Griggs: A Visit To The Ancient Mayan City Of Copán

A dazzling, full-sized replica of the Rosalila in the Copán Museum of Mayan Sculpture. Although today they are weathered gray stone, the original buildings were colorful, elaborate theater sets proclaiming the glory of the city. Photo by talk2winik


Forign Correspondent
Los Alamos Daily Post

In 1839, the intrepid explorers Stephens and Catherwood hacked their way with machetes through the jungles of Central America. Amid the steaming green foliage and the towering ceiba trees, spider monkeys swung from vines and brilliant scarlet macaws flew through the trees. Suddenly they saw pyramids, temples, and stone carvings with faces, animals, and strange hieroglyphics.

They had arrived in what became known as Copán, the southernmost of the great cities of the Mayan world. Over the next few years, Stephens and Catherwood would explore other great cities from Copán in the south to Chichen Itza in the north. They fought malaria, ticks, mosquitoes, stinging flies, and bats.

John Lloyd Stephens was an American explorer, writer, and diplomat, and Frederick Catherwood was an English artist and architect. Their published works, including Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, were best sellers and introduced to the Western world the civilization of the ancient Maya.

Museum of Mayan Sculpture

You enter the museum through the gaping mouth of a serpent. Walk down a sloping hallway that resembles the curved body of a snake. At the bottom, you arrive in the cavernous hall of the museum and are confronted by the brilliant red three-story replica of the ancient Rosalila temple, with figures highlighted in green, orange, yellow, and white.

Welcome to the Museum of Mayan Sculpture at the Copán Archaeological Park. One of my favorite small museums in the world, it presents in dazzling splendor the full-scale replica of the Rosalila Temple as it originally appeared.

When you visit ancient archaeological sites, the buildings you see are made of weathered gray stone, often partially collapsed or else rubble strewn with trees growing on top of them.

But in reality, Mayan temples were like extravagant theater sets, brightly painted and decorated, and proclaiming the glory of the city and the ruler who built them. The West Courtyard at Copán was designed with a plastered floor and only one drain, so that it could be easily flooded to create a giant reflecting pool.

Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle, a Honduran archaeologist, discovered Rosalila in 1989, buried underneath a later construction, Temple 16 in Copán’s Acropolis. For an extra fee, tourists are allowed to explore the tunnels and see traces of the original colors of Rosalila. Agurcia has also uncovered an adjacent temple called Oropéndola, and discovered the king who was laid to rest beneath it.

Much has changed in the 175-odd years since Stephens and Catherwood explored the area. The government of Honduras has realized the value of Copán as a tourist destination. Over 200,000 foreigners visit annually, and they add considerably to the local and national economy. The government has invested seriously in the safety and security for these tourists, and as a result Copán and the nearby town of Copán Ruinas are very safe places to visit. The site is very close to the border, and most visitors come through Antigua and Guatemala City in Guatemala.

Teotihuacan and its influence on the Mayan World

Teotihuacan was a huge city far to the north in the Valley of Mexico. By 350 AD, it had a population of over 150,000 people, making it the largest city it Mesoamerica. As it grew, Teotihuacan expanded its trading connections into the Mayan world to their south. Their influence can be seen in the talud/tablero stepped-pyramid style of architecture that spread through the Mayan cities.

In 378 AD a group of warriors from Teotihuacan arrived in the Tikal, a major Mayan city. Details of what exactly happened are unclear at this point, but suddenly they were in charge of the city. This new power forcibly injected itself into regional power politics, supporting some city states and opposing others.

In 426, a group of warriors from Tikal, led by K’inich Yak K’uk’ Mo’, arrived in Copán and the process was repeated. After conquering the city, they married into the local Mayan elite and founded a dynasty that lasted for the next four hundred years. With this new invigoration from Teotihuacan via Tikal, Copán flourished from the 5th to 9th centuries AD.

This period was the high tide for Classic Maya Civilization in Copán. Most of the wonderful buildings that we see were constructed now, and Copán was the key city in trade of jade from the Motagua Valley and with the Isthmo-Colombian region to the south.  

Trade in the Mayan World

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Central America did not have the wheel, and had no domesticated beasts of burden. Trade in the Mayan World would have traveled by canoe where possible, and otherwise was carried by human bearers – family, hired or slaves. Therefore, long-distance trade would have largely been in products of high value and relative portability.

Key items of trade would have included: Salt, cacao, vanilla, tobacco, feathers (especially quetzal feathers), herbs, jade, serpentine, hematite, cinnabar, obsidian, copper, flint, slaves, animal skins, cotton textiles, honey, wax, vanilla, rubber, copal, dried chile, dried fish, metates, fancy pottery, jewelry, pyrite mirrors, green obsidian beads, jade jewelry, paint, pigments, dyes, and tempers for pottery. From the ocean would have come dried fish, shells (scallop, spiny oyster, and conch), purple dye from Purpura patula on the Pacific coast, stingray spines (used for blood-letting rites), and shark vertebrae.

Classic Maya Collapse Sweepstakes

There has long been mystery surrounding the collapse of the Classic lowland Mayan civilization in Guatemala. Recent population studies of the central lowlands show population declines from urban levels of between 2.5 and 3.5 million to around 536,000 in the two-hundred-year interval between 800 A.D. and 1000 A.D., the period known as the Classic Maya Collapse. A steady, but lesser rate of population decline continued until the time of European contact. The decline started earlier in the southern lowland regions, including Tikal and Copán. Northern cities such as Chichen Itza lasted longer, and centers such as Mayapán and Uxmal flourished, as did the Highland states of the K’iche’ and Kaqchikel Maya.

In the Copán Valley, population declined from a high of around 30,000 inhabitants to less than 5,000.

You could join the “Why the Classic Maya Civilization Collapse Sweepstakes”. Dozens and more theories already exist. These include such ideas as:

Volcanic eruptions. Central America is part of the “Ring of Fire” volcanoes. The huge eruption of the volcano Ilopango in El Salvador in 536 AD ejected 20 times ash and other tephra as the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption. Lake Atitlán, on whose shore I currently live in Guatemala, is in the caldera of a volcano that blew its top about 91,000 years ago. 

Earthquakes: Most of Central America rests atop the Caribbean Plate, which converges with the Cocos, Nazca, and North American plates. The Motagua Fault and the Chixoy-Polochic Fault run through Guatemala. I was greeted by a 6.6 earthquake when I arrived in the area last December.

Hurricanes and tropical storms: Storms continue to batter Central America both from the Atlantic Ocean/Caribbean side as well as from the Pacific.

Drought: The image exists that Central America is a rain forest. However, in much of the Mayan world, rainfall is seasonal, with a dry season of at least several months every year. The Mayans were very proficient in working with irrigation and water storage. Nevertheless, there was often a small margin for error. Since I arrived in December, there has been perhaps half an hour of rain altogether. The heavily forested hillsides have taken on a decidedly brownish color. In a few weeks the rainy season will start (hopefully), and overnight everything will turn bright green.

Environmental degradation, including soil exhaustion, siltation, decline of biodiversity, and deforestation (but not defenestration) caused by overpopulation have been seen by some researchers as key factors in the collapse.

Warfare: Endemic warfare is the state of continual, low-threshold warfare in a tribal warrior society. This type of fighting characterized much of the warfare between different Mayan city states, and often among alliances of city states. Usually fighting was led in person by the kings, and the warriors were members of the elite. In addition to acquiring bounty and controlling resources, a major goal of fighting was to capture enemy soldiers to be killed later as human sacrifices.

Epidemic diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, cholera, parasites, and diarrhea: Travelers may be familiar (unfortunately) with a malady known variously as “Montezuma’s Revenge” or “The Spanish Twostep”, for which as a savvy voyager I carry nifuroxazide (or a similar antidiarrheal) in my first aid kit.

Trade route collapse: Trade was critically important to the upper social and economic layers of Mayan city states. Collapse of trade routes could have had a devastating effect on their viability and very existence.

Copán and Theories of Complexity

Recently I have been reading A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems in Business, Life, and Society (2015 by Basic Books) by John H. Miller, who has been associated for a number of years with the Santa Fe Institute. I believe that his writing on the behavior of complex systems has considerable relevance to the rise and fall of Mayan civilization in Copán and the Copán Valley.

Writing about the “flash crash” of the stock market on May 6, 2010, Miller notes: “These changes likely pushed the markets toward a critical state where even a small event had the potential to cascade into a much larger chain reaction.”

As time went on, the Mayan cities became larger and increasingly complex. More layers of society accumulated, with kings, priests, warriors, and other elite members of society at the top, supported by artists, builders, artisans, scribes, merchants, servants, laborers, and slaves. Underneath them were farmers, whose hard work and intensive agriculture fed these layers.

Perhaps, as Mayan cities grew larger and more complex, they also became more susceptible to events that could trigger their collapse. Tipping points could be caused by almost any of the above mentioned factors – drought, natural disaster, warfare, disease, or whatever. In city after city, major construction projects stopped, and populations declined, and the forests reclaimed the once magnificent communities.

Great career opportunities for budding archaeologists

If there are any budding archaeologists out there, the Mayan world is still a fertile field of study. Great strides have been made in the last few decades in the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphics by such epigraphers as Russian-American Tatiana Proskouriakoff. It has been realized that the Mayan script was a logosyllabic system, in which individual symbols (“glyphs”) could represent either a word or a syllable. There is a growing understanding that Chor’ti’, a descendant of the ancient Mayan language, is still spoken in the nearby areas of Honduras and Guatemala, and this will lead to more breakthroughs.

Also, in the surrounding Copan Valley, over 3400 buildings have so far been identified, but not yet explored. New technologies show great promise in enhancing future archaeological investigations in ways that are both more revealing and less invasive than the traditional pick and shovel.

The technologies include Aerial, UAV and Satellite Imaging, Microwave Radar, Laser altimeters or light detection and ranging (LIDAR), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (INSAR), and ground-based geophysical methods such as Ground Penetrating Radar and Magnetometry.

This was my second visit to Copán. I think that next year I may spend a week or two here. The village of Copán Ruinas is a friendly, comfortable community. In addition to visiting the main archaeological site and museum again, I would like to visit the outlying sites that are beginning to be explored and uncovered.