Copyright © 1996 David Stuart


Copán in the Decipherment of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing

The Importance of Copán

Copán ranks among the most important of Maya sites for many reasons, but foremost among these is its vast number of hieroglyphic texts. For its relative small size (many other sites in the Maya lowlands are physically larger), the amount of inscribed materials at Copán are truly astounding, suggesting that in some way the elite culture of this ancient kingdom was particularly interested in literate culture and whatever that entailed. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that Copán has long been a focus of intensive epigraphic investigation. The large number of texts at Copán, nearly all on large stone stelae or altars, have given scholars a large amount of texts to be compared and studied, and these texts have played a significant role in the overall effort to break the Maya code. Recently, this great progress in deciphering Copán's inscriptions has not only revealed surprising facts about the local royal history, featuring the rituals and reigns of individual kings over a four-hundred year period, but it has also opened several doors on Maya culture as a whole.

The Progress of Decipherment

The decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs is still advancing rapidly, although much remains to be done at Copán and other sites. At present some 60 to 70 percent of the Maya inscriptions can be read with a reasonable degree of accuracy, this principally being the result of an ever-increasing refinement in our understanding of the workings of the ornate Maya script, as well as a better accuracy in reconstructing the Mayan language of the inscriptions from its modern descendants. Some texts are perfectly legible and can be read aloud in Mayan more or less as they were written centuries ago; others may be completely opaque to us, and may never be read in their entirety. Between these extremes lies the majority of inscriptions at Copán and elsewhere, which are generally understood with regard to content, even if a number of words or names are unreadable. Certainly enough is known to allow us to step back from the details of deciphering to consider what the Maya had to say about their own society and history. What we must not fail to remember is that the results of these investigations has pushed back the historical record of the New World some fifteen hundred years.

The Nature of Maya Writing

A few words on the nature of Maya writing are appropriate as background for understanding the literate culture of Copán in ancient times. Anyone glancing at a Maya inscriptions would be immediately struck by the sheer complexity of the visual forms of the script itself -- the "look" of the Maya script is in fact difficult to compare with any other. A text is typically arranged in a grid-like fashion, or by a linear arrangement of the same square blocks that are a basic formal unit of the system. Each block is composed of one or more signs, most of which possessed a strong pictorial quality throughout their history. Heads, body parts, objects of everyday life -- all these things can be recognized in most inscriptions. However, it is a mistake to consider Maya writing as simple "picture writing," for nothing could be farther from the truth. Maya hieroglyphs were a full writing system, meaning that it was above all phonetic. Every Maya sign corresponds to a word or a phonetic syllable, and thus was capable of accurately representing any spoken utterance. Word signs are the simplest type, where a character might represent a macaw head and be read Mo', "macaw." Hundreds of such signs are known. More complicated are the syllabic elements, which were combined in various ways to spell words. Syllabic signs may well be pictorial as well (bird heads, hands, etc.) but the image is not necessarily an indicator of meaning in such cases. Thus, the syllables k'u-k'u spell k'uk', "quetzal," and the sequence la-ka-ma spells lakam, "flag, banner." Words such as these were commonly spelled with word signs as well, showing that there existed an inherent optionality to the script. Scribes constantly had to choose among the large repertoire of signs (some 800 in all) when composing their texts. To make matters even more complicated, a single syllable or word sign could have several substitutes or "allographs" -- signs that graphically very different but functionally equivalent. For example, the syllable na could be rendered by five distinct signs. One can see why the decipherment has been a long and arduous process over the years.

Difficulties in Decipherment

Work over the past ten years has resulted in the decipherment of many inscriptions at Copán, although it must be said that several texts still elude even a cursory understanding. The recent epigraphic work has refined the ruler sequence and its chronology, nearly a quarter of a century after Heinrich Berlin's and Tatiana Proskouriakoff's celebrated breakthroughs in the historical interpretations of Maya texts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A few rulers' names from the Late Classic period were fairly clear in the years subsequent to those initial findings ("18 Jog," "New-Sky-at-Horizon," etc.), yet the overall progress in identifying all the rulers was gradual, aided greatly by Berthold Reise's reading of the name glyphs on Altar Q, an important stone monument to be discussed momentarily. Why did clarifying the historical content of Copán's inscriptions require so much time? There are several reasons, perhaps the most important being Copán's local scribal genre, where names and other glyphs are seldom presented the same way twice. Not only did writing styles vary over time, they also differed among contemporaneous monuments. This required epigraphers not only to understand specific substitution patterns, but also to painstakingly refine their models of the way Maya writing in general worked as a graphical system. In essence, epigraphers had to solve many of the fundamental problems of Maya decipherment before addressing the specific readings in many Copán texts. Consequently, the progress in decipherment at Copán has developed hand-in-hand with, and in some ways as a result of, methodological advances on a much broader front.

Different Genres of Inscriptions: Copán and Yaxchilan

Copán's inscriptions are idiosyncratic in some ways, reflecting the unique features of the local literary culture in ancient times. We might even say that Copán's inscriptions help to define a certain "genre" of Maya textual practice. In studying the temporal and geographical diversity of Classic period inscriptions, it is perhaps useful to consider two fundamental types of text or genres. This may be best illustrated by comparing Copán to another site with a strong literary tradition, Yaxchilan. Both sites witnessed great political growth during the early years of the Late Classic period under the reigns of long-lived rulers. Both sites, moreover, display their texts in somewhat similar settings. Stelae are frequent at both centers, as are architectural inscriptions. However, the content of the inscriptions at Yaxchilan often differs drastically from those at Copán. The major themes of the known Yaxchilan monuments are war, dance, and bloodletting rituals, with several records of architectural dedicatory rites. Most of the records of wars and dances accompany scenes of the rulers, who are featured prominently in all of the texts. Copán's texts have a far lesser emphasis on historical narrative. The stelae of the great plaza, for example, are inscribed with dedicatory formulae that name the ruler as "owner" of the monument, but they seldom if ever record any ritual or historical activity. Birth dates at Copán are virtually nonexistent, as also are records of war and capture. The Copán rulers therefore lack some of the personalized history we read in the texts of newer centers in the western lowlands, such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, and Piedras Negras. It would seem that the great exception to this general pattern is Copán's Hieroglyphic Stairway, which provides what might be called the official history of the Copán polity. As will be seen, however, even here history takes on a special Copán flavor, providing background to what are essentially dedicatory statements.

The Nature of Copán's Glyphs

As noted, the vast majority of inscriptions at Copán are found on numerous stelae, altars and architectural stones associated with the main acropolis area and a few outlying valley sites. The texts are for the most part very short, simply relating specific ritual and dedicatory information on the monuments. I have argued that this is a general feature of a great many Maya inscriptions, yet at Copán the emphasis on dedicatory matters is heightened by a surprising lack of background historical information. The dynastic sequence of Copán has been difficult to reconstruct due to the texts' relative silence on both dates, accession dates, and statements of kin relationships among royalty. Essentially the Copán scribes presented a series of dated monuments with little more than highly elaborate name-tags, as in "the banner-stone of Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil ("18 Rabbit") was planted." A great many passages from Copán's inscriptions still defy translation, but these would seem to be specialized ritualistic texts, it is unlikely that once readable will fill-in any of the historical gaps. For this reason I have characterized Copán's texts as somewhat ahistorical, in that they are not concerned with historical narrative, or at least in not the same way we find at other sites to the north and west.

The obvious exception to this general description of Copán's literary tradition is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. In over two thousand hieroglyphs, the stairway text recounts, at least in part, much of the site's dynastic history, beginning with references to the "founder" K'inich Yax K'uk'Mo. The stairway includes numerous accession and death dates for subsequent. Fash, myself and others have argued that the stairway was conceived as a powerful political statement of warfare and royal ancestry in the wake of Copán's apparent defeat by Quirigua in 737 A.D. In actuality, it is likely that the Hieroglyphic Stairway was built in two phases, the first by Ruler 13 (Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil) in 709, and the second by Ruler 15 ("Smoke Shell") at the traditional date of 755. Ruler 13 composed most of the dynastic narrative that is today visible on the stairway, proving that the Quirigua war was not a factor in this novel reworking of Copán's textual genre. Ruler 13 was an innovator in other respects as well, being responsible for most of the monuments of the Great Plaza and Temple 22 of the acropolis. During his reign, the sculptural style of the city changed dramatically. Why his version of the hieroglyphic stairway departed so much from what came before it is difficult to know. However, even when relating historical narratives, the two stairway texts each culminate in final statements commemorating the building of the stairway sections, carefully conforming to the overall dedicatory tradition of Copán and other Maya sites. After Ruler 13, the Copán texts resort to short, terse, and self-referential statements of ownership and dedication.

The Nature of Quirigua's Glyphs

Qurigua, with its close geographical proximity and its clear artistic and historical connections to Copán, displays texts that are highly dedicatory in theme, rather like those from its large neighbor. Quirigua's monuments were produced over the course of three reigns, making them somewhat less interesting for viewing changes through time, yet even within this relatively short span we see interesting and significant shifts in how inscriptions were conceived and presented. The well-known monuments of "Cauac Sky," the captor of Copán's Ruler 13, erected several imposing stelae in the small plaza of Qurigua, most of which celebrate the placement of the monuments themselves on period Ending dates. These monuments fall squarely in the Copán genre, and probably represent a conscious appropriation of Copán's rival art and scribal style after the latter's defeat. Cauac Sky's monuments also show a consistent effort to hearken back to calendrically-related events in the far distant past, much like what is found on Copán's Stelae C and N. The emphasis on "deep-time" may reflect the upstart kingdom's self-conscious effort to publicly present a historical pedigree where none before existed. Although accession dates and Copán's defeat are prominently featured at Quirigua, however, historical narratives of any length are non-existent.

Curiously, both Quirigua and Copán used stelae less frequently the end of the Late Classic period. Cauac Sky's successor, "Sky Xul" rejected stelae altogether, and Yax Pas of Copán likewise never erected a stela of his own. Both rulers instead invested their monuments efforts into architectural texts, free-standing altars, or so-called "zoomorphs" (a Quirigua elaboration on the altar concept). The significance of the change cannot be easily overstated, for in the case of Copán it occurred after centuries of stelae dedications by at least fifteen previous kings. Why a new mode of text presentation was so popular at the time cannot be explained, yet it surely must reveal a decreased importance in this region of the stela or "bannerstone" as a ritual and political monument.

Copán's Dynastic History: Altar Q

The dynastic history of Copán has been reconstructed based on the research of several scholars, including Michel Davoust, Berthold Reise, and the author. Based upon this work we can readily identify an unbroken sequence of sixteen rulers, with hints of other powerful individuals existing in "pre-dynastic" times (see Table 1). Usually the reconstruction of a Maya dynasty takes the considerable effort of compiling and comparing a number of diffferent inscriptions composed throughout a site's history, and in this Copán is no different. However, we are extremely fortunate to have at our disposal a single ancient monument that provides a pictorial "summary" of the dynastic sequence itself. This is Altar Q, which, although not a terribly imposing piece of sculpture, nonetheless might be considered the most important historical document from all of Copán. Around the four sides of this box-like stone we find the portraits of sixteen individuals seated on hieroglyphs. The figures themselves are all very similar, although we find some important differences in their costumes, but the glyphs themselves are all quite distinct from one another. In the 1970s, the German scholar Berthold Reise recognized some of the glyphs as the names of historical people named in other Copán texts, and he reasonably surmised that the glyphs name the figures that sit on them. Based on the sequence of the known names, he further guessed that the sixteen portraits are shown in a temporal sequence. It was not very difficult to interpret Altar Q as a visual king list of Copán, and that it has proved to be.

Altar Q: The West Side

The west side of the altar is the most interesting of all, as it seems to be the focal point of the stone. The last king of the sequence, named Yax Pasah (whom we will discuss momentarily), faces another figure who wears "goggles" on his eyes, carries a square shield, and has a large quetzal bird perched atop his headdress. The goggles and the square shield are clear characteristics associated with Central Mexican culture during the Early Classic period, especially with the immense urban area of Teotihuacan. His is the first in the sequence of portraits on the altar, and represents the so-called founder of the dynasty, K'inich Yax K'uk'Mo'. Between the two figures are two glyphs providing a date in the Maya calendar: 6 Kaban 10 Mol. This, we know from other inscriptions, corresponds to July 2, 763 A.D, and was recognized first by Tatiana Proskouriakoff as the inauguration date of Yax Pasah. On Altar Q the inauguration is portrayed as an encounter between Yax Pasah, the contemporary ruler, and his distant predecessor, who seems to hand him the staff of office. This is a strong statement of political succession.

Altar Q: The Top

Atop the altar is a rather lengthy inscription that provides us with some details about the earliest events in the reign of the first king, and goes on to link those events with the contemporary history. First we are told of K'inich Yax K'uk'Mo's participation in an accession ritual called cha'm k'awil, or "taking the k'awil" (referring to an important supernatural who was an emblem of rule). Three days later the founder "arrives" at a place called Oxwitik, probably the ancient name of Copán itself. This would suggest, first of all, that K'inich Yax K'uk'Mo'assumed office somewhere else, and not at the acropolis of Copán proper. It is possible that he took part in the ch'am k'awil rite at the site we now call Quirigua, some two or three days walk away, as this same event is recorded in the inscriptions of that site. The sites, as we have seen, were indeed closely related throughout their histories, and K'inich Yax K'uk'Mo'may have been an instrumental figure in Quirigua's early days as well. Be that as it may, it seems very likely that this early ruler was not a Copán native, but any further conclusions would be very speculative. Altar Q continues its account with a dedication reference of the altar itself during the reign of Yax Pasah. The monument, however, is said to be "owned" by Yax K'uk'Mo', suggesting perhaps that he is the principal commemorative focus. Such an interpretation would make sense, given that the temple immediately behind Altar Q, Structure 16, was originally graced with Mexican symbolism like that connected with his portrait on the altar. The strong Mexican connection to the dynastic founder has long been a source of debate, but, as we shall see in time, there may now finally be an answer to this mystery. We will return to this in due time.

Yax K'uk' Mo'

The reign of Yax K'uk' Mo', as with other Copán rulers, is largely mysterious, and no clear contemporary monument of him is known. However, a handful of inscriptions from the late fifth century name him, and one of these, the so-called "Motmot" marker stone, gives us the earliest known portrait. He appears here in the company of his son, the second ruler -- it is probably a posthumous representation. Interestingly, there is no indication of central Mexican clothing or symbolism in this portrait. He is as Maya-looking as his son and other contemporary rulers. In another inscription, he is said to celebrate the great period ending date in the Maya calendar, 9.0.0.0.0, or December 11, 435 A.D. However little we actually know of Yax K'uk'Mo', we are certain that his son succeeded him in office, giving us no doubt that he was indeed the founder of a true dynastic line at the site.

The "Motmot" Marker

One of the most significant historical sources from this early period is also among the most enigmatic. This is the so called "Motmot" marker, named after the early classic structure in which it was found (See Fash article in this volume). This flat circular monument displays two richly dressed figures facing one another on either side of a hieroglyphic inscription in two columns. In some repsects, this arrangement foreshadows the south side of Altar Q. Some details of the carving are eroded, but there remain enough elements to identify the left figure as Yax K'uk'Mo'and the right as his son, Ruler 2. It seems likely that this monument dates to Ruler 2's reign, in fact, and it may be among the earliest dynastic monuments from the main acropolis. The inscription is extremely difficult to decipher, but recognizable are the name glyphs of the two rulers, a date, as well as mention of certain ritual activities. The bound haunches of a deer represented by one of the glyphs in the lower left column is especially intriguing, since below the marker stone were found the bones of a sacrificed deer, along with human remains. Part of the text, then, may refer to certain specific rituals that occured at the dedication of the stone itself.

Ruler 10

From this tantalizing glimpse of Copán's earliest days as a kingdom, we move on to an extremely cloudy period in the site's written history. In the late fifth and early sixth century, several inscriptions seem to have been carved and dedicated, but these were nearly always destroyed in later periods and used as building stones; only by chance do we find them, and they are invariably badly fragmented. Despite such meager records, however, Altar Q is of course essential for providing the names of the obscure kings of this period, including Yax K'uk'Mo's son. It is not until after many years that we can securely connect a ruler's name with a specific date. It seems that many of the rulers who came to power after Yax K'uk' Mo' occuped the throne for only very short periods of time, and several may have therefore had little opportunity to consolodate much political power. It is not until the reign of Ruler 10, perhaps named "Moon Jaguar," that we begin to emerge from the gap in the historical record. This king has a few stela fragments to his credit, and may have been responsible for the bulding of the imposing "Rosalila" structure in the main acropolis.

Ruler 11

Copán's historical record begins to clarify even further with the accession of a long-lived and important king who was eleventh in the sequence, on November 19, 578 A.D. His name is sometimes presented by scholars as Buts'Chan "Smoke Serpent," but its original meaning was probably more like "Fire-Eating Serpent." Two prominent stelae of the acropolis and village site bear his name - - Stelae 7 and P -- and these were erected in 613 and 623, respectively. It seems likely that Ruler 11 was responsible for the construction of several important buildings in the acropolis during his extended reign, although no architectural inscriptions made by him have been excavated.

Ruler 12

On February 8, 628 A.D., perhaps the most powerful and influential of Copán's kings acceded to the throne, either as a child or a very young man (he would reign sixty-seven years). He was twelfth in the sequence, and is sometimes called "Smoke Imix." It was during the early seventh century that Classic Maya civilization began to come of age, with long-lived and important rulers holding sway over other kingdoms, among them K'inich Hanab Pakal of Palenque and Itsamnah Balam I of Yaxchilan. Together these and other lords gave shape to the political landscape that would dominate Maya history for the next two centuries before the collapse. At Copán, Smoke Imix appears to have consolidated political control, and wielded it over a considerable distance away from the Copán Valley. One of the more distinctive features of his rule was the erection of several inscribed monuments around the perimeter of the valley itself, on mountain sides away from standing architecture. It is likely that these monuments held cosmological significance associated with the world directions, and were possibly meant to commemorate important royal rituals held near important mountain-top shrines that have long since vanished. They reveal nonetheless that Smoke Imix constructed monuments beyond Copán's acropolis and its immediate area. Within the acropolis area itself, Smoke Imix constructed had made several more stelae and altars, and no doubt helped to give shape to much of the acropolis architecture as we know it. At about this time, as well, we find an inscription naming Smoke Imix at Quirigua, suggesting perhaps that Copán in these years was politically dominant over its much smaller neighbor. This possibility will emerge as very significant in the consideration of the next king.

Ruler 13: Architecture and Inscriptions

Smoke Imix died and was buried shortly thereafter on July 2, 695 after nearly seventy years on the throne. His burial is recorded on the Hieroglyphic Stairway built in part by the man who succeeded him as king, Ruler 13. This king is more widely known by his nickname "18 Rabbit," but we know his actual name to have been Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil, an enigmatic phrase meaning "Eighteen are the Bodies (?) of K'awil" (K'awil being one of the cheif Maya gods associated with divine rulership). Ruler 13 -- a more convenient label for our purposes -- followed very much in the line of his two immediate predecessors in having a relatively long and productive reign. It might justifiably be said, in fact, that these three lords, Ruler 11, 12, and 13 -- were responsible for the apogee of Copán's political influence and cultural life. Ruler's 13's own contribution to this may have been more in the latter area, for we have little indication that he waslike his father in being concerned with the domination of other sites. Instead, Ruler 13's inscriptions take on a rather introverted character, for they are generally simple and terse statements about ritual dedications of stones and buildings. Indeed, we know precious little of this important king simply because his texts say so little of historical value.

Nonetheless. we feel the significance of this great king in other ways. Ruler 13 did much to design the Great Plaza that now stands to the north of the main acropolis, including a major expansion of the Ball Court on its southern end (another renovation of the ball court would come later in his reign). In connection with this architectural work, as already touched upon, he seems to have conceived of at least half of the great Hieroglyphic Stairway, a monument that would be built upon by one of his successors. Some fifteen or twenty years into his reign, in the first decade or two of the eigth century, a flurry of construction and artistic activity takes place under this ruler. The sculptural style undergoes a truly massive transformation as well, with the flat "boxy" appearance of many of the monuments giving way completely to representations almost fully in the round -- a tradition of representation that would survive at Copán for the rest of its history.

Temple 22

The major architectural accomplishment of Ruler 13 was perhaps Temple 22, which now rests atop a large platform to the north of the East Court. This temple was conceived as the model of the primordial maize-sprouting mountain (wits) of Maya cosmology. Today most of its decorative sculpture lies in jumbled piles, but enough remains on the structure to make the identifiaction secure. Large masks of the animated mountain spirit adorned each corner, and several large figures of the Maya maize were excavated from the ruins here before the turn of the century. Within the mountain-temple was an inner chamber, the door to which was itself sculptued with an image of the Maya night sky, with the Milky Way shown as an arching "cloud serpent." The step to this doorway bore a hieroglyphic text -- now lost -- that is one of the most extraordinary to have come down to us from all Maya sites. It's special qualities come not from what it says, but how it states its subject. It begins with the sentence: "On the day 5 Lamat is the completion of my k'atun (in office)." A k'atun is a period of roughly twenty years in the Maya calendar, and the day five Lamat tells us that this is the twentieth year anniversary of Ruler 13's accession to the throne. The date of the building is thus clearly established to have been constructued at or around March 27, 715 A.D. But notice here the use of the first person voice, "my first k'atun." These are the spoken words of Ruler 13 himself, and constitute the only known example of a quotation of an ancient Maya king.

The Demise of Ruler 13 and of Copán

Despite the extraordinary accomplishments of Ruler 13, he is perhaps most famous for his unfortunate demise at the hands of the contemporary ruler of Quirigua "Cauac Sky" on May 3, 738. We know very little of this great historical episode, except that it is recorded prominently in the Quirigua texts as the "axeing" of Ruler 13. Was he captured in battle? Abducted while visiting his vassal site? Sacrificied, even, in some voluntary ritual that we do not understand? These questions will probably never be answered with much satisfaction. We do know, however, that before this time Quirigua was hardly a very significant site. The ruler Cauac Sky had acceded to the throne of his small kingdom many years before this date, on January 2, 725, but had erected no monuments until after the defeat of his Copán rival. At this point, Quirigua seems to grow in political and ritual significance at an incredibly rapid pace, as Copán, immediately following the defeat, displays no inscribed monuments for close to twenty years. One Copán ruler, Ruler 14 or "Smoke Monkey," reigned for a short nine years at this time, but nothing is known of him; all refrences to him are by later kings. Evidently, there occured a major shift in the balance of power in the southeastern Maya region, with one site assuming much of the power of the other. We only wish that more inscriptions at Quirigua explained the situation in some detail. The only glimpse we have comes from Copán's scribes many years later, when they note, apparently with some remorse, that during these days after Ruler 13's demise there were "no altars, no pyramids, no places," an apparent reference to Copán's inability to continue in its monumental tradition.

Ruler 15 and the Rejuvination of Copán

Copán's fortunes seem to turn around with the accession of the fifteeenth ruler mentioned in the texts, who is sometimes called "Smoke Shell." He assumed the throne on February 18, 749, but did not erect any monuments until some eight years later, perhaps once he had managed some independence from Quirigua's control. From this point on, Copán reverts to being on its own, it would seem, with large-scale construction activities and monument building. A case in point is Smoke Shell's amplification of the Hieroglyphic Stairway on Temple 26, begun by his unfortunate predecessor. Ruler 15 added a number of inscribed steps and constructed the temple on top, replete with Mexican religious and militaristic symbolism. When viewed as a whole, Temple 26 seems to be evoking Mexico as something decidedly "foreign" or "other," for there seems to be a concious feeling on the part of the Maya that these icons and gods such as Tlaloc were "not Maya." We see this most clearly in another inscription from this temple, that once graced the interior of the superstructure. Now reconstructed by Barbara Fash and myself, we find that this inscription was actually composed of two concurrent and parallel texts, one composed in standard Maya form, the other in a "Mexican" or Teotihuacan style. The other text is still very much in Maya writing, but with what might be called a different "font" that evokes another culture, and perhaps even another time. At this point in Mesoamerican history, Teotihuacan had collapsed yet was apparently remembered and celebrated for year afterward. The text in the Copán temple may even be somehow evoking the "old country" by lending the structure with an old and sophisticated feel. When we understand that the Hieroglyphic Stairway on this temple was principally a dynastic record of the kings of Copán -- a sort of text version of what we see on Altar Q -- this may come as little surprise. Recall that the dynastic founder, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', may have been a foriegner with Mexican connections. Temple 26, like Temple 16 as well (the structure behind Altar Q), was conciously recalling this historical origin of the Copán dynastic line as being Mexican. Whether this reflected historical reality or not is, again, impossible to verify, but it is true that cultural contect between Copán and Teotihuacan was much strnger before 600 that it was in later years, when these temples were built. Interestingly, many political instituions throughout Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish Conquest traced their semi-mythical origins back to Tollan, the place "Beisde the Reeds." This may well have been Teotihuacan itself, since a "reed place" is sometimes mentioned in the Maya sources in direct connection to Teotihuacan iconography. It would seem that Ruler 15's focus on Temple 26 and its evocation of a political origin rooted in Mexico, was attempting to reassert Copán's political role follwing difficult times. At least the iconography of these temples should be considered in this historical context.

Ruler 16

Ruler 15 was very active during his reign, but this lasted only until 763, when the next king Yax Pasah, the sixteenth ruler, assumes power. At this point we have come full circle around Altar Q, to the point where the new king takes the staff of office from his "Mexican" ancestor. Yax Pasah, as the most recent known king, left innumerable monuments and inscriptions in the acropolis, ranging from large alters to architectural inscriptions to smaller texts on stone censers. Even with this large group of texts at our disposal, Yax Pasah remains a surprisingly enigamtic figure. In many respects he diverges from the Copán tradition of erecting stelae, and there are osme indications from his name glyph and parentage that he was of foriegn origin. He was responsible for the construction of Temple 16, celebrating his political predecessor Yax K'uk'Mo', and Temple 11, a massive structure that may have been a stone model of the Maya universe. He also comissined several other small temples in the acropolis. The last date at Copán associated with Yax Pasah is July 24th, 805 A.D., after which the record is silent.

The End of Copán's Written History

Yax Pasah's reign, and Copán's written history, ends with no explicit records of what may have led to the collapse (who would read them, afterall?). But we do see one interesting pattern in the years leading up to the kingdom's demise. During the reigns of Ruler 15 and 16, especially, there is an increased prominence in so-called "secondary" figures in Copán's political scene -- subsidiary governers, officers of the royal court. Many of these non-royal elites appear in inscriptions that were placed in or near buildings away from the main acropolis, in "suburban" locations. Many of these smaller architectural groups, such as that at Las Sepulaturas, were clearly occupied by important people with close ties to the royal family. Several of these people are named as being the subsidiaries of specific kings, such as Yax Pasah. What is interesting, however, is the fact that these subsidiary nobles are never mentioned in the Early Classic reocords of Copán. It would seem that there emergence as powerful lords in their own right may have been a symptom of some large, more systemic problems in Copán society at this time, as centralized power of the king waned. We will have to test this idea against further epigraphic and excavation data.


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