Archaeology and History in the Royal Acropolis, Copan, Honduras

By: Robert J. Sharer

Originally Published in 1999

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In a tropical valley on the western edge of Honduras lie the mas­sive ruins of Copan. Here Maya farmers once lived, ruled by powerful kings who built magnificent decorated temples and were buried amid a wealth of objects. Today Copan’s importance is recognized in its designation as a World Heritage Site.

During the Classic period of Maya civilization Copan was the prosperous capital of a major city-state. The ruins of this ancient capital cover an area of about 4. square kilo­meters in the center of the Copan Valley (Figs. 1, 2). The archaeological site is com­posed of a civic and ceremonial core surrounded by elite and non-elite residential groups, ranging from the remains of masonry palaces to low mounds that once support­ed pole-and-thatch dwellings. At the center of the site lies the Acropolis (Fig. 3), the accumulation of many royal temples and palaces built over the course of the Classic pe­riod. Its initial constructions belong to the Early Classic, dated at Copan to ca. AD 400­6i0. The University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Early Copan Acropolis Program (ECAP) is excavating and integrating the overall sequence of this buried architecture. Our efforts are providing one of the most complete records of the origins and develop­ment of an Early Classic royal complex found anywhere in the Maya area.

Copan was first explored in the early I800s and had been mapped and photographed by the end of that century. Then, in the 1930s, the Carnegie Institution of Washington tunneled beneath three major Late Clas­sic buildings,Temples 16, 16, and 26. Gordon R. Willey of Harvard University began studying the ancient set­tlement remains in 1978, and Copan and its environs have been investigated continuously since then. Excava­tions in the Main Group dominated by the Acropolis began in 1978. Since 1988 the Acropolis has been the focus of several research programs under the overall direction of William Fash (Harvard University). One of the critical components of this ongoing investigation is the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Early Copan Acropolis Program (ECAP), which I have directed since its beginning in 1989.

The first carte tunnels were excavated in 1978 under the direction of George Guillemin. After one sea­son and the excavation of some 100 meters of tunnels. Guillemin died and this work ended. At Fash’s invita­tion, I organized ECAP to renew the cortex tunnels. ECAP’s first two seasons of excavation defined the build­ing sequence in the Northeast Court Group (see Sharer,Traxler, and Miller 1991), and in 1992, we began in­vestigating a large cluster of buildings to the south of that group (see Sedat and Lopez, this issue).

ECAP team has grown over the years, and new specialists and consultants have joined the research ef­fort in recent years, including Dr. Jane Buikstra, University of New Mexico (biological anthropologist), Cam­eron McNeil, CUNY (archaeobotanical analysis), Dr. Dories Reents and Dr. Ronald Bishop, Smithsonian Insti­tution (ceramic neutron-activation analysis). The current staff includes Dr. Robert J. Sharer, Curator of the Museum’s American Section (Director), David W. Sedat, Museum Research Specialist (Field Director), Loa P Traxier, Assistant Curator of the Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks (Excavation and Mapping Su­pervisor), Lynn Grant, Museum Conservation Specialist (Conservator), Ellen E. Bell, University of Pennsylva­nia graduate student (Excavation Supervisor and artifact analysis), Christine Carrelli, Rutgers University grad­uate student (construction materials analysis). Christian Wells, Arizona State University (Excavation Assistant), and Fernando Lopez, Copan Project (Surveyor and architectural consolidation).

Cite This Article

Sharer, Robert J.. "Archaeology and History in the Royal Acropolis, Copan, Honduras." Expedition Magazine 41, no. 2 (July, 1999): -. Accessed June 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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