EC Archit at Copan

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    A research update

    Robert J. Sharer,a Loa P. Traxler,b David W. Sedat,a Ellen E. Bell,c Marcello A. Canuto,c

    and Christopher PowelldaAmerican Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USAbPre-Columbian Studies, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC 20007, USAcDepartment of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USAdInstitute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712, USA


    Excavations beneath the Copan Acropolis provide the most complete record known for the origins and development of an EarlyClassic Maya royal complex (ca. a.d. 420 650). Beginning at the time of the historically identified dynastic founder, the earliestlevels include the first royal compound, centered on a small talud-tablero platform, a vaulted tomb that may be that of the founder,and an adjacent tomb that may be that of the founders wife and dynastic matriarch. The timing and development of architectureprovide evidence of the founding and growth of Copan as the capital of a Classic-period polity during the reigns of the first sevenkings (a.d. 426544). By the reigns of Rulers 811 (a.d. 544 628), the Early Classic Acropolis covered about the same area as itsfinal version in the Late Classic. Documentation of specific Acropolis buildings provides evidence of the external connections thatreinforced the authority of Copans Early Classic kings. Building sequences reflect the perpetuation of political power by usingimportant locations as symbolic links to the sacred past. The Early Classic Acropolis also provides new evidence for thebeginnings of palace architecture that have important implications for the origins of Maya state-level organizations. Overall, thefindings from the Early Classic Copan Acropolis promise to significantly advance our understanding of the origins anddevelopment of Maya state systems.

    The Early Classic architectural history of the Copan Acropolis,the famous royal center in the heart of this well-known ClassicMaya site in western Honduras, has been investigated by the EarlyCopan Acropolis Program (ECAP) of the University of Pennsyl-vania Museum since 1989. ECAP is part of a long-term multi-institutional effort composed of archaeologists from Honduras, theUnited States, and several other nations.

    We have previously published preliminary summaries of theAcropolis architectural development based on our initial seasonsof research, including a paper published in this journal (Shareret al. 1992). Since these reports were published, our excavationshave reached both the base of the Acropolis architectural se-quence and a self-imposed limit on the lateral extent of our exca-vations. All new excavation ceased at the end of the 1996 fieldseason, although several primary deposits (caches and tombs) con-tinue to be investigated. The documentation and conservation ofarchitecture exposed by excavation also continues.

    The results of our investigations to the present provide somemajor additions to the architectural history of the Copan Acropo-lis. Accordingly, we offer an updated review of the results of ECAPsresearch and an interpretative summary of the development of theAcropolis during the Early Classic era, circa a.d. 420 650. Thisis not intended to be a traditional archaeological summary. Fromthe inception of ECAP, the Copan Acropolis has been the focus ofconjunctive researchcombining and testing the results gained

    by archaeology with those gained from bioanthropology, epigra-phy, iconography, and other disciplines (Fash and Sharer 1991).In this case, the summary offered will emphasize the conjunctionof archaeological and historical information. It will follow the ma-jor episodes in the expansion of the Early Classic Acropolis re-vealed by archaeology, highlighting examples of selected buildings,tombs, and similar important features, and correlate these to thehistorical dynastic sequence (Table 1). More detailed informationabout the archaeology and architecture of the Early Classic Acrop-olis can be found in a series of recent papers and publications (Agur-cia F. 1996, 1997; Fash et al. 1992; Sedat 1996; Sedat and Sharer1996; Sharer 1996; Sharer et al. 1999; Traxler 1996; Williamson1996).


    As previously described (Sharer et al. 1992:145149, Figure 3),ECAP has relied almost exclusively on tunneling to document theremains of architecture beneath the Copan Acropolis. The prevail-ing methods used at most Maya sites rely on surface excavationsto expose architectural sequences, the majority of which date tothe Late Classic era (ca. a.d. 650850). Because of the limitationsof trenches and test pits, however, especially in dealing with thelong-term accumulations of architecture often associated withClassic-era polity centers, we usually know far less about the deeply

    Ancient Mesoamerica, 10 (1999), 323Copyright 1999 Cambridge University Press. Printed in the U.S.A.


  • buried earliest building stages. Limited tunneling combined withtrenching at such long-term building complexes as the North Acrop-olis at Tikal (Coe 1990) has yielded important examples of Mayaroyal architectural sequences. At Copan, however, the unique op-portunity to excavate an extensive network of tunnels beneath theAcropolis has provided data regarding the origins and develop-ment of Early Classic royal architecture on a scale unmatched atany other Maya site.

    The opportunity to use tunnels to reveal the Copan Acropolisbuilding sequence is provided by the corte the famous cross sec-tion exposed by erosion from the Copan River along the easternedge of this complex (Sharer et al. 1992:Figure 2). The corte ex-posure reveals a stratified sequence of the buildings used by Co-pans rulers for some 400 years. In 1989, we started tunnelingwestward from the corte to follow and expose buried architectureat each level of the Acropolis for definition of the full sequence ofbuilding episodes. By the end of excavation in 1996, ECAP hadopened some 3 km of tunnels. The ECAP tunnels join with thoseexcavated by Ricardo Agurcia F. beneath Structure 10L-16 (Agur-cia F. 1996, 1997) and William Fash beneath Structure 10L-26 (W.Fash 1999; Fash et al. 1992; Williamson 1996). Together, theseexcavations form the most extensive system of tunnels ever exca-vated at a Maya site, covering the eastern two-thirds of the CopanAcropolis.

    Unlike trenching, tunneling allows more complete documenta-tion of architecture without destroying overlying construction. Ourtunnels are excavated through the compacted fill (very stable wet-laid earth and rock) placed by the Maya to bury their buildings.Within these tunnels, test pits are excavated through floors to makestratigraphic linkages, but only rarely is it necessary to tunnelthrough platform facades or building walls (done only after thor-ough documentation for later reconstruction).

    The Copan Acropolis is the result of four centuries of super-imposed construction. This accumulation is a reflection of pastMaya traditions, practices, and beliefs, and our study attempts todiscover as much as possible about this ancient behavior. For ex-

    ample, the dedication and termination of buildings were markedby important rituals, some of which left recoverable residues thatcan be analyzed and interpreted. It is apparent that, for the Maya,the placing of new structures atop those that had been terminatedreflected the cycle of lifethe birth, life, death, burial, and rebirthof buildings. It is also clear that certain buildings were associatedwith important kings or auspicious events. These associations gavesuch structures sacred qualities, so that their locations were com-memorated long thereafter by a series of later buildings con-structed over the same location. Architectural superimposition alsohas the practical benefit of reducing the effort needed to build higherand more massive constructions. Thus, both practical and ideolog-ical purposes were served by sequences of buildings that occupiedthe same location and often continued to be dedicated to the samepurpose.

    In the Copan Acropolis, substructures were usually buried in-tact; the Maya usually demolished only the upper parts (super-structures) of buildings before they were buried by a successor.Thus, enough remains of most obsolete buildings to document ac-tual and projected architectural plans using computer mapping tech-nology (Traxler 1996). In the end, architectural superimpositionallows us to record a stratified sequence of architectural plans andother details, such as construction methods and building decora-tions. Associated evidence from primary deposits including caches,burials, and tombs are recorded and conserved along with archi-tectural remains. (Middens and remains of activity areas are onlyrarely found beneath the Acropolis.) These archaeological data arecombined with other sources of information, such as several newlydiscovered associated hieroglyphic texts, to form the basis of theconjunctive approach that underlies our research.


    The deepest levels in the water-saturated soils beneath the Acrop-olis have been probed by both ECAP excavations and several test

    Table 1. Copan dynastic sequence and acropolis architecture

    Time Span a.d.Ruler

    (Order of Succession and Name) Major Associated Architecture

    763-822 16 (Yax Pasah) Structure 10L-18 (presumed tomb & shrine), Structure 10L-21A, Structure 10L-16,Structure 10L-11

    749-763 15 (Smoke Shell) Structure 10L-26-1st738-749 14 (Smoke Monkey) Structure 10L-22A695-738 13 (Eighteen Rabbit) Structure 10L-21 (presumed shrine), Structure 10L-22, Structure 10L-26-2nd,

    Ball Court III, Ball Court IIB628-695 12 (Smoke Imix) Esmeralda (presumed shrine), Scribess Tomb (presumed tomb), Chorcha578-6