Mayan Wonders of Copan

Honduras is not always the first destination that appears on a backpacking itinerary, but it is a country that has huge variety and offers great value. From paradise beaches to historic sites there is a great range of activities for the backpacker to sink their teeth into.

Copan spans a couple of categories, offering fantastic historical significance of the Mayan world as well as an array of activities around the outskirts of the city. The city itself is based on the border of Honduras and Guatemala and is more like a small colonial town than a city. It is a very pretty, clean area where travelers can relax and enjoy the surroundings and have a good enough time at that. However, Copan offers so much more, with a short trip out of the main city taking you to the Mayan ruins at Copan Ruinas. These aren’t quite as impressive as those at Tikal in Guatemala but give you a taste of the Mayan history and certainly make the trip worthwhile. If you really get Mayan fever then you can carry on up to Tikal and really savor the full genius of the Mayan people.

However, the brilliance of Copan is in its location, surrounded by hills and valleys which hide huge ranches, coffee plantations and much more. For those yearning for a bit of adventure you can take on one of the many tours available which can include horseback riding across mountains and through rivers, guided tours around coffee plantations or trips to hot springs where you can relax after a long, busy day.

Whatever your reason for going, Copan is a backpacking destination to savor and one that deserves to be near the top of any traveler’s list.

Recent Tourist Comments on Copan Ruins

I am so glad I came here. Copan has had 16 rulers and they have left an impressive legacy of carvings which have been preserved in astonishing condition, partly because the stone quality here allowed for three dimensional carvings.

The hieroglyphs found here have contributed majorly to deciphering the Maya alphabet. They mostly depict the history of the city of Copan and its rulers, as well as religious images and astronomical events. The pyramids were a way the rulers could connect with the Gods and the underworld, and sometimes also served as astronomical markers.

The famous Hieroglyphic Stairway is made of 2200 glyph blocks comprising the entire western facade of Temple 26, forming the longest-known Maya hieroglyphic text.

There are two tunnels the archaeologists have dug underneath the pyramids, which allow to one to see previous pyramids and their carvings. When the Mayas built on top of pyramids they left room between the pyramids, and especially left one magnificent temple intact. It is quite rare to get such an opportunity to climb up and down within a Maya pyramid and it felt like Indiana Jones as I was the only one about.

The next day I visited the local Museum of Archaeology which exhibits some interesting finds, like the tomb of a female shaman including a puma skeleton amongst the offerings, and a skull of a ruler with decorative Jade dental implants.

As Copan is one of the southernmost Maya sites, for me this has been definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

Exploring the Mayan Tunnels in Copan

The kings of Copan built their temples one on top of the other, leaving parts of the old buildings inside the new structures. For 20 years, archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia has tunneled into these temples, where he recently discovered a king’s tomb.

The Maya kings of Copan were not interested in moving mountains. They preferred to build their own, like the pyramid now known as Temple 16. Rising 100 feet above the city’s Great Plaza, it is the highest point among a group of holy buildings that archaeologists have dubbed “the Acropolis.” Inside an excavation tunnel deep beneath the pyramid’s surface, the face of the sun-king scowls at me from the wall of his temple. The city’s ancient rulers built their temples–one on top of the next–to suit the needs of the moment. The moment I am visiting occurred shortly after A.D. 540 when the first of four temples was built around a small plaza at the top of the Acropolis.

The sun-king’s face adorns the first floor of Rosalila, a temple that was once painted a brilliant, bloody shade of red. His image wears a headdress of red, yellow, and green plumage–the feathers of a quetzal and a macaw–and curving lines in his eyes associate him with depictions of the sun god. The Maya words for each of these sculptural elements spells his name, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, which translates as “Sun-Eyed Resplendent Quetzal Macaw,” the first king of Copan.

Forty-three feet below the floor of the temple, the sun-king’s tomb was found inside one of the first buildings to be constructed on the Acropolis. Beginning around A.D. 426, the time that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ came to power, Temple 16 underwent seven major phases of construction, as well as dozens of smaller renovations and additions. The last phase took place in A.D. 775 shortly before the city, which encompassed 520 acres and held a population of about 28,000 people at its peak, was largely abandoned.

Ricardo Agurcia, the director of a research and sustainable tourism organization called the Copan Association, discovered Rosalila in 1989. Copan lies in north-central Honduras at what was the southern edge of the Maya region. Finding Rosalila revolutionized what was known of the city’s early history and the Maya’s southern frontier. Now he has uncovered an adjacent temple called Oropendola, and discovered the king who was laid to rest beneath it.

The pyramid called Temple 16 rises 100 feet above the ground. Beneath its outer layer lie the remnants of dozens of holy buildings dating back to the earliest days of Maya rule, A.D. 426. Two temples remain mostly intact within the pyramid.

Agurcia invited me here to see the finds, and we have stopped at Rosalila for a little orientation in Maya iconography. The building facade soars three stories into the darkness overhead. Standing in the narrow space separating the temple from the tunnel wall, I see another face staring from the second floor. Agurcia tells me it is the mountain monster, Witz, symbolizing the temple’s role as a ceremonial mountain. The Maya understood mountains to be powerful places; they believed the rain god stored water in them and the caves that penetrated them were portals to the underworld. Rosalila was buried around A.D. 700. The temple was coated with white plaster, which Agurcia interprets as a symbolic embalming of the building. Construction fill was carefully placed against the temple preserving it almost perfectly.

Agurcia and his field director, Molly Fierer-Donaldson, take me to a low, narrow tunnel that leads to Oropendola. We leave the sun-king, now pallid and lighted only by a string of naked incandescent bulbs.

From a biological standpoint, Agurcia seems poorly adapted to his chosen environment. Agurcia stands six feet, four inches tall, and has to bend like a question mark as we move through the tunnels. On his first trip into the tunnels, he learned that he suffers from claustrophobia. “When I started, I told [friend and colleague William Fash] that I would go down there, but that I reserved the right to come running out of the tunnel screaming,” he told me later.

Archaeologists have dug more than two miles of tunnels through the Acropolis, every foot of space paid for with hours of labor and at the cost of destabilizing the stones above it. Understandably, Agurcia’s tunnels tend to be a little larger than those dug by others. He also makes sure there are two or three ways out of wherever he is working. Over time, his tunnels have become a familiar space that no longer triggers his phobia, and he feels he has good reason to face his fear day after day. “The stuff I’ve found has been outrageous, totally off the wall,” he says. “The work has been fascinating. Who would have dreamed I would find two almost complete buildings.”

Agurcia folds himself into a tunnel and the three of us head deeper into the pyramid, turning on our flashlights as we enter a newly excavated section of tunnel. A gradual incline leads to Oropendola’s second story, where I am unwittingly looking at another image of the mountain monster, Witz. Its face nearly stretches across the width of the entire temple.

A jade monkey head was part of a necklace buried with the king. It symbolizes the noble title Ahau, which means “Lord.” Exporting jade was a major source of wealth for Copan’s rulers.
Oropendola was not as carefully preserved as Rosalila. The entire third floor and about one-third of the rest of the structure was destroyed during later construction. The two buildings were also designed differently. Instead of decorations made entirely from plaster, allowing the sculptors to create fluid lines and intricate details, Oropendola’s decorations were made of stone blocks covered by a thin layer of painted plaster. The blocks make the artwork look like it was assembled out of Legos, and the plaster is almost completely gone. The image of Witz is 17 feet wide but only a few feet high, so the face is squat and stretched out. It is a radical change from the monster’s portrayal on Rosalila.

I wonder why the differences in artwork between two temples that were built just a few years apart are so striking. “It could have just been a whim,” says Agurcia, “but I think it had to do with access to plaster.” Whether it was getting enough limestone or firewood to heat the stone to produce lime is a subject of debate, but after Rosalila was completed, Copan’s temple-builders used much less plaster. If firewood did become scarce, the change in artwork may also mark an episode of environmental degradation. In the 200 years or so after Rosalila was built, stone carving became much more prevalent and Copan became known for its unique sculptures and architectural decorations. “I think [Oropendola] really was the beginning of a sculptural revolution at Copan that gives way to the great sculptures that come later on,” Agurcia says.

In the Maya belief system, night is the time that the sun spends in the underworld. It travels through a watery place inhabited by gods and the dead. The jaguar, a nocturnal predator and one of the few cats that swims and spends time in the water, represents the sun at night. Oropendola is covered with jaguar icons. On the northern facade’s second floor, a large image of a mythical bird spreads across the building, flanked by feline heads with curving stone fangs. On the north face’s first floor, a jaguar looks out from the mouth of the mountain monster. Rosalila appears to be the temple of the sun during the day. Oropendola, on the other hand, is the temple of the sun at night, a ceremonial mountain of the jaguar, and perhaps a passage to the underworld.

A spiny oyster shell found in a king’s tomb contains a large jade bead. The Maya associated shells with the underworld and jade with the human soul. The two together may represent the king’s soul in the underworld.
Unlike the sculptural decorations on Rosalila, Oropendola’s do not spell out the name of any known king. “Rosalila has a huge sun-bird on the side of it because the sun-king is buried beneath it,” says Agurcia. “So, I’ve been thinking that the iconography [in Oropendola] reflects the identity of the guy we found just below but I can’t make it add up just yet. We don’t have the names of the early rulers,” he says. “If his name was Bird-Jaguar, I’d be really happy, but we can’t make that connection.”

We descend through more tunnels, contorting ourselves into narrow spaces and climbing down ladder rungs set into the walls. Ten feet below the floor of Oropendola, Agurcia points out some long, flat stones laid side-by-side, the kind that are typically used to cover a tomb. His team found the capstones at the end of a field season when their grant money was about to run out and most of the crew had committed to working on other jobs. So he had to wait three months for new funding and a new crew of excavators.

Fierer-Donaldson was brought in to be the crew’s field director. She had to dig another tunnel hoping to come in below the capstones and through the sidewall of the tomb. But instead she had to excavate six-feet of loose soil before reaching the three layers of capstones that actually cover the tomb. “We were looking for a vault,” Agurcia tells me. “All of the early tombs have vaults.” That wasn’t the only strange thing about the tomb. “We didn’t find any offerings on top of the capstones like you might expect,” says Fierer-Donaldson.

“We realized by the elevation and stratigraphy that we were in the earliest levels of the Acropolis,” Agurcia says. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the king was buried sometime between A.D. 450 and 550. The artifacts and decorations point to a date prior to A.D. 500. Agurcia believes the tomb belonged to the second king, the son of Yax K’uk’ Mo’, but acknowledges that it could be any king between the second and fifth rulers in the dynasty. Although the king’s name is still unknown, the tomb provides some clues about Copan’s growing prosperity at the time, as well as the role the king played in creating it.

The tomb is empty when I visit. We are about 16 feet below the first floor of Oropendola and almost 60 feet below the top of the pyramid, deep enough that the air is noticeably cooler and drier. The excavation team has spent the past year recording, cataloguing, and removing everything from the tomb so that the objects can be analyzed in their laboratory nearby. There isn’t much to see, but I am surprised at the size of the tomb. Even though Fierer-Donaldson is slender and five feet, eight inches tall, it seems cramped as she climbs inside to point out where different objects were found.
Archaeologists Molly Fierer-Donaldson and Nereyda Alonso perch on a wooden platform as they lift artifacts from the tomb of the early Maya king discovered beneath the Oropendola temple.
Agurcia and I sit in the tunnel outside the tomb as he explains some of the surprises it held. “In many ways, this is an intermediate tomb,” he says, “they try to do capstones, but they don’t really know how to do it. They haven’t really learned to make the flat roof. The walls of the tomb aren’t very good, they are more like a stone facing.”

Although we are sitting next to the tomb, Agurcia can’t actually point out the roof because it collapsed some time after Oropendola was built and crushed everything inside. “The bones were in terrible shape,” says Fierer-Donaldson, pointing out that they can’t get basic information, such as age, from the skeleton. They can’t even be certain that the remains belonged to a male. But the roof collapse had one important benefit–it seems to have helped preserve some of the fragile organic remains, such as the very fine fabric of the king’s clothing. Lynn Grant of the University of Pennsylvania is conserving the textiles. Further analysis may reveal the color and type of garment the king wore.

His body had been laid out on a platform, probably made of wood, that has completely rotted away along with the woven mats that covered the floor. A layer of powdered cinnabar (mercury oxide) was scattered over the body. The cinnabar shows up inside some of the skeleton’s joints, revealing that the vibrant red pigment was added after the flesh and most of the tendons had rotted away.

A small number of scallop shells lay on the floor near his right shoulder. Two piles of spiny oyster shells were at his feet. Seashells were luxury items associated with the watery underworld. Three scallop shells and one spiny oyster shell contained a jade bead, Agurcia believes the jade may have symbolized the soul, and placing the bead inside the shell represented the soul in the underworld.

The king wore a necklace made of 20 jade beads and 40 shell beads. A large chunk of jade carved into the symbol for the Maya word “K’inich,” meaning “Eye of the Sun” or “Embodiment of the Sun,” had been placed in the corpse’s mouth. A second necklace containing a large piece of jade, carved in the likeness of a monkey head, symbolizing the word Ahau meaning “Lord,” was draped across his pelvis. According to Agurcia, these two emblems are clear indicators that the tomb’s occupant was a king. But the mass of wealth and exotic goods also reveal something about the king’s role in making Copan a major center of trade.

“The city was kind of a gateway for stuff like jade and obsidian going out of the Maya areas. What was coming in is still less documented,” Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania and the excavator of Yax K’uk’ Mo’s tomb, told me in a phone interview. When the dynasty was established, the economic situation in the area around Copan underwent a profound change. “The economy is one manifestation of a more centralized organization in the Copan Valley,” he continues. “Tying people in by the economy is just one way that they become more dependent upon and available to manipulation by these centralized rulers.”
The stylized face of Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the founder of Copan’s Maya dynasty, adorns the wall of the Rosalila temple. The markings in his eyes, and the quetzal bird headdress, connect him to the sun god.
Copan lies near the Motagua River, a major source of jade, which was an important luxury item–not just because it was beautiful, but also because it had ritual associations with rainfall and maize. Being able to control access to jade may have presented a big opportunity for the person in this tomb. “The trade here was very important,” says Agurcia. “They were plugged into a network, and had access to these very exotic goods.”
The curving fangs of a jaguar protrude from a corner of the Oropendola temple. The stone-block sculptures were once covered with a thin layer of brightly painted plaster, which may have been a scarce resource when the temple was built.
Agurcia interprets the large number of shell artifacts as an indicator that the kings of Copan may have increased their trade with settlements on the coasts. Sharer thinks that the shell artifacts may only indicate that the king liked shells.

Items such as four pyrite mirrors and hundreds of tiny green-obsidian beads show that the Maya of Copan were in contact with city-state of Teotihuacan, more than 700 miles north in central Mexico. “Trade with Teotihuacan became very important,” says Agurcia. “It was like the Wall Street of its time.” Gaining access to trade goods from all over the Maya areas would have drastically increased Copan’s prosperity. “So, this guy is showing splendorous wealth that shows major success,” Agurcia tells me. “This is the guy who nails the state of Copan into place.”

Completing the story of how the early kings of Copan established their state is likely to require many more trips into the tunnels. There were two other temples that sat around the courtyard next to Rosalila and Oropendola, nicknamed Jiquilite and Peach-Colorado. Their foundations are still intact and they may also have tombs beneath them. Agurcia estimates that finding and excavating these tombs might take another 10 years and he still has a lot of work to do on Oropendola. “There could be tombs under the other temples,” Agurcia says with a smile, “but I’m not going to look for them.”

Honduras Recovers Jaws Incrusted with Jade

The Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH) received two jaws with incrustations of jade and iron pyrite that belonged to the Mayan Indians. The pieces where recovered in Holland, and where then given to the IHAH manager by the Honduran sub-secretary of Foreign Affairs. The representative from the IHAH in Tegucigalpa said the pieces belonged to two Mayan characters that lived in Copan, Honduras, according to studies by Doctor Raphael Panhuysen of the Faculty of Archaeology from Leiden University in Holland. The jaws where delivered to the Embassy of Honduras in Holland anonymously, perhaps on behalf of some collector who considered that the best thing to do was to return the pieces to the country of origin. There are no more details of how the pieces got to Holland, or the anonymous person who gave them to the embassy of Honduras. The Honduran diplomat in Holland made the transfer of the two archaeological pieces to Honduras thru the secretary of Foreign Affairs so they could take it to the IHAH museum for permanent custody. Some of the teeth on the jaws are decorated with incrustations of Jade and Pyrite Iron, this was something that only the high class of the Mayan civilization who lived between 800 to 900 years B.C could have. After the Honduran embassy in Holland received both jaws, the Honduran government asked for them to be examined at the University of Leiden to determine their origin and document the dental decorations. The report also adds that the examination of both pieces was determined trough the strontium isotope analysis, which indicated the strontium proportion on the dental enamel is similar to the value found in the water of Copan River in Honduras. The analysis determined the origin of the individuals to whom the jaws belonged to belonged to what is now known as Copan Ruins, the most important archaeological site in Honduras. On December 13th, Honduran authorities also reclaimed 80 archaeological pieces that where owned illegally by some people. The pieces consisted on containers and other objects, some of them anthropomorphous, corresponding to the delayed classic period of the Mayas who lived west of Honduras between 600 and 900 A.C. By La Tribuna

Copán Ruinas, Part II

By Arturo Sosa for La Prensa

In the evenings, when the low sun and the wind appears soft, it is nice to sit under the giant trees in front of the Staircase of the Hieroglyphics in Copan and dream for a moment with the lives and works of those who built this great city.

Lovers of the arts, astronomy and mathematics, the Maya built a city state that became the City of Light Mesoamerican. Today Copan returns to shine, offering visitors something more to learn and enjoy. If you are from people who do not need an excuse to miss the wings to the wind, go to Copan Ruinas and do not forget to visit the following sites:

Parque de Aves Monta̱a РGuacamaya Bird Mountain Park Guacamaya
This is the best park of birds across Honduras. Settled in a beautiful natural canyon and the river Sesesmil as accompanist, Guacamaya Mountain offers a wonderful scene where the visitor can live with blue and red macaws, parrots and toucans.

Museo de Escultura – Sculpture Museum
Designed to house more than 3000 pieces of sculpture, distributed in 59 exhibitions, the huge building located within the archaeological park, covers about 4000 square meters of construction, divided into two levels, most of which are underground. A Mandatory go.

Spa Ixchel
How many times have you taken a sauna bath with medicinal plants to 1200 meters high? La Finca San Isidro is located twenty minutes of Copan Ruinas. An estate dedicated to the cultivation of coffee they decided to open to visitors to display an extraordinary scene of mountains.
With great patience and dedication, Zoyla Duke, the creator of this project, has built four beautiful log cabins, where you can enjoy hot tub, steam and sauna while listening to the diverse sounds of birds living on this farm of 400 apples.

-from the author Arturo Sosa: “Copan is undoubtedly the queen of the tourist attractions of Honduras; it took into account its size, diversity of tourism services, cultural wealth and above all, potential for development. But now it is important to note that the handling capacity of tourists the park and the town, should not be exceeded to avoid losing the tranquility and charm of enjoying at the moment. One of the great attractions of Copan Ruinas is its huge archaeological wealth and its provincial tranquility, away from fast food franchises (scrap), uncontrollable river of people and alien cultural influences. Knowing how to maintain the balance between progress and identity is not easy, especially when only one thinks about money in the short term. Thanks for joining me on these trips by Honduras. For me it is a pleasure to share stories so rich that unfold in front of my camera. And it’s impossible not to, when you live in the best country in the world. Best regards, Arturo Sosa”