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Archaeological Information Copan, Honduras

Stelaes, Ball Court, Acropolis, Tunnels, Temples

This magnificent park, located in the Copan Valley, has been a major source of information regarding the ancient Maya civilization. Copan has always been referred to as the most artistically advanced and elaborate of all the Maya cities. Copan was declared a heritage of humanity site in 1980 by UNESCO, and continuous study of the city by archaeologists for over a century make it the most studied city of the Maya.

Although the park itself is enclosed, the legacy of the Maya can be found throughout the valley. The principal attractions are the main park, "Las Sepulturas", "Los Sapos" , the stelae surrounding the valley and the two museums: the Museum or Archaeology, located in the town and the Museum of Maya Sculpture, located within the Visitors Center area of the Park.

The Main Park

Entrance fee includes a visit to the main park as well as the Sepulturas Archaeological site. The Museum is without question a new major attraction to the park. Two different tunnels are open to the public: The "Rosa Lila" Tunnel and the "Los Jaguares" Tunnel.

The park has five basic areas of interest: The Ball Court, The Great Plaza,The Hieroglyphic Stairway, The Acropolis and The Tunnels.

The Ball Court

Considered the social center of the city. This park is by far the most artistic ball court in Meso-America. Unique to it are the markers on the side walls, resembling macaw heads. The final work done on this ball court goes back to the days of ruler 18 Rabbit.

The Great Plaza

Famous for its stelae and altars that are scattered around this immense plaza. Most of the stelaes that are standing today were erected during the times of the 13th ruler, known as 18 Rabbit 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. It was erected by ruler number 15, known as Smoke-Shell and is believed to be a lineage tree, recording the ascension and death of all Copan rulers from Yax-Kuk-Mo to Smoke-Shell.

The 5 portraits located in the stairway represent five successors to the dynasty. Unfortunately, the glyphs can not be read because the steps had all fallen out of place. Archaeologists rebuilt the temple, but 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 a great part of 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, and is his most significant architectural contribution to Copan. This very elaborate temple was meant to be his portal to the other world. Altar Q has now been completely "read" and depicts each (16) of the members of the Copan Dynasty... including Yax-Pac, seated on their own glyph. 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, and in its last stage, was finished by Yax-Pac. One unique aspect of this building is that for some reason, the previous standing temple was not defaced or "deactivated or terminated" but 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" and 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, and a replica of this temple is being made at the new museum of sculpture.

The Tunnels

The long term archaeological studies and excavations in Copan have lead 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, as well as the discovery of important tumbs 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 will be allowed at one time in each tunnel, and they will be accompanied by a guide. The additional entrance fee of $10.00 USA dollars per person must be paid to gain access to the tunnels. The tunnels that are open are the Rosa Lila Tunnel, located under temple 16 and represents what is perhaps the best preserved stucco building in the Maya civilization. A full size replica of this temple can be seen at the Museum of Mayan Sculpture within the park. The other tunnel is the "Los Jaguares Tunnel" This tunnel is over 700 meters long, and among other highlights, you will see what was one of the most important tumbs in Copan: Galindo's Tumb, discovered over a century ago!

Las Sepulturas Archaeological Site

"Las Sepulturas" archaeological site forms part of the "PAC" (Proyecto Arqueológico Copán) and is located one mile from the central acropolis. This small site has been most important in understanding how the Mayan elite lived during the days before the collapse of Copan.

Probably the most asked question by tourists visiting a site like Copan is: where did the population live? A good part of the answer to that question can be found at "Las Sepulturas". In addition, you will enjoy walking through its trails, listening to the birds and wildlife, and being surrounded by the peacefulness of the area. There are no guides on site, so if you wish a guided tour, which is highly recommended, be sure you hire one at the visitor center at the entrance to the main Copan park.

Los Sapos

Commonly referred to as the "birthing place", "Los Sapos" is a very small site located on the hilltops overlooking the Copan valley. Studies suggest that this is an area where the ancient Copanecan Maya women would go to give birth to their offspring. It is easily accessible via horse back riding. You can arrange for a "guide", usually a young boy from town to lead you there. The area is located within a private ranch, known as Hacienda San Lucas. This old hacienda is being remodeled is expected to open later this year (2006) with services for the visitors, including a cafeteria and a very cozy bed and breakfast. There is an entrance fee to get into the site. Probably your best option is to hire a horse and a guide with one of the local tour operators in town. The ride from town will take you about 45 minutes each way. "Los Sapos" is interesting in the fact that the stones sculptured there are "in situ". In addition, the view of the Copan valley, the town and the main acropolis is well worth the walk!

The Copan Valley Stelaes

Although most of the Mayan "tree stones" or stelaes are located in the main plaza, there are a series of stelaes that are located throughout the valley in strategic locations. Some of these are very easily accessible, while others require an effort to get to. All of them were erected by Butz Hunab K'awil, more commonly known as Smoke Imix-God K as part of an effort to demonstrate the power of the Maya kings, the power of creation, inherited directly from the Gods that founded the order of the present world. Through them, he made the entire Copan valley his personal portal to the other world

Source: Content with permission from the Honduran Institute of Tourism -

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Archaeological Information Copan, Honduras: Stelaes, Ball Court, Acropolis, Tunnels, Temples . Please note: Information on this sheet is believed to be correct but not guaranteed


Archaeological Information Copan, Honduras

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