacan symbolism long after the fall of Teotihuacan itself, particularly in connection with warfare. In the case of Copán, this was a direct historical allusion. The famous hieroglyphic stairway of Copán's Temple 26 could be read as a complete dynastic history of the kingdom as a visitor ascended the pyramid to the temple on top.

Go to page: And inside that temple was a unique hieroglyphic inscription that paired glyphs in a Teotihuacan style with traditional Maya glyphs to give the effect of a bilingual text. Here, for instance, we see the name of Copán ruler Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil (18 Rabbit). The Teotihuacan glyph in the upper left has the dots and bars of the number 18 paired with a goggle-eyed "Tlaloc" figure, while the adjacent glyph to the right has a standard Maya full-figure form of the number eighteen (waxaklajuun in Mayan). Below this, the Maya glyph on the bottom right has a jog gopher (b'aah) and God K (k'awiil). The glyph on the bottom left, in what David Stuart has called a Teotihuacan "font", represents God K by showing the customary smoke from the ax in that deity's forehead emanating from another goggle-eyed Teotihuacan storm god.

Go to page: It is the sixteenth ruler of Copán, Yax Pasaj Chan Yoaat, who is pictured on Altar Q receiving the torch of office from the Founder. And it was Yax Pasaj who built Temple 11, from the summit of which one could look out between inscribed hieroglyphic records at the culminating monuments of the great kingdom that the Founder had begun.