"COPAN: The Mayan Ruins!"

Welcome to Mayan Ruins at Copan

The Mayans lived from 1500 B.C. TO 1546 A.D. when the civilization disappeared. They lived in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Northern Belize. The Mayans believed that they had been around since creation but historical records suggest that their real ancestors were Indian hunters from Siberia. One theory claims that a group of people came to America, across the Land Bridge, and migrated south from what is now Alaska, Through Canada and the US and down through Central America and into South America. The Incans and Mayans were believed to be descendants of those people crossing the Land Bridge. However other theories opposed this idea. But hey, that is science. :)

The Mayans, like many people in history, were of a religous sort. They believed their Gods were responsible and watched over everything. To die in honor of one's god was considered a priviledge. The Mayans also led daily lives and did normal things. They had families and work to do for many were farmers. They also built things, one example of their building skills were the fabulous sities they constructed.

I am sure they were not all work and no play either. People don't speak about it a lot, but I am sure they did things to relax, other than making little Mayans. The were people, and a proud people.

When I was in Honduras, our tour guide told us of the Mayan Race. She said (and I paraphrase), "The Mayan Race no longer exists, however the blood of the Mayans still is said to flow in the veins of some of the people of Central and South America." Appearantly the Mayans bred with others who were not of Mayan stock, and descendents of those unions survive today.

The Temple of the Mayans.

The Temple of the Mayans at Copan was discovered in 1570 by Diego García de Palacio. These ruins are considered as one of the most important sites of Mayan civilization. It's citadel and imposing public squares characterize its three main stages of development, before the city was abandoned in the early 10th century. In the 19th Century, the ruins were "re-discovered" by European Archeologists who began digging to find out about this all but extinct Race.

The Importance of Copán

Copán ranks among the most important of Maya sites for many reasons. One of the foremost reasons is the vast number of hieroglyphic texts. For its relative small size (many other sites in the Maya lowlands are physically larger), the amount of inscribed materials at Copán are truly astounding, suggesting that in some way the elite culture of this ancient kingdom was particularly interested in literate culture and whatever that entailed.

The large number of texts at Copán, nearly all on large stone stelae or altars, have given scholars a large amount of texts to be compared and studied, and these texts have played a significant role in the overall effort to break the Maya code. Recently, this great progress in deciphering Copán's inscriptions has not only revealed surprising facts about the local royal history, featuring the rituals and reigns of individual kings over a four-hundred year period, but it has also opened several doors on Maya culture as a whole.

The Rulers of Copan

I. like others, like to label the Rulers of Copan as numbers, for it is far easier to write and keep track of than writing their real names all the time. :)

There was said to be 16 Rulers of the Mayans at Copan, and one Usurper to the Throne. Rulers 10, 11, 12 and 13 seem to be the most important Rulers, and 13 seems to be the most significant. When one reads about the Rulers, they should notice that Ruler 13 would probably not gained this position of being one of the most significant Rulers of Copan, or "The" greatest -- if it had not been for the Rulers before him. A lot of his work was based upon things previous Rulers did before him.

Ruler 13

Ruler 13 is more widely known by his nickname "18 Rabbit," but we know his actual name to have been Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil, an enigmatic phrase meaning "Eighteen are the Bodies (?) of K'awil". K'awil being one of the cheif Maya gods associated with divine rulership.

It might justifiably be said that three lords, Ruler 11, 12, and 13 -- were responsible for the apogee of Copán's political influence and cultural life. Ruler's 13's own contribution to this may have been more in the cultural area, for we have little indication that he was like his father in being concerned with the domination of other sites.

Instead, Ruler 13's inscriptions take on a rather introverted character, for they are generally simple and terse statements about ritual dedications of stones and buildings.

Ruler 13 did much to design the Great Plaza that now stands to the north of the main acropolis, including a major expansion of the Ball Court on its southern end (another renovation of the ball court would come later in his reign). In connection with this architectural work, as already touched upon, he seems to have conceived of at least half of the great Hieroglyphic Stairway, a monument that would be built upon by one of his successors. Some fifteen or twenty years into his reign, in the first decade or two of the eigth century, a flurry of construction and artistic activity takes place under this ruler. The sculptural style undergoes a truly massive transformation as well, with the flat "boxy" appearance of many of the monuments giving way completely to representations almost fully in the round -- a tradition of representation that would survive at Copán for the rest of its history.

Architecture and Inscriptions

Temple 22

The major architectural accomplishment of Ruler 13 was perhaps Temple 22, which now rests atop a large platform to the north of the East Court. Today most of its decorative sculpture lies in jumbled piles, but enough remains on the structure to make the identifiaction secure. Large masks of the animated mountain spirit adorned each corner, and several large figures of the Maya maize were excavated from the ruins here before the turn of the century. Within the mountain-temple was an inner chamber, the door to which was itself sculptued with an image of the Maya night sky, with the Milky Way shown as an arching "cloud serpent." The step to this doorway bore a hieroglyphic text -- now lost -- that is one of the most extraordinary to have come down to us from all Maya sites.

It's special qualities come not from what it says, but how it states its subject. It begins with the sentence: "On the day 5 Lamat is the completion of my k'atun (in office)." A k'atun is a period of roughly twenty years in the Maya calendar, and the day five Lamat tells us that this is the twentieth year anniversary of Ruler 13's accession to the throne. The date of the building is thus clearly established to have been constructued at or around March 27, 715 A.D. But notice here the use of the first person voice, "my first k'atun." These are the spoken words of Ruler 13 himself, and constitute the only known example of a quotation of an ancient Maya king.

The End of Copán's Written History

Yax Pasah's reign, and Copán's written history, ends with no explicit records of what may have led to the collapse. We do see one interesting pattern in the years leading up to the kingdom's demise. During the reigns of Ruler 15 and 16, especially, there is an increased prominence in so-called "secondary" figures in Copán's political scene -- subsidiary governers, officers of the royal court. Many of these non-royal elites appear in inscriptions that were placed in or near buildings away from the main acropolis, in "suburban" locations. Many of these smaller architectural groups, such as that at Las Sepulaturas, were clearly occupied by important people with close ties to the royal family. Several of these people are named as being the subsidiaries of specific kings, such as Yax Pasah. What is interesting, however, is the fact that these subsidiary nobles are never mentioned in the Early Classic reocords of Copán. It would seem that there emergence as powerful lords in their own right may have been a symptom of some large, more systemic problems in Copán society at this time, as centralized power of the king waned.

The Demise of Ruler 13 and of Copán

Despite the extraordinary accomplishments of Ruler 13, he is perhaps most famous for his unfortunate demise at the hands of the contemporary ruler of Quirigua "Cauac Sky" on May 3, 738. We know very little of this great historical episode, except that it is recorded prominently in the Quirigua texts as the "axeing" of Ruler 13. Was he captured in battle? Abducted while visiting his vassal site? Sacrificied, even, in some voluntary ritual that we do not understand? These questions will probably never be answered with much satisfaction. We do know, however, that before this time Quirigua was hardly a very significant site. The ruler Cauac Sky had acceded to the throne of his small kingdom many years before this date, on January 2, 725, but had erected no monuments until after the defeat of his Copán rival. At this point, Quirigua seems to grow in political and ritual significance at an incredibly rapid pace, as Copán, immediately following the defeat, displays no inscribed monuments for close to twenty years. One Copán ruler, Ruler 14 or "Smoke Monkey," reigned for a short nine years at this time, but nothing is known of him; all refrences to him are by later kings. Evidently, there occured a major shift in the balance of power in the southeastern Maya region, with one site assuming much of the power of the other. We only wish that more inscriptions at Quirigua explained the situation in some detail. The only glimpse we have comes from Copán's scribes many years later, when they note, apparently with some remorse, that during these days after Ruler 13's demise there were "no altars, no pyramids, no places," an apparent reference to Copán's inability to continue in its monumental tradition.

The Mat House

The mat was a symbol of authority. The leader was to sit on a mat, showing the authority to speak.

Ball Court

The ball court was built on the older building (built in 3c and 6c). The existence of the ball court is the characteristic of Mayan architecture. See other ball courts in Cichen Itza and Monte Alban.

When I was at the Mayan Ruins, the Guide told us that the Game the Mayans played was similar to soccer and had the importance of a Modern Day Olympics. Memory seems to dictate that the Ball used was as hard as a rock, as well. One Mayan City would play against another Mayan City in either an "Away" game or a game at "Home". The Pride of the Mayan City was online, among other things explained and unexplained. The Losers of the game went home in shame, however the winners of the game were honored and literally lost their heads. According to the Tour Guide, who was also one of the archeologists at the site, the reward for winning was decapitation.


Maya rulers carved elaborate monuments that told stories of their ascent to the throne, their lineage, important battles, or other events. The Maya had a sophisticated and accurate calendar and a system of hieroglyphic writing. They dated many monuments and included the names of kings and when they reigned. There is one unfinished monument at Copán that can provide you with clues.

Unfinished altar

This stone monument, an altar, might have been carved for use as a throne platform for a Maya ruler. One side was completed, but the other sides were left unfinished. On one of these unfinished sides, the Maya text shows a date, equivalent to February 10, A.D. 822. The remaining text was never finished. There are no known monuments at Copán dated after A.D. 822.

Sites about Copan and the Mayans

Archaeology at Copan, Honduras



Hieroglyphs and History at Copán

Looking for CLues at Copan

Maya Site of Copan

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