Interdisciplinary Approaches to Investigating and Preserving Copan's Cultural Heritage
Copan, the southernmost Maya center and a World Heritage Site since 1980, was a complex ancient city of multi-ethnic cultural traditions. Since 1977 we have been part of investigative teams exploring the ancient ruins. Our own project, the Copan Mosaics Project was begun in 1985 to specifically research and preserve the thousands of façade sculpture collapsed from the Late Classic buildings in Copan, Honduras. This work now expanded, joins the on-going Maya Corpus Program begun at the Peabody Museum in 1968, to document all the known Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions folio series. The CMHI’s unsurpassed register of precise line drawings and photographs have been instrumental for epigraphic studies and the decipherment of Maya texts and images.
Our initial research focused on the documentation of the ancient settlements in the Copan Valley in a detailed 1:2000 scale map of 24 km.2 (William), and the recording of the inscriptions and iconography of the free-standing stone sculptures (stelae and altars) and architectural adornments (hieroglyphic thrones and façade sculptures) from the royal precinct and the valley (Barbara). From there we initiated the Copan Mosaics Project to document, investigate, preserve and disseminate knowledge about this priceless cultural heritage.
One of our significant long-term project focuses on the famous Hieroglyphic Stairway of Copan, the longest hieroglyphic inscription in the New World. Starting in 1986, we directed several massive archaeological projects to uncover the sequential building phases buried deep within the pyramid, in order to pair the archaeological record together with epigraphic and iconographic studies of the 64-step inscription and façade sculpture. The reconstruction of the once-collapsed and now jumbled hieroglyphic text on the stairway has taken decades to achieve. Together with a team of scholars, now in 2017 it is nearly complete. The 3D scanning of the entire Stairway is a pioneering achievement and sets the standard for future applications of this new technological documentation method. The Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway Project became an integral part of the larger Copan Acropolis Archaeological Project (1988-1996) which sought to recover information from previous investigations in the Acropolis as part of an integral program of research and conservation, dedicated to preserving the architecture and sculpture while simultaneously documenting the dynastic and architectural history of the royal precinct.
We currently co-direct The Santander Program for the Research and Conservation of Maya Sculpture, which promotes the preservation of Maya sculpture in and beyond Copan throughout the Maya region. With this funding, we’ve carried on the publication and research on Copan’s Maya heritage, and built a conservation laboratory and organized workshops to address the immense challenges of saving the archaeological past. We have also worked with numerous print, documentary, and electronic media to disseminate knowledge of Copan.
In all our work community involvement and educational programs have been coupled with archaeological research. The Copan Sculpture Museum, one such project, was an extraordinary international endeavor that involved Honduran institutions, the Copan community, and foreign researchers working together to preserve the heritage of this ancient city and present many of its magnificent sculptural achievements to the public for the first time. As an educational tool, the museum helps thousands of schoolchildren learn about the ancient Maya and become more culturally conscious. It is intended to strengthen respect for indigenous artistic achievements and to be a catalyst for equality and justice for native people in the future. The exquisite sculptured façades of ancient Copan, now deservedly displayed in the Copan Sculpture Museum, contribute to the appreciation of Maya art, religion, and history by Maya descendants, other Honduran nationals, and foreigners alike. It is the wish of everyone involved in the sculpture museum that this renewed appreciation will inspire people to preserve and study this priceless legacy for future generations.
As an ancient city of the Mesoamerican world, Copan was at the forefront of using architecture as a means of visual communication. Since the first popular accounts of its stone art and architecture scholars have debated the meanings and purposes of such masterful artistic expression. Copan with its animated imagery was always considered to have the highest level of achievement in Maya art. Its temples, palaces and administrative buildings came alive with their sculptural decoration as a means to personify the living and supernatural forces that inhabited the Maya world view in a way few other cities could rival.
The imagery on Copan buildings was a form of visual language that although perceived and experienced differently, conveyed a similar conventional meaning to everyone. Unlike the written word in hieroglyphs that was probably only comprehended by the literate, the large symbols and motifs on the facades could be understood by people of all social ranks. As a cosmopolitan city, the imagery was probably designed to cut across cultural lines as well and be understood by people who spoke different languages. The wonderful imaginations of the Copan sculptors gave concrete expression to spiritual beliefs and served as a means to spread religion and art to other areas. In the hands of the leaders and groups seeking to sacralize divine rule and the people, the sculpture facades were powerful instruments. Rulers’ names, emblems, and sacred place names, were emblazoned in iconic form for all to see and read.
Now far removed from the 7th and 8th centuries when most of these works were created, we must look for clues to understand their ambiguous meaning lost with the passage of time. Our ideas about the sculpture’s messages change as we learn more through excavations and comparative analysis, which is why it is usually necessary to present possibilities in conditional terms rather than stated as facts. To understand the complex religious concepts in the large sculptural images decorating buildings it is useful to grasp the idea of animism and personification. Basically, that everything that one experienced had a spiritual force that could be visualized and represented. Water for example was seen as a living force that took many forms. It visual representation as a liquid from a mountain spring or lake (often a serpent with waterlily attributes) differed from its depiction as rain (Chahk mask), dew (beads) or vapor (scrolls). Maize, in its many cycles and stages of development, from seed (kan cross), to sprout (curling vegetation), to corn cob (maize deity), to drying stalk also took many guises.
The Copan sculpture offers many vivid examples of the concept that supernatural forces reside in our everyday world. The water bird from Hijole structure, which may have once adorned Structure 22 is perhaps the most masterful in carved stone, and the Rosalila structure is certainly a magnificent and well-preserved example that, when reconstructed in the museum, allows us to feel and contemplate the impact an entire building of this nature had on one who encountered it. The museum reconstructions help us envision the pageantry and public or private rituals that took place in the courtyards and households both in the city core and in outlying residences to accompany these lively and symbolically charged backdrops.
Political messages and symbols that struck a unifying chord in the community, such as the woven mat motif on Structure 22A’s edifice, would have been easily identifiable by everyone who could view the building from the plazas below. Although we can only hypothesize about who attended events in the Principal Group of Ruins (the royal compound and city center), it is likely that different social groups participated at calendrically timed events in the center. In time, powerful groups in the outlying residences created their own animated facades for local enhancement and enjoyment.
Copan’s unusually prolific sculptors and masons no doubt had a direct role in this development, and as their skill and numbers increased, so it seems did the desire to build bolder residential buildings to complement or rival those at the center. Public architectural projects most likely served to attract labor from smaller chiefdoms or other political units with individuals hoping to increase their quality of life by attaching themselves to a wealthy polity. Attracting and training masons and sculptors generated increased power for the ruling dynasty by providing a permanent skilled work force for the public projects in the Principal Group. Studying the connection between political status, social power, and architecture, we proposed that Copan sculptors and masons formed a special elite interest group beginning in the Early Classic with the founding of the polity, and by the Late Classic one that wielded significant economic power.
In the Copan Valley 14 residential groups are known to have displayed sculptural facades, four of them having interior hieroglyphic benches, which draws our attention to the economic consequences of architectural construction and their sculptural embellishments. In the Late Classic, commoners and domestics made up 85% of the households in the valley, those of elites 15% with less than 1% of the total populace representing the actual ruler’s household. Scholars estimate is it would take 30 workers approximately one year to construct the residential Structure 9N-82, and two years for 50 workers to build the larger Structure 22 on the Acropolis. The essential point remains that architecture is a valuable artifact in reflecting social power relations.
Within one kilometer radius of the urban “core” of the Principal Group, as well as in the more rural areas of the Valley, such as Ostuman in the west, Rastrojon and Petapilla in the east, and Rio Amarillo, some 20 km away, residential compounds display a wide array of different styles and messages in their façade sculptures. Most of them have not yet been completely excavated or reconstructed, yet we can predict that their social and political standing also varied significantly, based not only on the themes of their sculpture but also on the divergent life histories of the sites they occupied.
Our recent seven-year project at the site of Rastrojon, involved three academic field schools and a team of Copan technical staff in its uncovering of the buildings. The site is now open to the public and a local educational program with teachers are helping to set the agenda for the site’s future and inspire young people to participate in the future of the Maya past.
We are still a long way from understanding the internal power politics behind the collapse of royal authority in ancient Copan, but continued investigation of the residences and urban structures holds great promise for helping us to understand how actors and government played key roles in the production of status and power in Copan. It seems likely that this was but one of many factors in the inexorable process in which regal order devolved into political chaos and the end of divine rule.
The study of the Copan sculpture is endless for there are many facets and important remains that will come to light with the passage of time. For example, we are only beginning to understand the meaning and use of color on the sculpture. Advanced technology that allows us to see microscopic remains of pigment in the stucco and stone pores invisible to the naked eye, promises to open a whole new world on to this fascinating subject. Three-dimensional records are being created that offer a new means of preserving information and reconstructing fallen facades. Despite these new advances, we must continue to preserve the originals, as nothing surpasses the genuine artifact as a means to experience and study the past with our own visual senses and new knowledge.
(Photo:Shanghai Archaeology Forum (SAF) official website)