Copan: An Excursion into Artistry

By Wood, Sue; Tripodi, Fernando | Americas (English Edition), September-October 1991 | Go to article overview

Copan: An Excursion into Artistry


Wood, Sue, Tripodi, Fernando, Americas (English Edition)


IN 1576 DIEGO GARCIA DE PALACIO wrote to the King of Spain telling of a discovery he had made....

"Near here, on the road to the city of San Pedro, in the first town within the province of Honduras, called Copan, are certain ruins and vestiges of a great population and of superb edifices of such skill that it appears they could never have been built by a people as rude as the natives of that province...." This letter is the first recorded documentation by a European regarding Copan.

Almost three centuries later British artist/architect Frederick Catherwood and North American writer/explorer John Lloyd Stephens teamed up on what would become one of the most important treks into the Maya world. Stephens travelled to England to ask Catherwood to join him in an expedition to explore and document the treasures of the Maya. The two met in London in 1838 and quickly became friends. They agreed to travel as a team and in 1839 they set off on their journey.

The expedition began with a mule-back trek through Belize, moving south to the Gulf of Honduras and finally reaching Copan. At that time the ruins were shrouded by an immense forest. Intrigued by the mystery surrounding the spot, Stephens paid a local farmer fifty dollars for the purchase of Copan. Almost immediately he and Catherwood began recording what they saw. Stephens opened up heavily forested areas to locate monuments and Catherwood traced straight lines through the woods to draft the first map of the area. Stephens later recalled, "Catherwood worked tirelessly and seemed obsessed with recording every single detail. There were even two monkeys in the trees that were laughing at him..."

As an architect, Catherwood emphasized the difference between Egyptian and Mayan pyramids. He looked at vaulted structures and compared them to palatial structures of other cultures. His drawings of the stelae, which were achieved with the aid of a camera lucia, were highly accurate given the scant resources available in those first years. In 1839 Catherwood writers of what is now known as Stele-C:

"... This idol in its ruined state, is one of the most beautiful in Copan, and in workmanship, is equal to the best remains of Egyptian art. Its present condition may give some idea of the scene of desolation and ruin presented at Copan. The whole region is in an overgrown forest and amidst the prostration and wreck of buildings and terraces, one "idol" has been displaced from its pedestal by monstrous roots, another locked in the close embrace and branches of trees, and almost lifted out of the earth, and another hurled to the ground and bound by large vines and creepers. Of this, the fallen part was thus completely bound to the earth, and before it could be drawn, it was necessary to unlace them, and tear the fibers out of the crevices..."

The "prostration and wreck" of buildings that Catherwood described in the 1800s is now a magnificently restored setting of sculpture, palaces and residential areas in northwest Honduras. Nestled in a verdant, mountainous agricultural area, the ruins of Copan have been managed by the Honduran Institute of Archaeology and History since 1952. The Proyecto Arqueologico Acropolis Copan, (or PAAC) currently underway, is a model for archaeological research. An international team of archaeologists, anthropologists and artists is working close by with the Hondurans in their research and preservation efforts. This exchange of information and expertise is unique to the Copan project and is a special source of pride to its two directors, Ricardo Agurcia and William Fash.

Copan research, initiated in the 1940s, has taken giant strides over the last decades. In 1975, Gordon R. Willey of Harvard University and his students, Richard Leventhal and William Fash, classified residential sites within the Copan valley into a series of settlement types. They also developed survey mapping and excavated a cross section of the residential area known as Las Sepulturas. …

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