Although the fertile Copán Valley is thought to have been inhabited as early as 1,400 B.C., archaeological evidence points to its not having been occupied by the Mayans until around A.D. 100. Recorded history at the site does not begin until A.D. 426 with the establishment of Copán’s royal dynasty. The site’s early history was unearthed as recently as 1989, when excavations under the hieroglyphic stairway revealed a chamber subsequently nicknamed the Founder’s Room. The chamber is thought to have been built by Copán’s second ruler, Mat Head (after the odd-looking headdress with which he is depicted on stela) in honor of his father, Copán’s first ruler, in power A.D. 426–435. Subsequent kings appear to have revered this king, Yax K’uk’Mo’, and thought him to be semidivine. Archaeological evidence has found that he was indeed a great shaman. The tomb of Yax K’uk’Mo’ was discovered in 1993 under the East Court of the Acropolis and the findings have yet to be fully revealed.
Little is known about the next several leaders in the dynastic line established by Yax K’uk’Mo’, which ruled Copán throughout the entirety of its Classic Mayan history. It appears this dynasty was consolidating its rule at this time and establishing trade routes within the Mayan world and farther afield to powerful cities such as Teotihuacán. We know some of the names of Copán’s leaders before A.D. 628: Cu Ix, the fourth king; Waterlily Jaguar, the seventh; Moon Jaguar, the 10th; and Butz’ Chan, the 11th.
The Height of Power
The height of Copán’s power came with the ascension to the throne of Moon Jaguar on May 26, 553. Moon Jaguar is credited with the construction of the Rosalila Temple, found buried beneath Structure 16 in 1993. Ruling A.D. 628–695 was one of Copán’s greatest kings, Smoke Imix, the city’s 12th ruler, who consolidated Copán into a regional commercial and military power. A stelae at the nearby site of Quiriguá bears his name and image, attesting to his probable takeover of the site. A prolific monument builder, Smoke Imix left behind the most inscribed monuments and temples out of all of Copán’s rulers. His successor, 18 Rabbit (A.D. 695–738), was also a prolific builder and pursued further military conquest. He came to a very unfortunate end, however, being captured and beheaded in a war with Quiriguá by its ruler, Cauac Sky.
Next in line was Smoke Monkey (A.D. 738–749), the 14th ruler of Copán, who built only one temple and erected no self-promoting stelae. The crushing blow suffered against Quiriguá may have resulted in the king’s sharing power with a council composed of the city’s nobility. Smoke Monkey’s successor, Smoke Shell (A.D. 749–763), commissioned the creation of Copán’s magnificent Hieroglyphic Stairway, containing 2,500 glyphs narrating the city’s glorious past in an attempt to recapture the brilliance of the dynasty’s heyday. By this time, however, it was evident that the city was in decline, a fact attested to by the subpar construction of the monument, which was later found collapsed, its narrative left scattered and out of order like a messy game of Jenga.
Yax Pac (A.D. 763–820) was Copán’s 16th ruler, who continued along the same lines of beautifying the city. He left behind a fantastic monument known as Altar Q, depicting the city’s 16 kings carved around a four-sided square monument with Copán’s first king, Yax K’uk’Mo’, passing the baton of leadership on to Yax Pac, thus legitimating his rule.
Copán’s 17th and final leader was U Cit Tok’, assuming the throne in A.D. 822. His only legacy is the unfinished Altar L, of rather lackluster quality. Some believe this to be evidence of a sudden abandonment of Copán rather than a gradual collapse. As elsewhere in the Mayan world, Copán’s collapse is thought to have been at least partially the result of exhausting the local ecosystem’s carrying capacity, with a population thought to have reached 25,000 at its zenith. Agricultural areas were forced from the central part of the valley by urban expansion and the surrounding, less fertile hillsides eventually came under heavy cultivation. Soil erosion, droughts, deforestation, and rainy season flooding became the inevitable result. Though the city’s core was abandoned, the valley was still somewhat heavily populated after this time. Archaeological evidence suggests another drop in population around 1200, after which the settlement patterns reverted to the small villages found by the Spanish in 1524. The ruins were left to be reclaimed by the jungle.
The first known European to lay eyes on the ruined city was Diego García de Palacios, a representative of Spanish King Felipe II living in Guatemala and traveling through the Copán Valley. He described the ruins in a letter written to the king on March 8, 1576, and related that there were only five families living in the valley at the time, knowing nothing of the ruins’ history or the people who built them. A Spanish colonel by the name of Juan Galindo would be the first to map the ruins almost 300 years later. Inspired by Galindo’s report, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood included a stop in Copán in 1839 during their famous journey to Mayan lands chronicled in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, published two years later. Inspired by this book, British archaeologist Alfred P. Maudsley would make his way down to Copán in 1881. He returned four years later to fully map, excavate, photograph, and reconstruct the site off and on until 1902. Other scholars, among them Sylvanus Morley and J. Eric Thompson, would follow on his heels.
In 1975, Harvard’s Peabody Museum continued the investigations it had previously supported through Maudsley. Among its goals was the excavation of temples lying beneath existing structures, a product of the customary manner in which the Mayans built atop existing temples and pyramids. They embarked on a project to tunnel through Copán’s numerous layers of construction and so have a glimpse into the city’s history. Among the fascinating discoveries was the 1989 unearthing of the Rosalila Temple by Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia. An even earlier temple, Margarita, lies beneath it. Rosalila was found with its vivid ochre paint still visible. You can visit the excavation tunnel nowadays and/or see a replica of Rosalila in the Sculpture Museum.
Tunneling farther into the East Court, archaeologists came across a glyph panel paying homage to Copán’s original ruler, Yax K’uk’Mo’. His tomb was found in 1993, buried far below the East Court by a team led by Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania. This area remains closed to the public. Teams from Harvard, Tulane, and the University of Pennsylvania continue to work in different areas of the site.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com