Copan Site Plan

Copan Site Plan

Photo Tour of the Ancient Maya Site at Copan, Honduras

Please click on yellow arrows to see photos from that spot.
NOTE: The dotted line in the upper right shows where the Copan River is collapsing some buildings on the east side of the Acropolis.

Paul Gendrop, the maya architecture historian, writes: "The ceremonial center of Copan reveals an urban plan that arranges space in a particularly flexible manner, and employs subtle means -- like stelae and altars on the main axes -- to make the major lines of its composition stand out. The Great Plaza, with a north-south axis, is subdivided into various parts by intermediate elements.

The northern extreme constitutes a grandiose ceremonial amphitheater with a grandstand enclosing three sides of the plaza, and a high stepped platform delimiting the other side. It incorporates various rows of stelae and altars whose deep and whimsical relief is markedly baroque in character.

Entirely different in concept, the southern extreme abuts on the imposing front of the acropolis, whose broad stairway must have served as another great tribune. Toward the center of the plaza is a small ball court partially enclosed by an L-shaped appendage."

Mayan site of Copán

Copán, ruins ancient Maya city, in extreme western Honduras near the Guatemalan border.

Copán Ruins, considered by many one of the most spectacular cities of the ancient Maya civilization, is a ruins complex known for its beautiful stone temples, altars, hieroglyphs, and stelae.

Today, it is one of the most popular attractions in Honduras. However, unlike some other touristic attraction in the region, Copán Ruins (or Copán Ruinas in Spanish) still conserves its mystical aura of a city that is still somewhat lost, and it’s now being rediscovered.

Copan Macaw

Copán, ruins ancient Maya city, in extreme western Honduras near the Guatemalan border. It lies on the west bank of the Copán River, about 35 miles (56 km) west of the modern town of Santa Rosa de Copán. The site was added to the World Heritage List in 1980.

Early settlement
Copán began as a small agricultural settlement about 1000 BCE. It became an important Maya city during the Classic Period (c. 250–900 CE), and at its peak early in the 9th century it may have been home to as many as 20,000 people. A dynasty of at least 16 kings ruled Copán from about 426 to 822, by which latter date the city had entered a serious decline. The Maya had completely abandoned the site by about 1200 AD.

Copan Ruins Honduras

Since the sites sit in an unbelievably lush valley, it is easy to spot a variety of resident animals that roam around the ruins. Among those are monkeys, guacamayas (large parrots), macaws, sloths, and peccaries, among others.

The site comprises some 250 acres (100 hectares), including residential areas. Its central district covers 54 acres (22 hectares) and consists of stone temples, two large pyramids, several stairways and plazas, and a court for playing the ball game tlachtli (Mayan: pok-ta-pok). Most of these structures centre on a raised platform (now called the Acropolis) that was apparently the architectural centre of the ancient city.

Copán is particularly noted for the friezes on some of its other buildings and the portrait sculptures on its many stelae. The Hieroglyphic Stairway, which leads to one of the temples, is beautifully carved with some 1,260 hieroglyphic symbols on the risers of its 63 remaining steps. There is evidence that astronomers in Copán calculated the most accurate solar calendar produced by the Maya up to that time.

The first Europeans to discover the site’s ruins were Spanish explorers in the late 16th century. The American travelers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood rediscovered them in 1839, and in the 1930s and ’40s the ruins were restored by a group jointly sponsored by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and the government of Honduras.

Copan Ruins Temple

Another major investigation that began in 1975 revealed much of Copán’s political and dynastic history through the decipherment of hieroglyphic inscriptions on its monuments.

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Hieroglyphic Stairway of Copán

The city of Copán in what is now western Honduras served as a political, civil, and religious center of the Mayan civilization for nearly 400 years. Although the site is host to a number of marvelous ruins, the most striking of them must be the epic stairway in the temple-pyramid of Structure 26.

This construction, which forms the longest discovered Mayan text, was originally commissioned by the 14th governor of Copán, K’ak Joplaj Chan K’awiil, and eventually completed around 755 CE. At nearly 30 meters high and covered in around 2,000 glyphs, the etched pyramidal staircase is not only impressive due to its size and artistry. This collection of symbols offers a rare window into the rich history of the Copán Valley and the culture that ruled it for so many years.

Researchers, first stumped by the hieroglyphs, came to realize that the staircase is a record of the royal history of Copán, listing the names of kings, their births, their deaths, and the defining events of their rule. The happy realization that the stones were arranged chronologically was somewhat tempered by the fact that early archaeologists — not 100% clear on Mayan syntax — had liberally rearranged the stone blocks in a 1930s attempt at reconstruction. Only the bottom 15 stairs remain in their original position. However, despite the jumble, modern archaeologists have figured out that the stairs document the rule of 16 kings, beginning with Yax K’uk Moh at the bottom step and ending with the death of a ruler known as “18 Rabbit” at the top. It is also believed that there is special emphasis on the story of the 12th king, K’ak Uti Ha K’awiil, whose burial plot was discovered inside the pyramid that supports the staircase.

There is surely much left to be discovered in the ancient writings. While we wait for the next breakthrough, the stairway sits where it has been for millennia (but under a new cover for protection from the elements). It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980.

The Ancient Preservation of Rosalila Temple

As mentioned before, Rosalila Temple was not destroyed to make way for the new temple, as had happened to its predecessors. Instead, it was ceremoniously buried.

The rooms, moldings, and niches of the temple were carefully filled with mud and stones, after which the entire structure was encased in a thick layer of white plaster. It has been suggested that the latter was meant to symbolically embalming of the temple.

It is unclear as to why the Maya decided to bury Rosalila Temple, rather than destroy it, as was the norm. This decision is a stroke of good luck for modern archaeologists, as they were able to learn much from this well-preserved structure. For instance, the original paint on the stucco panels decorating the temple’s exterior was protected by the plaster.

Based on the preserved paint, archaeologists were able to say that Rosalila Temple was a bright red structure. The structure’s vibrant colors would have had a tremendous visual impact on the people of Copan. Even though Rosalila Temple was not the tallest structure in the city (some temples were reached a height of 65.6 feet (20 meters), this drawback would have been compensated by its highly-visible location, i.e. at the center of the Acropolis.

4) The Mayan Ruins of Quirigua, Guatemala

Carvings, hieroglyphics and ancient Mayan Ruins at Quirigua, Guatemala. Source

Unlike many Mayan ruins across Mesoamerica, Quirigua isn’t known for its size or its large stone structures. Instead, it is the carved stelae and zoomorphic sculptures that make this Mayan site unique.

Dubbed the largest monolithic sculpture of the new world, the stelae at Quirigua are among the finest ever found in a Mayan ruin. A stone standing at 35 feet, the craftsmanship and skill necessary for carving and erecting something so enormous would have been huge. Making things even more difficult is the fact that the sandstone used in the stelae is an incredibly hard stone. Not only would it be difficult to achieve today, but it would also be very costly.

Weighing around 20 tons, the largest of the animal sculptures in Quirigua is something you might see in a science fiction movie. Every square inch of stone is covered in an intricate carving, hieroglyph or inscription, calling into question how the ancient culture was able to achieve such precision.

Copan Site Plan - History

The Getty Conservation Institute and Instituto Hondureño de Antropolicía e Historia 2006

La Escalinata Jeroglífica de Copán, Honduras
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As part of the Maya Initiative, the GCI has been collaborated with the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH) on a project to establish a long-term conservation strategy for the Hieroglyphic Stairway at the Maya site of Copán in Honduras, in order to ensure the stairway's preservation for future generations.

In recent decades, the deterioration of the hieroglyphs on the stair risers has been a major concern for scholars, conservation specialists, and IHAH because it impacts the ability to read the carved stone text. The inscription, executed in the eighth century, is the longest known text from ancient Mesoamerica and provides a unique historical account of four centuries of the Copán dynasty.

The Hieroglyphic Stairway of Copán, Hondouras: Study Results and Conservation Proposals presents the project's findings in three major areas of study conducted by scientists and conservators: archival research laboratory analysis of biological specimens and samples of stone and mortar and environmental monitoring at the site. In addition, the condition assessment and treatment trials carried out on the stairway were the basis for proposed short- and long-term conservation and maintenance programs.

The report also proposes improvements to the stairway shelter and the designation of a guard assigned to the stairway to prevent access at all times. These proposals include both preventive measures, which mitigate the factors contributing to the deterioration or loss of the stone, and direct remedial repairs to stabilize damaged and deteriorated areas, both now and in the future, following scheduled inspections and monitoring and recording of conditions.

Such a maintenance program of inspection, followed by repair as needed, requires trained personnel to carry it out regularly. The GCI project at Copán involved several local conservation personnel and training in photographic monitoring, but at present the site does not employ sufficient site conservation personnel to address maintenance needs. The training of maintenance technicians in the use of lime mortars for stabilizing stone surfaces and masonry&ndashand in performing basic recording techniques&ndashrepresents both the best short-term and most sustainable long-term solution to conserving the stairway and other monuments at Copán.

Tikal History

Historians believe that people lived at Tikal as far back as 1000 B.C. Archeologists have found evidence of agricultural activity at the site dating to that time, as well as remnants of ceramics dating to 700 B.C.

By 300 B.C., major construction of the city of Yax Mutal had already been completed, including several large Mayan pyramid-style temples.

Starting in the first century A.D., the city began to flourish culturally and politically, overtaking the city of El Mirador to the north in terms of power and influence within the Mayan empire, which stretched as far north as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Archeologists have discovered evidence of burials of notable Mayan leaders dating to this time at Tikal.

Are the Ruins of Copán Worth Visiting?

I visited three Mayan ruins in Central America, and I am pleased with how each sight complemented the other—Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and Copán Ruinas each offer a very different experience. They each lend insight into the ancient Maya civilization, and the ruins themselves at each site are unique enough that you’ll love the chance to see well-preserved parts of each city.

Here’s a comparison what I loved about the three sites.

The Acoustics at Chichén Itzá

Although the Chichén Itzá ruins are small compared to the other sites around Central America, I actually registered a level of shock when our guide demonstrated the perfect acoustic alignment of the temples and structures. You can clap on one side of the ball court and hear a perfect echo. It’s eery and fascinating to see such an ancient structure retain this quality.

The Size and Scope of Tikal

Hiking among the ruins at Tikal rates as one of my favorite temple experiences. Most of Tikal is still hidden under hundreds of miles of dense green forest around the main site, Jaguar Temple. Wild animals roam the grounds. Panoramic views temples stretch forever into the distance (you peer into Mexico on a clear day) and the sounds of the howler monkeys echo across the forest canopy.

The Intricate Art at Copán Ruinas

Copan’s climate has preserved a huge number of amazingly detailed carvings on the temples and throughout the ruins. Tikal and Chichén Itzá were noticeably light on the actual Mayan designs, so Copan provides a missing link across the ancient Maya civilization. The impressive pre-Columbian carvings tell stories that you have to simply imagine when the guides at the other ruins attempt to describe the Maya ceremonial faces, figures, and gods.

All of those aspects are on display at Copán Ruinas. They are spectacularly well preserved and you have no trouble discerning the hard gaze of a god, or the fascinating curves of a carved animal. Nowhere else in the world offers the sheer number of Maya sculptures on display across the sight. You’ll marvel at carved stelae and the incredible hieroglyphic stairway.

Copán Ruinas pleasantly surprised me. Look, there’s a reason it’s not as famous as Tikal—it’s a much smaller sight, it’s in a remote area of Honduras, and there isn’t nearly the infrastructure other famous sites have. But if you’re backpacking the region, Copán Ruinas makes for a fun and fascinating stopover. I found the town of Copán Ruinas just as delightful as the ruins.

Mayan Ruins Explored

Sculpture of the glyph "zero" in the Grand Plaza.

Tikal has impressive tall temples. Palenque’s pride is its limestone relief panels. Copán is famous for its sculpture and hieroglyphics. As one of the most important Mayan sites, more hieroglyphs have been found here than at any other archaeological site, offering more than just a glimpse of the history of Copán. 25,000 sculptures have been found. There are 4,500 known structures in the 135 sq. km. of ruins in the Copán Valley. Five separate phases of building have been identified. What we see today was built during 600-800 AD underneath the visible temples are layered and connected by a series of underground tunnels.

Copán was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980 and a Honduran National Monument in 1982. One Spaniard discovered Copán in 1570, but he only found five families living there who insisted they didn’t know anything about its history. Nearly three hundred years later another Spaniard arrived and drew up the first map of Copán.

It is believed Copán was first inhabited circa 1200 BC and was dominant from 250 through 900 AD. 20,000 Chorti Maya lived in the 15 square miles (24 sq. km.) of the principal site. Most of the artwork we see today was built by the Kings Smoke Shell and 18 Rabbit between 600 and 700 AD.

Admiring the work of the ancients.

The entrance to the ruins is a bit confusing. There is a ticket office but no signs. We were surprised at the $15 US entrance fee for the ruins, $15 US to enter the tunnels, and $7 US for the museum per person. Somehow we found ourselves inside the ruins without tickets to the tunnels. If you didn’t pay to enter the tunnels before entering the site, you blew it. They don’t sell them at the tunnel entrances, and if you exit the park to purchase them you pay another $15 to re-enter. Copán is not as user friendly as the other ruins we visited.

After entering at the highly armed guard gate, we walked through the park to arrive at the Grand Plaza. Noticeable are the numerous stelae standing tall on the manicured lawn. The stelae portray the rulers of Copán and were all originally painted. Only Stele C has remnants of the red paint. Several of the sculptures represent Uaxaklajún Ubah K’awil (18 Rabbit). Some have figures on both sides, and all of them are covered in glyphs.