A New Discovery at Copan

Reports from the Field

By: Loa P. Traxler

Originally Published in 1993

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Looking toward the Jaguar staircase of Copan's East Court. the Olive of Sub-Jaguar staircase and the newly discovered tomb chamber lie more than 4 meters below the present surface. Both are accessible only from archaeological tunnels cut in from the Corte, an eroded section of the Acropolis (see Fig. 2).
Looking toward the Jaguar staircase of Copan’s East Court. the Olive of Sub-Jaguar staircase and the newly discovered tomb chamber lie more than 4 meters below the present surface. Both are accessible only from archaeological tunnels cut in from the Corte, an eroded section of the Acropolis (see Fig. 2).

In the spring of 1992, University Museum excavators of the ancient Maya city of Copan made the remarkable discovery of an intact noble burial chamber. The burial, located in the city’s Acropolis, may prove to belong to one of Copan’s ákings. What made this discovery alál the more exciting was the recovery of 12 ceramic vessels with unusually well preserved, painted polychrome decoration. These vessels represent one of the largest groups of such objects ever recovered from a contextually documented Maya burial.

Partial plan of Copan's earlier East Court. The tomb chamber lies beneath the Olive staircase. All these structures are hidden by the Court's final stage, visible on the surface of the Acropolis today (Fig. 1). The plan was computer-generated by The University Museum's COMPASS system from exposures made during tunnel excavations under the East Court. (For more detail, see Sharer et al. 1991.)
Partial plan of Copan’s earlier East Court. The tomb chamber lies beneath the Olive staircase. All these structures are hidden by the Court’s final stage, visible on the surface of the Acropolis today (Fig. 1). The plan was computer-generated by The University Museum’s COMPASS system from exposures made during tunnel excavations under the East Court. (For more detail, see Sharer et al. 1991.)

A crew began a probe into the stairway on the axis of Olive platform, carefully removing the huge blacks of the lower steps. In March of 1992, the crew’s excavator plucked a seemingly inconsequential, wedge-shaped stone out of the mixed fill beneath the stairs, and a black hole opened at his feet. Small though it was, the hole revealed the top edge of a cut stone wall. I peered inside with a flashlight and could just make out bone fragments and plaster debris. The small stone was in fact a wedge for the capstones that formed the roof of an ancient tomb. The next day we were able to slip a small camera into the opening, and from the blind-angle pictures taken, we could see clearly the remains of someone who had been laid inside over 1400 years ago.
The tomb itself is a rectangular masonry chamber, oriented north/south and sealed by eight large capstones. The chamber’s interior was a vibrant red color, from the paint on the stucco finish of the walls and floor to the red pigment covering the stone slabs on which lay the skeleton (Fig. 3). The individual, identified as a man, lay face up with his head to the north, his arms and legs resting on the unworked spondylus shells that surrounded his body. He was adorned with bracelets and anklets composed of shell and jade beads and wore an elaborate collar of large shell beards, some with incised anthropomorphic designs. His costume also included mosaic earflares of shell and jade, and probably a belt of some form with jade and obsidian decoration.

The interior of the tomb chamber before excavation, looking north. The poorly preserved remains of a single person were found lying on a funerary platform within the chamber. The person was a man from a noble family, probably a king of the Copan dynasty. Plaster debris from the red-painted chamber walls litters the stone platform and floor areas.
The interior of the tomb chamber before excavation, looking north. The poorly preserved remains of a single person were found lying on a funerary platform within the chamber. The person was a man from a noble family, probably a king of the Copan dynasty. Plaster debris from the red-painted chamber walls litters the stone platform and floor areas.

His funerary platform (perhaps made like the benches used in some elite residences of the time) was supported above the floor on six pedestal stones. On the floor around and underneath the platform hay pottery and other offerings (Figs. 4-8). Of the 28 ceramic vessels, a group of 12 display an unusually well preserved polychrome decoration (Figs. 7, 8). This finish, applied after the vessels were fired, is accomplished by covering the ceramic surface with a white undercoat of paint and then applying the varied colors to form designs of serpents, monsters, and hieroglyphs. These surfaces are delicate, arid relatively few well-preserved examples have been excavated in the Classic Maya area. Fortunately, a team of conservators is working to ensure the survival of all the objects from the tomb.

Hemispherical bowl in situ. This small bowl was found underneath the funeral platform along with a necklace of salmon-colored shell pieces and large, flat shell rings.
Hemispherical bowl in situ. This small bowl was found underneath the funeral platform along with a necklace of salmon-colored shell pieces and large, flat shell rings.

Alongside the ceramic vessels lay the remains of other polychrome-painted objects, unworked and worked shell pieces, stingray spines, and badly disintegrated organic materials. All the capstones spanning the chamber had cracked and part of one had fallen onto the funerary slab, tumbling some of the material into the pottery below. Otherwise, structural disturbance in the chamber was minimal, and the items placed on the floor were in their original positions.

The pottery from the tomb includes several different forms, such as this bowl with tripod feet and appliqué faces below a band of polychrome-painted decoration. the style of the ceramics indicates that the tomb dates to the end of the Early Classic (circa A.D. 500-600).
The pottery from the tomb includes several different forms, such as this bowl with tripod feet and appliqué faces below a band of polychrome-painted decoration. the style of the ceramics indicates that the tomb dates to the end of the Early Classic (circa A.D. 500-600).

Its stratifigraphic position, the pottery within the chamber, and a secure radiocarbon sample date the tomb to the mid-6th century. The location of the chamber and the wealth of the burial furnishings indicate that the deceased was a member of the nobility, and we believe it very likely that this nobleman was a Copan and The University Museum.

These vessels, which are also decorated with polychrome paint on stucco, were placed on the floor of the chamber in front of a niche in the western wall. The large tripod vessel was broken by fragments of stone from the tomb wall that spalled off as the wall bowed under the weight of later construction.
These vessels, which are also decorated with polychrome paint on stucco, were placed on the floor of the chamber in front of a niche in the western wall. The large tripod vessel was broken by fragments of stone from the tomb wall that spalled off as the wall bowed under the weight of later construction.

The interior of the tomb chamber before excavation, looking north. The poorly preserved remains of a single person were found lying on a funerary platform within the chamber. The person was a man from a noble family, probably a king of the Copan dynasty. Plaster debris from the red-painted chamber walls litters the stone platform and floor areas.

The ancient city of Copan, Honduras, is famous for its Hieroglyphic Stairway, its beautifully carved altars and stelae, and its monumental architecture. Copan is also famous for its unique archaeological section—the “Corte” (see Sharer et al. 1991). The extensive tunnel excavations from the Corte into the early East Court are one facet of the work being carried out by The University Museum’s Early Copan Acropolis Program (ECAP), under the direction of Robert Sharer. Since 1989, ECAP has been documenting the evolution of the Copan Acropolis as part of the Proyecto Arqueológico de la Acropolis de Copan, under the overall direction of William Fasts of Northern Illinois University. This project is an exemplary multifaceted, multinational effort, bringing together the Instituto Honclureno de Antropología e Historia and several universities, all committed to preserving the site of Copan for the future while investigating its cultural and historical legacy.

The tomb lies not only on the axis of the elaborate Ante platform. but also between two other important contemporary buildings situated to the north and south that form a perpendicular axis. As we continue to investigate this spatial context, we expect to uncover further indications that the chamber occupies a sacred locale.

One of a matched pair of lidded tripod vessels found clustered in a group of vases on the floor of the south end of the tomb.These vessels display the best preserved and most detailed painted decoration of the group. Their motifs are reminiscent of pottery from central Mexico, although each lid sports a modeled human head of a more Maya character.
One of a matched pair of lidded tripod vessels found clustered in a group of vases on the floor of the south end of the tomb.These vessels display the best preserved and most detailed painted decoration of the group. Their motifs are reminiscent of pottery from central Mexico, although each lid sports a modeled human head of a more Maya character.
A second pair of vessels found on the chamber floor were decorated with Maya hieroglyphs, which appear two to a column, with three columns on each cup separated by panels of red and blue stripes. While a reading of the glyphs remains elusive, they may refer to specific locations in the Copan area.
A second pair of vessels found on the chamber floor were decorated with Maya hieroglyphs, which appear two to a column, with three columns on each cup separated by panels of red and blue stripes. While a reading of the glyphs remains elusive, they may refer to specific locations in the Copan area.

Excavation of the burial chamber is nearly complete now, but months of work lie ahead for the analysis and continuing conservation of the various materials within the burial. From the objects we can learn the technology of their creation, as well as study the origins, significance. and esthetics of their decoration. The skeletal remains we can analyze for information on the individual person—his age, physical attributes, and health. But more importantly, the information we glean from these materials as a whole, in the social, historical, and stratigraphic context of the tomb, will help us understand so much more about the history of Copan and the culture of the Classic Maya.

Cite This Article

Traxler, Loa P.. "A New Discovery at Copan." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 3 (November, 1993): -. Accessed February 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/reports-from-the-field-3/


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