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Jennifer's Profile

Copan Ruins: The Remains of a Great Civilization

Jennifer Bryant

Located in the Rio Copan Valley of western Honduras, the ancient city of Copan reminds one of the once great civilization of the Mayans.  These once detailed ruins held over 20,000 inhabitants.  Copan was known for its advancements in arts and astronomy and has been called "the Athens of the new world."  Currently archeologists are working to learn more about the Mayan's culture and unique set of hieroglyphs.  This has proven to be a difficult task due to the destruction of structures over time.  When first discovered most of the ruins had been grown over by the diverse vegetation of the area. Although this is true, archeologists have been able to determine much of the Mayan history, unearth most of the center of the city, determine many of their religious beliefs, and have a few ideas of why they disappeared.

Three main periods divide Mayan history by stages of development, Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post-Classic.  During the Pre-Classic period, 1500 BC to 250 AD, the Mayans primarily lived in caves.  At this point, they were semi-nomadic, hunting and gathering for food, but they did domesticate some plants.  Little is known about the rulers of this time.  The Classic period, 250 AD to 738 AD, brought about stone houses for the elite and wood and grass homes for the average citizen.   This period is often referred to as the Golden Age of the Mayans.  During this time, the Mayans were at the height of their rule.  They excelled in the arts and began building many of the structures that remain today. 

Three kings ruled in Classic era, Moon Jaguar, Smoke Imix, and 18 Rabbit.  Moon Jaguar built the only temple that was preserved once built over, the Rosalila Temple.  The most influential king was 18 Rabbit.  Most of the remaining buildings in Copan were completed during his rule.  He developed the Great Plaza that stands today as well as the final level of the Acropolis.  While in battle, 18 Rabbit was captured and beheaded.  His death ended the Classic period and began the Post-classic period, 738 AD to around 1200 AD. 

During the Post-Classic period, the civilization of the Mayans began to decline.  With the death of one of the most glorious rulers, 18 Rabbit, the new king, Smoke Monkey, had many problems to deal with.  The Mayan people began to lose faith in their king and Smoke Monkey was forced to carry on his rule with the aid of a council.  The most impressive structure built during this time was the hieroglyphic stairway.  After this, the history of the Mayans is a mystery. 

The great city of Copan was built around two major areas of development, the Great Plaza and Acropolis.  Within the Great plaza, the Mayans erected many stelae, statues to represent their former kings.  These stelae are covered in hieroglyphics and tell the story of the represented ruler.  Adjacent to the Great Plaza is a ball court in which they played a ceremonial game.  Players would wear tree rings around their hips and throw an eight-pound rubber ball across the court without the use of their hands or feet.  The captain of the winning or losing team, depending on the time period of the game, was then sacrificed on an altar in the Great plaza.  They first cut off the player's head with an axe made of obsidian and removed his heart.  The heart was then placed on top of the altar and the blood flowed down groves in the stone, to both the east and west. This was in accordance with the rising and setting of the sun.  They then burned the heart so the smoke would reach the Gods in the heavens.  The Mayans did this to insure good crops for the upcoming year.  They believed, by killing their best player, he would be able to fight the ruling Gods of the underworld in honor of two ball playing heroes, the sun and the moon.  This was true until the rule of 18 Rabbit.  It is believed that during his rule he decided that it was not right to sacrifice the best player so he decided to sacrifice the loser of the game.

The other area of great importance located in the heart of the ruins is the Acropolis.  With in the Acropolis, a great hieroglyphic stairway stands 72 steps high.  This stairway contains over 2,500 glyphs and is the longest inscription found in North, Central and South America.  It was built to give the history of past Mayan rulers.  This had been a great aid in translating several of the hieroglyphs.  Most of the hieroglyphics are not in their original order because; in 1925, archeologists reconstructed the stairway and placed many of the stones in the wrong order.  Another focal point of the Acropolis is the temple just north of the East Court.  Atop this temple, a great stone mouth doorway stands in which many religious ceremonies were performed.  When the Mayans would ask for help from the Gods, the ruling King would perform a blood-letting ceremony as an offering to the Gods.  This blood-letting ritual consisted of the King piercing his skin on his tongue, genitals, ears, and fingers with a stingray.  He then would mix his blood with what is believed to be hallucinogenic plants and burn the two.  Inhaling the intoxicating fumes, he saw images that were thought to be messages from the Gods.  The court that this temple faces is believed to be to original plaza of the Mayas. 

Overall, the Mayans were a very religious people.  Almost everything they did was determined by what they thought would please their Gods.  Most of their temples and stelae were painted in red and white paint.  They believed these colors to be sacred.  They assumed that the Gods controlled all occurrences in nature.   The Sun God was represented by a jaguar that would vomit the sun every morning.  A human with a monkey head represented the Wind God.  He held a musical instrument with a T on the top from whence the wind came from.    Another religious symbol of the Mayans is the sacred cieba tree.  They believed the roots of the tree represented a connection the underworld.  The trunk of the tree symbolized the earthly world and the canopy reached up to the heavens to the Gods.  When they buried their dead, they would prepare the grave by placing all of the person's belongings with them and an ample amount of food for use in the travel to the underworld.  Some graves of the more wealthy have been found to have many valuable stones and statues.  One woman, believed to be the wife of a King was buried with an eight meter long Jade necklace.  They would also place painted pumpkins next to the body and burn corn in the burial ceremony. 

Many theories exist about the end of the Mayan civilization.  One theory proposes they were killed out by war.  The Mayans were a very war oriented society, but in Copan their warriors were not as great as other Mayan cities because they we mainly artisans, not warriors.  Disease is another possible reason for their disappearance.  When Europeans, like the Spanish, came to the new world they often times brought over many diseases that native people of Latin America did not have immunity for.  One of the most common theories is the overwhelming population.  As Mayan population increased, demands on the land increased drastically.  They were forced to cut down all of the surrounding trees for fuel and building material.  With the lack of trees on the land, soil erosion began to occur which help decrease their water supply.  They also expanded their city to cover most of the rich bottomland, forcing farmers to move their croplands to the steep hillsides.  The soil in this area was much less productive than the bottomlands.  This theory basically states that the Mayans slowly starved themselves to death by exploiting all of their natural resources.  Overall, what we now know about the Mayans is just a portion of their culture and there is still much more to learn.