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A Trip Through History: The Ruins of Copán


Marissa Raglin


Kelly Longfellow

     Taking a trip through history usually entails one reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a storyteller.  People do it everyday whether they realize it or not, but to get a true sense of it [history] one must experience it first hand.  The Mayan Ruins of Copán allows the visitor to be transported back in time.  This story is the account of one visitor's experience.

       We drove a few miles from the town of Copán to the ruins.  We drove through the gate.  I didn't see anything.  I think I was expecting to see a big pyramid first thing so I was a little disappointed. Getting off the bus, I felt a sort of presence.  People have always told me that the essence of people can still be felt in places like Gettysburg or Wounded Knee, but never expected to feel that at least not that strong.  I didn't say anything because I thought I was just anxious to get started.  The feelings would go away, right?  They [the feelings] just got stronger.  We had a short program about the civilization of the Maya.  It astounded me to know how prolific these people were.  They came in 1500 BC.  During that time there were three periods: Pre-Classical 1500-250 BC, Classical 250 BC-900 AD, and the Post Classical 900-1500 AD.  Their civilization just stopped.  That is why having found the ruins is so important.  In order to understand what happened, researchers need to start somewhere.  That somewhere is Copán and places like Copán.

      In the 1830s archeological investigations began in Copán.  In 1839 John Lloyd Stevens, an American, bought Copán for $50.  From that time on the ownership changed hands several more times.  In 1952, the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History took over the care of Copán, while investigations to unearth the ancient city progressed.  In the 1970s, a new approach took place.  Mapping the area became a top priority.  Based on that map, researchers now knew how encompassing the city really was.  In 1980 UNESCO made Copán a World Heritage Site. We were told that today researchers are still uncovering the city. The brief program gave only a piece of the story of this amazing place.  The best was yet to come.  As we started for the ruins, when we neared the Great Plaza, we passed an area of the ruins that had yet to be uncovered. The trees had grown up on a small mound.  Oscar Lara, our guide, had said that this was how the city had looked before extensive efforts to uncover to area made been made.  The forest had just swallowed it up.  It here at this little mound that the strange feelings that someone was watching intensified. 

      As I walked out into the Great Plaza toward the huge stone statue called an estellae I felt what could only be described as power. The estellae was a likeness of the 13th ruler called 18 Rabbit.  He was the most powerful ruler of Copán. Many of the estellaes that are in the city are of him.  He is credited with the transformation of the carvings from low relief (just carving the outline of the picture) to a high, rounded relief (carving the whole picture away from the background).  He also gets the credit for the final ball court design and the design of the Temple of the Acropolis (Fash and Fasqelle, 18).

      Sitting in the "stands" at the Ball Court I could almost see the games being played, the intensity on the faces of players and the outcome deciding the fate of one.  The story of the Ball Court is rather interesting.  Twin boys, the Moon and the Sun, were playing too loudly in the court and it angered the gods of the Underworld.  They were brought down and forced to play for their lives.  In winning, they were brought back as heroes and given places of honor in the Heavens. Games were played here mainly for fertility purposes and very special occasions.  Depending on who was ruling the captain of the winning team or the captain of the losing team or both of them would be put to death.  The beheading took place on a special rock that sits out in the Great Plaza. The blood from the sacrifice flowed to the east and west signifying rise and setting of the sun.   I could feel the players as we went into the players waiting area.  It was a feeling of anxiousness.  To play and win or play and die. As we walked to the hieroglyphic stairway, I went back through the ball court.  I felt it, that strange feeling that people were there.  When I closed my eyes I could see a game being played.  I could see, hear, and smell what was going on almost like I was really there.  It was somewhat unsettling, but very calming in a way.  I was able to understand and experience what had actually happened on that very ground.  The hieroglyphic stairway was something to behold.  It was massive.   It was started by 18 Rabbit and finished by Smoke Shell.  It chronicles the ancestors of Smoke Shell the 15th ruler.  The 1250 blocks depict a day or an event of many of the earlier rulers whose monuments were destroyed by successional rulers. This unique calendar allows the researchers to know when rulers ascended, what battles took place, and what conquests were made (Fash and Fasquelle 19).

         After the hieroglyphic stairway, our group headed for the East and West courts.  On the way we passed by areas that had not yet been uncovered.  Huge tree roots have penetrated through the stone and earth.  Oscar Lara told us the forest has both helped preserve and slowly destroy the city.  These huge roots have helped destroy the dwelling by growing into them instead of around.  The forest itself has helped to keep out some of the elements of wind and rain that work to erode the stone carvings.  It also helped to keep out unwanted visitors who sought only riches before the park was preserved. On top of the walkway over to the west court, we saw where new research is being done.  The researchers have uncovered what they believe to be servant quarters or artesan homes. In the West court, we saw a stone carving that showed the ascension of power in Copán.  Apparently the power was held in one family and was passed from father to son. The king who did it apparently was not honoring his ancestors enough when he commissioned the acropolis so he had the carving made to show that he knew where he came from. Our group was able to experience the "underworld" of the kings by going into the tunnels beneath the pyramid.  These tunnels represented the underworld.  It was here that the rulers were able to get closer to their ancestors.  The first tunnel took us to the Temple Rosalila.  This is the first completely intact temple found in the Mayan ruins. As rulers came into power, they tore down what the last ruler had built in order to build his new kingdom on top of it.  Rosalila wasn't torn down.   Researchers aren't sure why and they don't know who is buried here, but they speculate that it could be the first king or queen.  The temple is magnificent in its rose color stucco and scary carvings on the lower levels.

       Crossing the courtyard to descend the next set of tunnels, one can feel the spirits of the rulers.  The next tunnels actually took us beneath the acropolis.  These tunnels are where the rulers actually came.  The little bench-like structures held tombs of their ancestors.  There were bathroom type rooms as well as a drainage system.  The carving on the walls reminds you that this is the underworld.  This is death.  The cool temperature of the interior helps to re-enforce the idea that this is a sacred place.  This is the place where the rulers would mix their blood with plants to have hallucinations.  These visions were of the future.  Perhaps to see whom would win a battle or the crops for the new season.  Every once in while I could feel the eyes of long ago rulers watching us as we passed where they once stood.   Coming back above ground was like being born.  The sunlight brought warmth and light, the darkness receding back into the tunnels.

       The next stop was the museum.  The museum houses an exact replica of the Temple Rosalila.  Here visitors are finally able to see the mysterious temple.  Adorning the walls of the museum are replicas and originals (to protect them from the elements) of some of the various carvings that one sees as they tour around the ruins. A giant thunderbird that hangs on one wall draws your eye as you walk around the upper story around the temple.  As you walk around you encounter faces of old men, monkeys and monsters.  These carvings bring back the idea of Copán being a ceremonial place not a commercial place.  All of these carvings have some symbolic meaning.

      As we were free to look around at our leisure, all sorts of thoughts and emotions filled my head.  The main thought being what happened to the Mayans?  How could someone create these beautiful structures and just leave?  Were they murdered? Starved out?  Migrate?  I am not alone in my questions.  The team that is researching in Copán is asking those same questions.  The multidisciplinary team has come up with many theories.  Overuse of the environment, not enough food product to support a growing population, and water pollution are but some of the theories.  It is funny to think that many of the problems the modern world faces, the Mayans faced as well. Domestication of animals and plants brought the nomadic lifestyle of the Pre-Classic Mayans to an end.  Stone was used for homes instead of perishable materials.  They learned how to use the land to support them.  With the growth of the population they were forced to spread outward.  That led to deforestation, which led to soil erosion and depletion of soil fertility.   By overusing the environment the Mayan set themselves up for disaster.The expanding population could have caused any number of problems.  If the Mayan were already stretched to limits on soil fertility, then many extra mouths to feed would have put a huge drain on the food supply of the city.  By not having good soil food production would tend to go down, leaving to city to find food elsewhere.  Bringing food in could have caused wars with neighboring people.  The lack of food could have caused fights within the city or allowed disease to come in.  This could have lead to the Mayan decline.

      The Mayans were living in the height of technological advances for that time.  Colored stucco was used for many of the estellaes and for the Temple Rosalila.  The transformation of the way of carving stone changed for the better.  It became more high relief and rounded showing more detail. The use of the forest for food, tools, and fuels showed initiative.  Researchers are able to read and translate the glyphs and now know who ruled and how they ruled.  They know what the people ate, how they lived, and how some died.  They speculate as to why the ball games were played, why the rulers mixed their blood with plants in order to have hallucinations of the world.  What they don't know is what happened.  Perhaps they will never know what happened.  The secrets are still buried.  One day they may be uncovered.

      As we pulled away, I looked back and I could see for a brief moment how it was before time and nature took it away.  It was like a shiny, new penny.  The trees were cut back exposing the pyramids, people going about their day, the estellaes standing tall and proud.  Everything looked sunkissed almost glowing under the hot sun.  The energy radiating from the city gave the whole area an aura of white light.  Power, that's what I felt as we walked among the ruins.  The power of a great people lost to time, but not from our minds and thoughts.


Work Cited

Fash WL and RA Fasquelle. History Carved in Stone: A Guide to the Archaeological

     Park of the Ruins of Copán. Honduras: Impresora Del Norte, 1998.