Copan Archaeological Park

Copan Archaeological Park

The Copan Archaeological Park is the Crown Jewel of Archaeology in Honduras.

The Copan Archaeological Park, is an extensive site. It has become one of the major sources of information regarding the ancient Maya civilization. Copan is the most artistically advanced and elaborate of all the Maya cities. UNESCO declared Copan a heritage of humanity site in 1980.  The continuous study of the site by archaeologists for over a century makes it the most studied city of the Maya.

Although the park itself is inside a fence, the legacy of the Maya can be seen throughout the valley. The principal attractions are the Copan Archaeological Park, “Las Sepulturas”, “Los Sapos”, Rastrojon, La Castellana, the stelae surrounding the valley and the three museums:  the Museum of Archaeology, located in the town;the Museum of Maya Sculpture, located within the Visitors Center area of the Park, The Casa K’inich interactive childrens museum and the new Digital Museum of Copan located on the North side of Central Park, in the old school building.

The Copan Archaeological Park entrance fee is now the equivalent to $15.00 US dollars and includes a visit to the main park as well as the Sepulturas Archaeological site. The fee for the Museum of Mayan Sculpture is $7.00 US dollars or its equivalent. The Museum is without question an important attraction to the park. Finally, the Museum of Archaeology, located downtown has an entrance fee of $2.00 US dollars. Two different tunnels are open to the public: The “Rosa Lila” Tunnel and the “Los Jaguares” Tunnel. The additional fee to enter these tunnels is $15.00.

The Copan Archaeolocigal Park has five basic areas of interest:

The Ball Court

Considered the social center of the city. Copan Ruinas boasts the most artistic ball court in Meso-America. Unique to it are the markers on the sidewalls, resembling macaw heads. The final work done on this ball court goes back to the days of ruler 18 Rabbit, the thirteenth ruler of Copan.

The Great Plaza

Famous for its stelae and altars that are around this immense plaza. Most of the stelaes that are there today date back to the 13th ruler, 18 Rabbit who was king of Copan between the years 711 and 736. Many of the altars have a zoomorphic form.

The Hieroglyphic Stairway

This unique temple holds the longest known text left to us by the ancient Maya civilization. Built under the the direction of ruler number 15, Smoke-Shell it is a family tree for political propaganda. It records the ascension and death of all Copan rulers from Yax-Kuk-Mo to Smoke-Shell. The five portraits in the stairway represent the most important successors to the dynasty. These of course include the founder, Yax Kuk Mo and Smoke Shell.

Unfortunately, the glyphs cannot all be read because the top steps fell out of place. Only the lower steps remain in their original location. When the archaeologists rebuilt the temple, they had no way of knowing where each piece belonged. Today, this magnificent temple has an enormous tarp covering it to protect the steps from further erosion, which has unfortunately already damaged the glyphs.

The Acropolis

The acropolis is divided in two big plazas: the West Court and the East Court. The West Court houses temple 11 and temple 16 with the unique altar Q set at its base. Temple 11 was built during the reign of Yax-Pac, the last ruler of Copan. This is his most significant architectural contribution to Copan. This very elaborate temple was his portal to the underworld.  Altar Q is completely “deciphered”. It depicts each (16) of the members of the Copan Dynasty, including Yax-Pac, seated on their own name glyphs. In it, the founder of the dynasty Yax-Kuk-Mo is passing the scepter of power directly to Yax-Pac.

Temple 16 is set between the East and the West court. Yax Pac, the last ruler of Copan oversaw the last and final stage of this building.  One unique aspect of this building is that for some reason, the previous standing temple was not defaced or “deactivated or terminated”. Instead, a big effort to build on top of it without damaging it was made. This old temple is known today as the “Rosa Lila Temple, or Temple of the Sun”. Its discovery has helped archaeologists understand how Copan actually looked in its days of glory. The fine stucco masks of this building retain their original colors. A full size replica of this temple stands proudly in the Museum of Maya Sculpture.

The Tunnels

The long term archaeological studies and excavations in the Copan Archaeological Park have led to the digging of many a tunnel under the site itself. As a matter of fact, there are over 4 kilometers of tunnels under the Acropolis. These have allowed archaeologists to view earlier stages of the Copan urban structure. They have also led to the discovery of important tombs that have taught us much of the ancient Maya. As of March 1999, two of these tunnels are open to the public on a limited basis. Only ten persons can enter the tunnels at one time. They can only do so with in the company of an authorized guide. The additional entrance fee of $15.00 USA dollars per person will give you access to the tunnels.

One of the tunnels that is open is the Rosa Lila Tunnel, which is under temple 16. This temple is perhaps the best-preserved stucco building in the Maya civilization. You can see a full size replica of this temple at the Museum of Mayan Sculpture within the park. The other tunnel is the “Los Jaguares Tunnel”. This tunnel is over 700 meters long. There you will see one of the most important tombs in Copan: Galindo’s Tomb, discovered over a century ago!

Finally, I must say that there are ongoing investigations in Copan on a regular basis. This means that there are always new finds and interesting add on’s to the story of Copan and its ancient people. As an example, I can say that archaeologists now believe that the name given to the city we now know as Copan was Oswitik! Recently, the Japanese team working under the leadership of Dr. Nakamura found some interesting tombs in the residential area of the park.