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Faces of Copan, Honduras

copan ruinsWithout really setting out to do so, I now seem to have visited a half dozen Maya sites over the past few years, including Uxmal, Ek Balaam, Tikal, and now Copan. (Okay, really Copán if you want to be nitpicky, but then again, who writes Cancún with an accent?)

The pyramids here may not be all that impressive, but Copan has a few things going for it that the others don’t. Tikal is midtown Manhattan, with its skyscrapers being the tallest buildings in the Americas until a few hundred years ago. Copan is more like Soho, with its low-slung buildings and more of an emphasis on art.

While most of the Maya edifices we see today have only some shallow relief inscriptions and a few animal heads, Copan is brimming with faces: skulls, serpents, jaguars, and demons from the underworld.

Copan HondurasI toured the site with a guide this time. I usually go running from guides the way I try to avoid guys wanting to clean my windshield with a dirty rag and a squeegee. It’s not because I’m cheap (though that is true); it’s because I can’t stand listening to someone drone on and on about the meaning of some insignificant squiggles on a 12-foot-wide scene full of squiggles. A summary will do nicely, then we can see the rest of the place before it’s hot enough to boil an egg on the sacrificial alter.

Thankfully I got a guide whose antennae were working and I didn’t have to give 14 hints that I wasn’t up for a three-hour history lesson. So I won’t be able to go teach a university class on the royal succession in Copan, but I got the general idea. (If you are the scholarly type who really does want to see what every squiggle means, you can visit this website from Harvard.)

copan MayaIf you pay a little extra there are some tunnels that go under the acropolis and you can see how one temple was built on top of another—common practice in the Maya world. It’s okay, but far more interesting is the museum on the grounds. There they have displayed some key items but the centerpiece is a huge replica of the Rosalia, the temple found underneath. It had been covered with plaster before being buried, so the archaeologists could see the original paint colors, which were copied in the replica. So while we now see only bare stone, with this display we can see how the temples really looked in their prime, covered with stucco and colorful.

More on that later when I sort through my photos, but here are some pics of faces and sculptures. See more at the official Honduras Tourism site.

Christine Gilbert

Thursday 15th of May 2008

Squiggles? That's half the fun! Although, I prefer my history lessons with AC.