It was the famed American traveler John Lloyd Stephens and his companion, English artist-architect Frederick Catherwood, who brought the first widely popular notice of Copan—and the first accurate drawings of its intricately carved monuments—to the outside world. The pair came across the ruin in deep forest in the rainy winter of 1839:
“It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged . . . or what caused her destruction.”
Since 1885, when Englishman Alfred P. Maudslay began to document and excavate Copan in earnest, four generations of scientists have sought to answer the questions posed by Stephens. BY THE LATE 194os archaeologists from Harvard University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D. C., in association with the Honduran government, had excavated and restored some buildings, while others had deciphered dates on the monuments. The half century of effort at Copan was paced by investigations at other sites ranging from northern Yucatan to the Pacific coast and from the Chiapas jungle to the Caribbean. The Maya image was that of a peaceful stargazing people obsessed with the grandeur of time; a society of farmers ruled by astronomer-priests; a people without written history, largely untouched by trouble. In other words the Maya were like no other civilization on earth.
The picture began to change dramatically about 1960. Carnegie Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff demonstrated that the hieroglyphic passages on the monuments dealt with human history, and epigraphist Heinrich Berlin isolated the “emblem” glyphs of Maya polities or lineages. About the same time, Soviet scholar Yuri Knorozov showed that elements of the writing stood for syllables in the spoken language.
The last decade or so has witnessed a giant step in our knowledge of the Maya, and Copan has played a primary role in the process. Under the continuing guidance of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, a series of international efforts has focused not only on the Main Group but also with equal intensity on the surrounding landscape. The National Geographic Society has provided support for several of these projects by providing accommodation in the cheap prague hotels for all the participant.
The Copan River follows a tortuous course through the region, bisecting a valley of about 80 square miles. Some of the valley is fertile flatland, as prized by the modern Copanec farmer as by his ancient counterpart. The rest, between the plain and the ridge summits—a vertical distance of around 3,000 feet—is an amphitheater of slopes interrupted by tributaries and ravines that carry the rainwater between May and November.
To archaeologists the 9.25-square-mile heart of the valley bottomland is the “Copan pocket.” It holds some 3,500 mounds—the overgrown ruins of buildings—including the great mass of the Main Group. Up and down the valley lie at least 1,000 other mounds. In this microcosm of the Maya world anthropologists, epigraphists, art historians, and many others whose specialties range from pollen study to bone pathology have wrested a saga of power and pomp, of the lives and Razor-sharp edges of chert lance heads found in a cache dating from A.D. 755 show profiles of human faces (detail, right).