Death and Rebirth at Copan; an Ancient Maya City Enters Its Scientific Afterlife

Article excerpt

Death and Rebirth at Copan

Last June, as scientists were tunneling under a temple at the Maya site of Copan in Honduras, they happened upon a royal tomb. Invigorated by their good luck, they proceeded to uncover the bones of a man in his 30s -- apparently the son of Smoke Imix, who reigned as Copan's king from A.D. 628 to 695 and directed construction of the massive "Hieroglyphic Stairway" running up one side of the temple.

The young noble seemed amply prepared for his trip to the Maya underworld and an encounter with the Lords of Death: Near his bones were the remains of a boy, probably sacrificed to join the royal sojourn, and carved jade pieces depicting symbols of nobility and the underworld.

Death, as portrayed in the writings and ritual remains of the Classic-era Maya, who prospered between A.D. 250 and 900, was the beginning of a journey toward rebirth and reunion with other reborn ancestors (SN: 6/7/86, p.360). Given this belief in the afterlife, Smoke Imix and his son would not be surprised today to learn that their once-majestic city is experiencing its own rebirth.

According to presentations at November's annual meeting of the American Anthropoligical Association in Washington, D.C., archaeologists, anthropologists and epigraphers (who decipher the complex Maya writing system) are rapidly transforming scientific understanding of Classic Copan's political structure, procession of kings and settlement history.

"The work at Copan is the first to demonstrate that whole new worlds open up when archaeological and epigraphic data are combined," says David C. Grove of the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Copan, a city-state located in a valley of the same name, has attracted four major archaeological investigations since 1839. The current phase of research began in 1975.

One surprising revelation of last year's work concerns the hieroglyphic inscriptions on stone monuments and temples in Copan's "Main Group," composed of the Acropolis--the architectural center of the ancient city -- and surrounding platforms, pyramids, stairways and plazas. Epigraphers have made great strides in decoding Maya glyphs in the past 20 years. Many researchers, however, have questioned the reliability of these beautifully rendered pictographs and signs as historical records, contending the glyphs instead represent the political propaganda of Classic Maya kings.

"Our archaeological work shows there was no extensive rewriting of history on Copan's stone monuments," asserts William L. Fash Jr., of Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, director of excavations at the Copan Acropolis. "I view the inscribed monuments as concise and clear records of Copan's political history."

That history is inextricably linked to the Acropolis, which served as the seat of power for a dynasty of at least 16 Maya kings that dominated for nearly 400 years, from about A.D. 426 to 822.

Remnants of a vaulted chamber dubbed the "Founder's Room," uncovered last spring beneath the same temple housing the royal tomb, date back to the founder of the Copan dynasty, says Richard Williamson of Tulane University in New Orleans. The room contains a stone monument with the earliest known hieroglyphic date at Copan, A.D. 435, notes Williamson, an anthropology graduate student who codirected the excavation. That date often appears on the monuments of later rulers in conjunction with the name of the founder of the Copan dynasty, Yax K'uk'Mo.

The Founder's Room was built next to a ballcourt and was used for about 300 years, Williamson says. Contests on Classic Maya ballcourts were more than sport; they also served as metaphors for the king's eventual triumph over death and his rebirth as a guiding spirit for his lineage. Subsequent generations did not raze Yax K'uk'Mo's chamber for the large construction projects of later Copan kings, Williamson points out, "probably because of its prestige. …