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Death and rebirth at Copan; an ancient Maya city enters its scientific afterlife.

Death and Rebirth at Copan

Last June, as scientists were tunneling under a temple at the Maya site of Copan in Honduras, they happened upon a royal tomb. Invigorated by their good luck, they proceeded to uncover the bones of a man in his 30s -- apparently the son of Smoke Imix, who reigned as Copan's king from A.D. 628 to 695 and directed construction of the massive "Hieroglyphic Stairway" running up one side of the temple.

The young noble seemed amply prepared for his trip to the Maya underworld and an encounter with the Lords of Death: Near his bones were the remains of a boy, probably sacrificed to join the royal sojourn, and carved jade pieces depicting symbols of nobility and the underworld.

Death, as portrayed in the writings and ritual remains of the Classic-era Maya, who prospered between A.D. 250 and 900, was the beginning of a journey toward rebirth and reunion with other reborn ancestors (SN: 6/7/86, p.360). Given this belief in the afterlife, Smoke Imix and his son would not be surprised today to learn that their once-majestic city is experiencing its own rebirth.

According to presentations at November's annual meeting of the American Anthropoligical Association in Washington, D.C., archaeologists, anthropologists and epigraphers (who decipher the complex Maya writing system) are rapidly transforming scientific understanding of Classic Copan's political structure, procession of kings and settlement history.

"The work at Copan is the first to demonstrate that whole new worlds open up when archaeological and epigraphic data are combined," says David C. Grove of the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Copan, a city-state located in a valley of the same name, has attracted four major archaeological investigations since 1839. The current phase of research began in 1975.

One surprising revelation of last year's work concerns the hieroglyphic inscriptions on stone monuments and temples in Copan's "Main Group," composed of the Acropolis--the architectural center of the ancient city -- and surrounding platforms, pyramids, stairways and plazas. Epigraphers have made great strides in decoding Maya glyphs in the past 20 years. Many researchers, however, have questioned the reliability of these beautifully rendered pictographs and signs as historical records, contending the glyphs instead represent the political propaganda of Classic Maya kings.

"Our archaeological work shows there was no extensive rewriting of history on Copan's stone monuments," asserts William L. Fash Jr., of Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, director of excavations at the Copan Acropolis. "I view the inscribed monuments as concise and clear records of Copan's political history."

That history is inextricably linked to the Acropolis, which served as the seat of power for a dynasty of at least 16 Maya kings that dominated for nearly 400 years, from about A.D. 426 to 822.

Remnants of a vaulted chamber dubbed the "Founder's Room," uncovered last spring beneath the same temple housing the royal tomb, date back to the founder of the Copan dynasty, says Richard Williamson of Tulane University in New Orleans. The room contains a stone monument with the earliest known hieroglyphic date at Copan, A.D. 435, notes Williamson, an anthropology graduate student who codirected the excavation. That date often appears on the monuments of later rulers in conjunction with the name of the founder of the Copan dynasty, Yax K'uk'Mo.

The Founder's Room was built next to a ballcourt and was used for about 300 years, Williamson says. Contests on Classic Maya ballcourts were more than sport; they also served as metaphors for the king's eventual triumph over death and his rebirth as a guiding spirit for his lineage. Subsequent generations did not raze Yax K'uk'Mo's chamber for the large construction projects of later Copan kings, Williamson points out, "probably because of its prestige."

Researchers know little about the kings who succeeded Yax K'uk'Mo until the appearance of Smoke Imix, Copan's 12th ruler, whose nearly 70-year reign witnessed the flowering of construction and population growth at Copan. His name turns up on a stone monument at Quirigua, 30 miles north of Copan, notes David Stuart of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who says the monument may mark a successful battle at Quirigua by the forces of Smoke Imix.

When Smoke Imix died in his 80s, 18 Rabbit inherited the throne. Many monuments in the Great Plaza adjacent to the Acropolis depict 18 Rabbit with Classic Maya symbols of power, including a jade belt of ancestor heads and sacred mirrors, a headress and giant macaw heads. But 18 Rabbit met an inglorious end when he was captured and beheaded by the king of neighboring Quirigua. Carved inscriptions at Quirigua, deciphered last summer, place the occurrence on May 3, A.D. 738, Stuart says.

"18 Rabbit apparently launched a raid to obtain captives and got nailed himself," Stuart remarks.

In the wake of 18 Rabbit's decapitation, confidence in royal authority at Copan waned. The new king, Smoke Monkey, tried to stem the crisis by building a community house where the leaders of various settlements in the Copan Valley could meet and participate in political decision-making, Fash asserts.

"He didn't want a democracy," Fash says. "He used a stopgap measure to appease local chieftains and obtain their support."

Following Smoke Monkey's short reign of 11 years, his son Smoke Shell assumed the throne. Smoke Shell undertook vast new construction projects, including the 50-foot-wide, 72-step Hieroglyphic Stairway that ascends the temple housing the Founder's Room. The magnificent undertaking probably represented an attempt to restore the glory days of Smoke Imix, Fash maintains, but foreboding signs of the impending collapse of Copan's royal line were already apparent. For instance, economic pressure apparently forced workers to use poor-quality sediment under the temple for support, leading much of the stairway to collapse in the 1800s.

The 16th king of Copan, Yax Pac, took power in A.D. 763 and continued the rapid pace of building set by his predecessor. But around A.D. 822, two years after Yax Pac's death, the written history of Copan royal dynasty abruptly ends. One stone monument apparently refers to the destruction of the lineage, Stuart says. Though researchers are still in the early stages of deciphering the monument, they have determined that it depicts Yax Pac standing over a cave or sacred well--both symbols of death -- and makes reference to the destruction of the house of Yax K'uk'Mo.

Research begun last year in one part of the Acropolis should provide "an independent barometer" of the origins and evolution of Copan's political system, according to archaeologist Robert J. Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He and his co-workers are exploring the East Court, a rectangular plaza with major buildings lying within the Acropolis.

The Copan River has carved out an immense cross section of the buried East Court, exposing numerous construction sequences to scientific scrutiny. Evidence from excavations, test pits and tunnels dug under the East Court suggests it was the original Acropolis, founded by Copan's first king and intended as an administrative, residential and ritual center for later rulers, Sharer says. A small-scale version of the currently visible East Court was also uncovered beneath the plaza and dates to the reign of Yax K'uk'Mo. Sharer's team has dated some remains found below the East Court to as far back as A.D. 100; the arcaeological sequence extends through four episodes of major renovation and construction until A.D. 800.

In Sharer's view, historical evidence pertaining to Copan rulers before the emergence of the Classic dynasty suggests Yax K'uk'Mo belonged to a Maya group from outside Copan that took over the region and established the Acropolis as its seat of power.

The archaeological findings of Sharer and company, as well as recent glyph decipherments, indicate Classic Copan was a full-fledged political state "from the founder on up," contends epigrapher and art historian Linda Schele of the University of Texas in Austin. Throughout the 16-king dynasty, she says, the written record shows little change in the way the rulers exercised their power. Impressive ritual and political displays orchestrated by Copan's kings began with Yax K'uk'Mo, who is represented by the same glyph for "king" used to signify later rulers, she adds.

Other researchers place the emergence of statehood at Copan considerably later than Yak K'uk'Mo's reign. Fash estimates a political state took shape about 200 years after the founding of the Copan dynasty, when Smoke Imix oversaw major construction efforts and the population expanded to at least 10,000 people. Only then could the traits of a political state develop, he says. These include ranked social classes, the concentration of wealth and political power and in the hands of a few people and a bureaucracy to administer the government.

But extensive surveys of Maya settlements in the Copan Valley indicate that, if Copan achieved statehood at all, it was with the 16th ruler, Yax Pac, argues David Webster of Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

For the past decade, Webster and Penn State colleague William T. Sanders have directed research into the settlement history of Copan. They and their co-workers have mapped 1,425 archaeological sites, most consisting of rural farmer's dwellings grouped around courtyards. A few sites near the Main Group contain the more elaborate homes, temples and workshops of the "nonroyal elite" -- nobles, tradesmen and artists.

People began to farm the fertile bottomland of the Copan Valley around 1000 B.C. But extensive dating of obsidian, a native stone used for knives and jewelry, excavated at sites in the valley indicates substantial Maya occupation in the region began around A.D. 400 and continued until approximately A.D. 1200, Webster says. Thus, farmers and nonroyal elites preceded and ultimately outlasted Copan's Classic-era kings and their retinues.

Webster's team estimates Copan's population peaked at about 20,000 during Yax Pac's reign. At that time, settlements linked to the Main Group were mainly confined to a 5-mile stretch of the Copan River, Webster notes. Other Classic Maya cities, such as Tikal in Guatemala, held populations about twice as large and covered much more territory.

The 800-year stretch of substantial settlement of Copan demonstrates that, contrary to the views of many investigators, royal power was weak during the Classic period, Webster argues. There were numerous political interest groups that wielded tremendous power, including second-level elites who represented the extended families working the land and who underwrote the projects of the Copan dynasty. These families persisted in the Copan area for the nearly 400 years after Yax Pac's demise.

Furthermore, the population collapse at Copan occurred far more gradually than previously thought, Webster maintains. Rapid population growth and intensive farming of hillsides during the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. led to massive soil erosion and food shortages, promting the royal collapse. Indeed, preliminary analyses of Copan skeletal remains reveal signs of malnutrition and disease -- even among the royalty -- around A.D. 800. Continuing erosion and overfarming of a limited area eventually led to Maya to abandon the entire region around A.D. 1200. Only then, according to recent pollen studies, did the forest begin its recovery.

More surprises undoubtedly await scientists who study the workings of Copan, but Grove cautions against the temptation to overinterpret new finds. With tongue only partly in cheek, the University of Illinois researcher remarks: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly in the hands of an archaeologist."
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Title Annotation:includes related information
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 27, 1990
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