I first visited Copan for 2 days in March 2007 with a Group from Habitat for Humanity. It was the end of our 2 week visit to Honduras, and was rather rushed, as might be expected. We were taken on a guided tour of the ruins. This was interesting, but it was hard to absorb much.
This time around, I have been able to spend a little more time learning about the Mayas, and soaking in the quiet simplicity and atmosphere of the Ruins. Most mornings, I spend an hour on a pre-breakfast hike to the Ruins, and enjoy the peace of the surrounding park. No tourists yet (the Ruins don’t open till 8 am) so it is peaceful – just the birds and me and the occasional guide on his way to work. It is nice that they open the gates to the park early. One can almost get oneself lost in the forest. It is not hard to imagine oneself back in Mayan times, 1200 to 2000 years ago.
My fellow guest Cerine and I spend a pleasant Saturday morning exploring the Ruins. (Photos are below). Since then, I have discovered an excellent free museum, created by the town council, called “Museo de Casa K’inich”. It is located inside a large white castle-like building on top of a hill in the town. The views and the kids running around are reason enough to visit. The museum is a nice bonus. I have spent several pleasant afternoons up there, learning a bit about the Mayan culture and just hanging out. The museum has hands-on exhibits in both Spanish and English, which are both informative and a great way to improve one’s Spanish.
In the museum, I learnt that the Mayan civilization is one of only 5 in the prehistoric world that developed its own written language. The others are the Sumerian, Egyptian, Harappan (Indus river, in present day Pakistan, c. 3300–1300 BCE, ), and the Chinese. No other nation in the Americas had a written language. The Mayans wrote on paper, hide, wood, and pottery, using “glyphs” or symbols, much like the Egyptians. About 1000 of these symbols have been discovered, but not all have been deciphered. It is known that they used a verb, object, subject sentence structure.
The Mayans developed their own math, based on base 20. Apparently, they decided to use both their fingers and toes for counting, whereas the decimal system was originally based on using only one’s fingers. Perhaps with the help of the Olmecs, they were the first in the world to use a 0 in their math, although the use of a blank on a counting board to represent 0 dated back in India to 4th century BC.
This is an exhibit where one can test one’s math ability, Mayan style. A dot means one unit, and a horizontal bar means 5. The example is 17-8=9. I tested this on my teachers and on my local family. Some got it right, others not – I kidded them about this, and it caused much amusement.
The Mayans used buildings, doorways and windows to plot the rising and setting positions of the sun, moon and planets. E.g. on April 12, two stone statues (“Stellae”) in the hills line up exactly with the setting sun, indicating the beginning of the agricultural cycle.
Perhaps there is a message here for us. We are certainly abusing the planet with our insatiable need for energy and more stuff. The difference is that we don’t have someplace else to go.
The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphs from a superficial resemblance to the Ancient Egyptian writing) was a combination of phonetic symbols and logograms. It is most often classified as a logographic or (more properly) a logosyllabic writing system, in which syllabic signs play a significant role. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World which is known to completely represent the spoken language of its community. In total, the script has more than a thousand different glyphs,
The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably-Maya script date back to 200–300 BC.
At a rough estimate, in excess of 10,000 individual texts have so far been recovered, mostly inscribed on stone monuments, lintels, stelae and ceramic pottery. The Maya also produced texts painted on a form of paper manufactured from processed tree-bark, in particular from several species of strangler fig trees. This paper, common throughout Mesoamerica and generally now known by its Nahuatl-language name amatl, was typically bound as a single continuous sheet that was folded into pages of equal width, concertina-style, to produce a codex (book) that could be written on both sides.
In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya used a base 20 (vigesimal) and base 5 numbering system. Also, the preclassic Maya and their neighbors independently developed the concept of zero by 36 BC. Inscriptions show them on occasion working with sums up to the hundreds of millions and dates so large it would take several lines just to represent it. They produced extremely accurate astronomical observations; their charts of the movements of the moon and planets are equal or superior to those of any other civilization working from naked eye observation.
In common with the other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya had measured the length of the solar year to a high degree of accuracy, far more accurate than that used in Europe as the basis of the Gregorian Calendar. They did not use this figure for the length of year in their calendar, however. The calendar they used was crude, being based on a year length of exactly 365 days, which means that the calendar falls out of step with the seasons by one day every four years.
Uniquely, there is some evidence to suggest the Maya appear to be the only pre-telescopic civilization to demonstrate knowledge of the Orion Nebula as being fuzzy, i.e. not a stellar pin-point. The Dresden Codex contains the highest concentration of astronomical phenomena observations and calculations of any of the surviving texts (it appears that the data in this codex is primarily or exclusively of an astronomical nature). Examination and analysis of this codex reveals that Venus was the most important astronomical object to the Maya, even more important to them than the sun.
The life-cycle of maize lies at the heart of Maya belief. This philosophy is demonstrated on the Maya belief in the Maize God as a central religious figure. The Maya bodily ideal is also based on the form of the young Maize God, which is demonstrated in their artwork. The Maize God was also a model of courtly life for the Classical Maya.
Among the many types of Maya calendars which were maintained, the most important included a 260-day cycle, a 365-day cycle which approximated the solar year, a cycle which recorded lunation periods of the Moon, and a cycle which tracked the synodic period of Venus.
Maya Site of Copan - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The kingdom, anciently named Xukpi (Corner-Bundle), flourished from the 5th century AD to the early 9th century, with antecedents going back to at least the 2nd century AD.
Many structures are elaborately decorated with stone sculptures, usually constructed from a mosaic of carved stones of a size that one person could carry.
The site also has a large court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. At its height in the late classic period Copán seems to have had an unusually prosperous class of minor nobility, scribes, and artisans, some of whom had homes of cut stone built for themselves (in most sites a privilege reserved for the rulers and high priests), some of which have carved hieroglyphic texts.
The fertile Copán River valley was long a site of agriculture before the first known stone architecture was built in the region about the 9th century BC.
A kingdom seems to have been established in Copán in 159. It grew into one of the most important Maya sites by the 5th century. Large monuments dated with hieroglyphic texts were erected in the city from 435 through 822.
The city withered in the face of unsustainable population growth bringing about the depletion of natural resources, factors that brought several of the Classic-Age Maya city-states to their end. The area continued to be occupied after the last major ceremonial structures and royal monuments were erected, but the population declined in the 8th century - 9th century from perhaps over 20,000 in the city to less than 5,000.
The ceremonial center was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
The site was the subject of one of the first modern archeological surveys and excavations in the Maya area, conducted by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of Harvard University from 1891 to 1900.
Photos from our Visit to the Ruins
Tim at the gate to the ruins. The Macaws are fun, but can get aggressive - they terrorized a young couple who were trying to feed them. (Bad idea).
Celine and I walked to the Ruins one Saturday morning - about a half hour or so from our house.
A wonderfully peaceful place. There were very few tourists early on, and we just hung out and soaked in the mystery and beauty of the place. We couldn't afford a guide, but no matter. It was simply a great place to be. There is lots of info available about the Ruins, in the guide books, on the internet, and at the entrance kiosk.