Copán, called Xukpi by its residents, rises out of the mist of western Honduras, in a pocket of alluvial soil amid rugged topography. It is arguably one of the most important royal sites of the Maya civilization.
Occupied between AD 400 and 800, Copán covers over 50 acres of temples, altars, stelae, ball courts, several plazas and the magnificent Hieroglyphic Stairway. The culture of Copán was rich in written documentation, today including detailed sculptural inscriptions, which is very rare in precolumbian sites. Sadly, many of the books--and there were books written by the Maya, called codices--were destroyed by the priests of the Spanish invasion.
Explorers of Copán
The reason we know so much of the inhabitants of the site of Copán is the result of five hundred years of exploration and study, beginning with Diego García de Palacio who visited the site in 1576. During the late 1830s, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood explored Copán, and their descriptions, and particularly Catherwood's illustrations, are still used today to better study the ruins.
Stephens was a 30-year-old attorney and politician when a doctor suggested he take some time off to rest his voice from speech making. He made good use of his vacation, touring around the globe and writing books about his travels. One of his books, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, was published in 1843 with detailed drawings of the ruins at Copán, made by Catherwood with a camera lucida. These drawings captured the imaginations of scholars the world over; in the 1880s, Alfred Maudslay started the first excavations there, funded by Harvard's Peabody Museum. Since that time, many of the best archaeologists of our time have worked at Copán, including Sylvanus Morley, Gordon Willey, William Sanders and David Webster, William and Barbara Fash, and many others.
Work by Linda Schele and others has concentrated on translating the written language, which efforts have resulted in the recreation of the dynastic history of the site. Sixteen rulers ran Copán between 426 and 820 AD. Probably the most well-known of the rulers at Copán was 18 Rabbit, the 13th ruler, under whom Copán reached its height.
While the level of control held by the rulers of Copán over the surrounding regions is debated among Mayanists, there can be no doubt that the people were aware of the populations at Teotihuacan, over 1,200 kilometers away. Trade items found at the site include jade, marine shell, pottery, sting-ray spines and some small amounts of gold, brought from as far away as Costa Rica or perhaps even Colombia. Obsidian from Ixtepeque quarries in eastern Guatemala is abundant; and some argument has been made for the importance of Copán as a result of its location, on the far eastern frontier of Maya society.
Daily Life at Copan
Like all of the Maya, the people of Copán were agriculturalists, growing seed crops such as beans and corn, and root crops such as manioc and xanthosoma. Maya villages consisted of multiple buildings around a common plaza, and in the early centuries of the Maya civilizations these villages were self-supporting with a relatively high standard of living. Some researchers argue that the addition of the elite class, as at Copán, resulted in the impoverishment of the commoners.
Copán and the Maya Collapse
Much has been made of the so-called "Maya collapse," which occurred in the 9th century AD and resulted in the abandonment of the big central cities like Copán. But, recent research has shown that as Copán was being depopulated, sites in the Puuc Region such as Uxmal and Labina, as well as Chichen Itza were gaining population. David Webster argues that the "collapse" was merely a collapse of the ruling elites, probably as a reuslt of internal conflict, and that only the elite residences were abandoned, and not the entire city.
Good, intensive archaeological work continues at Copán, and as a result, we have a rich history of the people and their times.