Copan Maya Ruins, Honduras

Copan is a great Maya archaeological site in western Honduras. Today, the setting is just a small village, now in a jungle valley of hills and nearby mountains, quite different than it was in 1,400 BC, when it was a capital city of many thousand people. The Copan Maya site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with only 25 % unearthed of the 47,000 structures of this ancient capital. It is an experience to walk through this setting, with its tall trees, spider monkeys, and macaws, and to imagine what life was like in this ancient empire.

It is best known for the excavated hieroglyphic temple staircase, a well preserved ball court, and beautiful stelae (free-standing statues or monuments carved in the image of a ruler, with information about his life). In 1895, a group from Harvard and the Peabody Museum began excavating the site. Since then, it has been taken over by other funded groups. Also on the site is the Copan sculpture Museum and inside is an exact replica of the original temple that existed on this spot. It is elaborately decorated with carved macaws, animals, and symbols, and painted in bright oca red with gold and green. Many of the artifacts, including beautifully carved stone benches, are in rooms of the museum.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Copan ruins are on the banks of the Copan River. The valley was divided into two zones, one rural and the other urban. The urban zone was very populated and the ceremonial center was connected by two raised causeways. There was the royal residential compound and another for noble families. The remains exist because they were made of stone and grand in stature. In the metropolis were masons, carpenters, weavers, jewelers, and tradesmen. There was plumbing and potable water in the acropolis and royal dwellings. There were mosaic and detailed carvings representing their world of sacred mountains and paths to the supernatural realms to communicate with ancestors and to influence forces of nature. There were funerary temples and temples where astronomers studied the moon, Venus, sun, and earth.

The ball court was part of the central plaza, well decorated with macaws, which were designed for the playing ball to go through to score. The game was called poktok and was partly a ritual that reenacted the Maya myth creation revolving around the maize crop and fertilitia. Poktok was played with two teams on a playing field. The players used a hard rubber ball, but they could not touch it with their hands; each side had to get the ball into rings on the stone macaw heads sculpted into a sloped wall on each side of the court. There were three of these goals on each side of the two walls for scoring. The ball player who caused the loss of the game would be offered as a sacrifice to the gods.

The macaw, with its bright plumage, was a messenger to the sun and a link to the vital maize crop and agricultural cycle. This ball court had four renovations over time, and each time, new macaw markers were carved and inserted into the wall. The old, broken markers were found in an ancient construction site.

The temples were grand, and the hieroglyphic staircase tells of warfare with carved shields, lances, ropes, and sacrificial implements. It took years to unscramble just the pieces of this one temple staircase and now it is all reproduced inside the Copan Sculpture Museum. Patricio (my travel guide), a local Copan guide, and I went though several tunnels built several thousand years ago. These connected temples and central royal buildings.

After walking all day along the paths of the ancient ruins, Patricio and I spent time walking around the small village of Copan. There were stelae in different places in the village, even amongst the stores, since the stelae must be preserved and not moved. The food is native dishes and fresh. The coffee is from the nearby mountains and the cacao is from the trees in the village.

(posted August 29, 2017)

Horse crossing the street, seen during my 2017 travels in Central America. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Central America 2017: Guatemala and Honduras

At the domestic airport in Guatemala City I met Patricio, my new guide. It was late at night and Edwardo, the owner of the Honduras Travel Company, had been with me to Tikal and back until Patricio could take over for the rest of my trip. I had good vibes about Patricio from the beginning, and the next morning Patricio was there on time, prepared with a cheerful greeting. I knew I would recognize his van; it felt large for only two of us.

Off we went on a long day of driving through mountain passes down to fertile valleys and long delays with miles of road construction. This main interstate was being widened, and in this mountainous region, it was a massive job. In the fertile valleys were large fields of cantaloupe or watermelon or pineapple or squash.

We followed the Rio Dulee and went to the Quirigua Maya ruins, a small but important site. Two inscriptions were found here, accurate to dates of ninety million and four million years ago. Astronomy and mathematics were top priorities at the time of the great civilization. The last monument was erected here on June 26, 810 A.D. Quite interesting—Quirigua and four other major Mayan cities erected their last monument on that day.

In Quirigua’s heyday, the city grew cacao and avocado. The valley was surrounded by fields, until the civilization died out and the forests over ran the fields, walls, and plazas for a thousand years. Much of the ceremonial areas are covered with silt from the Motagua River. The largest stela in the Maya world is here and mounds indicate where great buildings once stood. Upstream, the Rio Motagua links Quirigua to the ancient capital, Copan.

We stopped at a roadside café and had baleada, a homemade tortilla filled with fried beans, ground meat, fried egg, avocado, cheese, and sour cream. Delicious! It was made up in front of us with all local ingredients. When we came to any long stops due to road construction and there were long delays, there were locals who walked between the long line of cars offering to sell sugar cane water, coconut meat, slices of mango, crystallized sugared pineapple, and other items.

An antique musical instrument outside my resort room in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

An antique musical instrument outside my resort room in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We had no trouble at the rural border crossing from Guatemala to Honduras, and we arrived in the town of Copan before dark. I checked in to a lovely resort owned by the Welches, owners of a local coffee plantation. Patricio met me and we walked through the streets of Copan before having a traditional Honduran dinner. I looked forward to hiking days and a walking day in the ruins of Copan.

I also was looking for a post office. When we reached Copan I still had a couple of post cards to mail from Guatemala. In Antiqua, I tried to mail them. The response from the local guide was, “No, we no longer have a post office here.” A couple of days later I asked at the hotel in Chichicastenango and my guide there said, “There is no longer a post office here. “ In Guatemala City, the hotel clerk said not here. No one seemed to know anything about it—only their location was closed—try another town.

On the way to Copan, Patricio said he knew where there was a post office in a small city and we would stop. After leaving the main highway, we were on narrow, busy streets, with locals buying and selling on the streets. Some streets were closed off with venders selling in the streets.

Patricio found where the post office had been, but now was a store. In Copan, Honduras, while walking the streets, we spotted a tiny post office, but it was closed that evening. The next day was Sunday, but before leaving on Monday morning, we walked to the tiniest little closet-sized post office and went in to mail my post cards.

The post office attendant was combing his hair, not expecting anyone. He told us the government of Guatemala closed down their postal service a few months ago, like the El Salvador government had shut down their National Banks and mint now using US currency. Each day was a learning day in these countries.

(posted August 1, 2017)

A Maya stela, altar, and pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tikal and Maya Stelae

While in Central America, I had different local guides and archaeologists who spent time with me at different Maya sites in four countries. While I was at Tikal I had Horia, a direct descendent of the Maya, as my guide. The Tikal site is in one of the largest rainforests and only a small portion of the ancient ruins have been excavated. Several million Maya lived in the area between southern Mexico, the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras during the classical period (1200 B.C. to 800 A.D). The empire spread across this region with trade between four different kingdoms. The capitals were Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico. When you walk though the paths in Tikal, you can see and feel the grandeur of these magnificent ruins. You can see the layout of this vast city even though only a few pyramids, palaces, plazas, and stelae remain. Others are covered by the trees and vegetation of this great rainforest.

The temples and pyramids had four decorated sides facing north, east, south, and west. The masses were uneducated and controlled by the rulers, and only priests and astronomers were highly respected and held places of honor. Some pyramids were for meditation, and others had a flat top for astronomers to study the night sky. Without the telescopes and scientific equipment that we have today, they knew about the Milky Way, constellations, and the Moon calendar. In Central America, farmers are still following the moon calendar to plant crops. The Maya calendar was very accurate, using 365 days in 20-year cycles.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

At Tikal and later at other Maya sites, especially Copan, I learned about stelae. A stela is a free-standing statue or monument carved in the image of a ruler, and it also gives information: date of his birth, years of rule, accomplishments, warfare, marriages (they were polygamists), and death. Each stela was carved from one large block of tuff quarried from one of the nearby hills. The block was rolled on logs to the spot where it was erected. A hole was dug, a base was laid on the ground and the huge stone was raised to a standing position. After the stone was raised, workers placed a temporary roof over it to keep it moist and easier to carve. When it was completed, it was painted red using iron ore or cinnabar pigment.  Each stela has an altar for sacrificial bloodletting. Thorns and stingray spines were used to prick ears, tongues, and other body parts. There was an offertory vault where offerings such as shells, jade beads, and stalactites were found. There are 24 stelae still standing in the Copan Valley in Honduras, and another 39 are in storage. Early on, it was customary to destroy and bury the predecessor’s monuments; only in the later dynasties were monuments kept and new ones built around them.

The stelae were erected for the people to worship their semi-divine ruler, and they were placed on different plazas throughout the kingdom. They symbolize the four corners of the universe: north-xaman, south-nojool, east-lak’in, and west-chik’in. The stelae showed an advanced civilization, like that of the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire. Most of the rulers portrayed on stelae carry in their arms a double-headed serpent, with the serpents’ mouths opened wide to show emerging heads, representing reentering into the world. There are smaller figures alongside the ruler: ancestors, spirit companions, and spirits from the supernatural world. The carving is very detailed with high relief.

One stela I took time to analyze was of the ruler Fiery Snake- K’ahk’Uti’Chan, who was born in 563 A.D., became king in 578 A.D., and died in 628 A.D. at age 65. On his stela, he honored the founder of his dynesty, K’inich Yax K’ uk’ Mu, whose likeness is also carved there. The ruler is wearing a jaguar pelt skirt, a loincloth over it, a ceremonial belt, jade pendants, and masks hanging from his chest (in public, rulers always wore masks to cover their face). A serpent body is alongside the ruler’s legs. There are water plants and on other stelae there are maize, a symbol of death and rebirth. The spots on the jaguar’s pelt are like the stars in the night sky, and the jaguar is a solar deity. The Maya believed that like the sun, the souls of the deceased rise and fall every day.

I learned so much about the Maya civilization. During my long days there, we would continue soaking up the history, even during lunch breaks on the site. One day I was enjoying sopa, rice, beef, and steamed vegetables and a small plate of tortillas with sauce that was put on the table. I dipped a tiny piece of tortilla in the sauce and to my horror, my tongue and lips began to burn. My mouth was on fire! I tried soup, rice, water, soda, and ice, to no avail. Finally, the sensation went away, and I continued with my lessons on Maya history.

(posted July 18, 2017)