A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
After roof repairs and renovations lasting a year and a half, visitors are once again passing through the stylized snake's mouth framing the entrance to the Copán Sculpture Museum. The snake symbolizes a journey into the underworld, and the metaphor is carried further by the winding, stone-lined tunnel leading through the hillside into the partially subterranean museum. On first impression, earth seems to be the dominant element, which might be appropriate for a museum of stone sculpture, but as visitors emerge from the tunnel the sky takes over. Birds swoop through the open roof about 40 feet overhead. Sunlight bursts off the stark white walls and the blood-red facade of a full-scale replica of Copán's most ornate sacred temple, Rosalila.
Copán is on the northern edge of Honduras, where it was the seat of power for a dynasty of 16 kings who honored themselves and their gods with an abundance of stone and stucco sculpture that has earned Copán the nickname "the Maya Paris."
The museum is essentially a two-story square with examples of Copán's artwork sitting on pedestals and recessed into the walls around a courtyard that houses the museum's centerpiece, the Rosalila Temple. The shrine's vibrant red, green, and yellow decorations demand immediate attention, and the first thing every visitor sees is the face of the king who founded Copán's Maya dynasty, Great-Sun First Quetzal Macaw, depicted as an avian sun god glaring from either side of the temple's entrance. The replica is faithful in nearly every detail to the two-story building that lies concealed under a larger pyramid temple in Copán's "acropolis."
Built in A.D. 571, Rosalila sat atop a pyramid that held the remains of five previous temples. The pyramid symbolized a sacred mountain where the souls of the Maya's ancestors lived. Eventually, Rosalila was covered by a larger temple, which helped preserve its intricate stucco sculptures and vibrant pigments. Even in replica, the temple remains an intimidating statement of power, its beauty made all the more terrible by the knowledge that hundreds of victims were sacrificed inside the original.
Placards, in Spanish and English, explain when each king ruled Copán, as well as the time periods archaeologists use to describe changing Maya culture. To the left of the entrance is one of Copán's most important monuments, the square stone Altar Q. Around its sides are carved depictions of all 16 kings sitting on their name-glyphs. The altar gave archaeologists the names of some unknown kings and showed them in what order they ruled. On the ground floor opposite the entrance is one of the best examples of Maya sculpture. Known as "the water-bird sculpture," it is a stone carving of a demonic-looking man wearing a headdress resembling a long-billed bird with a fish in its mouth. Upstairs, a warrior sits on a throne holding his shield and presumably, before he lost his right arm, some kind of weapon. Fierce-looking macaw heads adorn a wall from Copán's ballcourt. Striking a macaw head during a game likely had some significance, but what it might have been remains a mystery.
Many sculptures in the museum are meant to honor and appease the gods of sun and rain, the same elements that now threaten to destroy much of Copán's art. Several exhibits in the museum are still under construction as workers finish moving sculptures and building facades from the ruins into the museum and replacing them with high-fidelity replicas. The museum focuses on preserving sculpture, which means that it provides little insight into the lives of the ancient city's estimated 20,000 inhabitants. No examples of Maya pottery or eccentric flints are on display; to see them you need to take a five-minute cab ride into the town of Copán Ruinas where the local museum has some excellent specimens.
The placards accompanying the installations fail to explain the elaborate connections the ancient Maya made between plants, animals, gods, and kings. Each sculpture carries a message that was meant to be read by peasants, nobles, and gods, but I could only guess at most of it. It helps to tour the ruins before visiting the museum, and to pay the $35 for a guide who can explain the symbolism of each monument and take you into the archaeologists' tunnels that lead to the temples buried beneath the "acropolis."
Zach Zorich is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
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