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Copán, the great dynastic Macaw capital of the eastern Maya

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore one of Central America’s grandest ancient cities, Copán.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Copán is an archaeological site in the west of Honduras, very near the Guatemalan border. It is also located on the southwestern frontier of Mesoamerica, and as such were in close contact with non-Mayan peoples. 

The wealth of stelae and other mediums of hieroglyphic text found at Copán provide a great deal of insight into the political life of this great Mayan city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Copán is also one of Honduras’s most important tourist attractions and one of its few restored archaeological sites.

Intricately carved stelae representing a lord of a bygone age stands proudly in front of a massive pyramid in Copán, Honduras. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In antiquity the city was likely known as Oxwitik, meaning “three routes,” in the Mayan language. Copán’s history stretches back to the 9th century BCE, in a period known as the archaic. Little is known about the earliest centuries of Copán’s history, but some archaeologists have suggested that it had close ties with powerful cities in the Petén such as Mirador and Nakbe. However, others suggest that the fertile land Copán lay upon was first settled by non-Mayan peoples and then occupied by the Maya in the 4th century BCE.

One of the first complexes you are likely to see when entering Copán is its Great Plaza of the Stelae, which also features a Teotihuacan-inspired ceremonial platform. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is not until the 4th century CE that the history of Copán truly comes into focus, with the establishment of its Yax Kuk Mo dynasty founded by Lord K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. The Yax Kuk dynasty survived an astonishing 17 generations before it came to an end in the 9th century. 

Stelae H of Copán, depicting the image of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, the 13th dynastic ruler of Copán. Photo Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

By the 5th Century CE, Copán had become one of the most powerful cities in the region, boasting a surface of at least 250 square kilometers and a population of approximately 25,000. 

Copán’s 5th-century Structure 11, commonly known as the Temple of Inscriptions — not to be confused with the temple of the same name in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is easy to understand why the Maya chose to build Copán where they did. The Copán valley is extremely fertile, only slightly mountainous, and rich with abundant natural resources such as high-quality lumber and the water which flows from the Copán River.

Just as it was thousands of years ago, the Copñan river continues to be essential to life in the Copán Valley. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Copán archaeological park is made up of several architectural groups which include temples, palaces, and funerary complexes. Though this ancient city possesses several imposing structures, Copán is best known for the quality, beauty, and high degree of preservation of its several friezes, stelae, and sculptures. 

Copán is jam-packed with beautiful examples of sculpture and stucco reliefs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of Copán’s most well-known attractions is a pyramid adorned with the longest continuous sequence of hieroglyphic writing in the entirety of the Mayan world. For obvious reasons it is known as the Temple of the great Hieroglyphic Stairway —  instead of its much drier name, Structure 10L-11.

Copán’s great Hieroglyphic Stairway is covered by a tarp to protect its treasures from the elements. Though this precaution is certainly understandable one can help but wonder how it would look uncovered. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This impressive stairway was commissioned by Lord K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil who apparently destroyed a similar stairway that had existed at the same spot for centuries. Thus is the vanity of kings. 

Seeing the beauty of his commission, Lord K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil decided to place a massive effigy of himself in front of the impressive stairway. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Also located in the core of the site, is the largest Mesoamerican ballcourt in Copán known as the western ballcourt. 

Western ballcourt located in the core of the ancient city of Copan: Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though its size is considerable, this particular ballcourt is famous for lacking the typical rings found on this type of temple. Instead, Copán’s western ballcourt sports two stunning carved stone macaw heads believed to serve as goal markers. 

Macaws are closely associated with the Yax Kuk Mo dynasty of Copán, evidenced by the fact that the Mayan world Mo’ actually means Macaw in the Mayan language. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Macaws can still be seen in Copán to this day, and along with the ancient ruins are one of Copán national park’s biggest tourist attractions. 

A magnificent scarlet macaw poses for a photograph in Copán, Honduras. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the most fascinating aspects of Copán’s architecture is the sheer variety of styles on display. It often feels that with a slight turn of your head you can be magically transported from Teotihuacan to a distant city in the Puuc region, or to the banks of the Usumacinta. 

Copan’s House of Bats Temple, complete with its corbelled arch looks like it would fit in perfectly in Yucatán, despite it being over 1000 kilometers away. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Near the core of the site in the Main Plaza, you will find an oddly shaped structure known as the Turtle Altar. This altar depicts a two-headed turtle, with one of these heads being skeletal and the other fully alive. 

n: Themes pertaining to the intersection between life and death are common in Mayan art, but Copán’s two-headed turtle altar is unique as far as I am aware —  though the representation of bicephalous creatures is not. Think for example of the two-headed jaguar throne found in Uxmal. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the most intriguing inscriptions found in Copán is Stela J. The side facing east away from the Great Plaza is carved in a mat pattern, a symbol of authority. It reads: “You are now entering the great square of the people, the holy place, where our lord and legitimate ruler, and the spirit of his dynasty’s founder will protect your passage, life, and prosperity. “The opposite side reads: “You are now leaving the Great Plaza and returning to the mortal world, ruled by the cycle of life and death.

Stelae J  was erected during the reign of king Waxaklahun Ubaah K’awil, the 13th dynastic lord of Cópan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

At Copán it is also possible to observe several sculptures and reliefs of anthropomorphic animals — which is to say animals with human features. Two of the most famous of these are representations of divine monkey men and dancing jaguars. 

Images of a simian deity, likely a howler monkey god (on the right) and of a dancing jaguar man (on the left). Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

When one thinks of monumental stone heads in Mesoamerica, one’s attention justifiably goes straight to the massive stone heads of the Olmec Civilization. Though the two beautifully carved stone heads found in Copán are a great deal smaller than those of their Olmec counterparts, they are extremely interesting in their own right. Both these heads appear to represent an old man or Pauantun. 

 

Pauahtun are commonly associated with the creator god Itzamná, as well as the cardinal points. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Copán is also notable for its large number of tombs and royal burials found within large temple complexes. Several of these burial sites are notable for their high concentration of artifacts of Teotihuacan origin  — including headdresses, vessels, and clothing. 

The intricately carved Altar Q depicts 16 kings of Copán’s Yax Kuk Mo dynasty. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of these tombs belongs to a woman known as “the Red Lady,” the widow of Lord Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and mother to the next king, K’inich Popol Hol.

IF YOU GO

The archaeological site of Copán is located just outside of the small town, somewhat confusingly called Copán Ruinas. The town is charming and has several good options for accommodation as well as some surprisingly nice restaurants. 

Downtown Copán Ruinas on an overcast Friday morning. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Given the size of the ancient city of Copán, ruins and artifacts can be spotted fairly easily all over the contemporary city in residential backyards and in open fields. 

A map shows the location of Copán in Honduras, Central America. Image: Google Maps

Daily tours to Copán also depart early in the morning from Antigua, Guatemala. Because reaching the site from Antigua takes about five hours, you really should consider spending at least one night in Copán Ruinas.

A street scene in the tiny town of Copán Ruinas, Honduras. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Entrance to Copán archaeological park is $USD 15, with an optional fee of an additional $USD 15 to gain entrance to the site’s catacombs. The fee for the Museum of Mayan Sculpture is another 7 bucks. The site is open every day of the week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. I wholeheartedly recommend you get to the entrance just before 8 as adequately exploring the site will easily take all day. 

Altar G is adorned with zoomorphic figures and a two-headed serpent. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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