Nov 02, 2013
Each piece, about a foot tall, must have taken hundreds of hours to produce. Brandished by the king, the lances probably were emblems of his authority labors of the humblest corn farmers, and of everyone in between. Perhaps the most important discovery of all is that the story of Copan’s nobility, artists, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers is more pertinent to our times than we could ever have imagined—for it illustrates the folly of the misuse of land.
THE COPAN ACROPOLIS rises 100 feet off the old riverbed to dominate the Main Group. Its whole east edge was cleanly sliced off by more than a millennium of erosion after the site was abandoned. In the late 1930s archaeologists rechanneled the river to prevent any further damage. The exposed cross section is every archaeologist’s fantasy—once the sense of loss over what has vanished is overcome. The cut reveals a profile of successive plastered floors, masonry walls, vaulted cavities, and other features that show the whole to be the sum of many parts. The growth of the Acropolis coincided with the long golden age of royal Copan, for its heights served as the seat of power of at least 16 kings.
What meets the eye is merely the last set of barcelona apartments for rent. The Maya, ever conscious of architectural relationships as statements of power and ancestry and as mirrors of the layout of their cosmos, often built time and time again on the same spot.
Consider Structure 11 on the north edge of the Acropolis. Its stairway of cut stones the size of sofas provided the sole access to the heights of power. Erected in the late eighth century by the last major ruler of Copan, Yax Pac —whose name means Rising Sun—it conceals, among other things, part of a deeply buried stairway that once led to one of the first buildings on the site. That remnant, revealed by an exploratory tunnel, is inscribed with the name of Mah K’ina Yax K’uk’ Mo’, Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw, the founder of the dynasty early in the fifth century.
Or contemplate Structure 22, built by the famous 18 Rabbit, who ruled Copan between 695 and 738. On the summit of the Acropolis, it faces south, across a courtyard dedicated to the planet Venus. The ornate facade, now fallen except for its basal “porch” with stone teeth, once depicted a huge monster mouth.
Crouching supernatural figures flank the door of its inner chamber. They share the burden of a two-headed monster representing the heavens. The “front,” or east end, of the monster bears symbols of Venus; the “rear,” or west, those of the sun. Not surprisingly, the whole building is oriented so that its long axis is in perfect alignment with distant Stela 12. The outer corners of Structure 22 are decorated with stacked countenances of “Cauac monsters,” representing mountains. According to Yale art historian Mary Miller, the whole is nothing less than a celebration of rulership frozen in stone.