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A new royal Maya tomb emerges from the tunnels beneath Copán's Acropolis

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The kings of Copán built their temples one on top of the other, leaving parts of the old buildings inside the new structures. For 20 years, archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia has tunneled into these temples, where he recently discovered a king's tomb. (Ken Garrett)

The Maya kings of Copán were not interested in moving mountains. They preferred to build their own, like the pyramid now known as Temple 16. Rising 100 feet above the city's Great Plaza, it is the highest point among a group of holy buildings that archaeologists have dubbed "the Acropolis." Inside an excavation tunnel deep beneath the pyramid's surface, the face of the sun-king scowls at me from the wall of his temple. The city's ancient rulers built their temples--one on top of the next--to suit the needs of the moment. The moment I am visiting occurred shortly after A.D. 540 when the first of four temples was built around a small plaza at the top of the Acropolis.

The sun-king's face adorns the first floor of Rosalila, a temple that was once painted a brilliant, bloody shade of red. His image wears a headdress of red, yellow, and green plumage--the feathers of a quetzal and a macaw--and curving lines in his eyes associate him with depictions of the sun god. The Maya words for each of these sculptural elements spells his name, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', which translates as "Sun-Eyed Resplendent Quetzal Macaw," the first king of Copán. Forty-three feet below the floor of the temple, the sun-king's tomb was found inside one of the first buildings to be constructed on the Acropolis. Beginning around A.D. 426, the time that K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' came to power, Temple 16 underwent seven major phases of construction, as well as dozens of smaller renovations and additions. The last phase took place in A.D. 775 shortly before the city, which encompassed 520 acres and held a population of about 28,000 people at its peak, was largely abandoned.

Ricardo Agurcia, the director of a research and sustainable tourism organization called the Copán Association, discovered Rosalila in 1989. Copán lies in north-central Honduras at what was the southern edge of the Maya region. Finding Rosalila revolutionized what was known of the city's early history and the Maya's southern frontier. Now he has uncovered an adjacent temple called Oropéndola, and discovered the king who was laid to rest beneath it.

Agurcia invited me here to see the finds, and we have stopped at Rosalila for a little orientation in Maya iconography. The building facade soars three stories into the darkness overhead. Standing in the narrow space separating the temple from the tunnel wall, I see another face staring from the second floor. Agurcia tells me it is the mountain monster, Witz, symbolizing the temple's role as a ceremonial mountain. The Maya understood mountains to be powerful places; they believed the rain god stored water in them and the caves that penetrated them were portals to the underworld. Rosalila was buried around A.D. 700. The temple was coated with white plaster, which Agurcia interprets as a symbolic embalming of the building. Construction fill was carefully placed against the temple preserving it almost perfectly.

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The pyramid called Temple 16 rises 100 feet above the ground. Beneath its outer layer lie the remnants of dozens of holy buildings dating back to the earliest days of Maya rule, A.D. 426. Two temples remain mostly intact within the pyramid. (Courtesy Proyecto Oropéndola)

Agurcia and his field director, Molly Fierer-Donaldson, take me to a low, narrow tunnel that leads to Oropéndola. We leave the sun-king, now pallid and lighted only by a string of naked incandescent bulbs.

From a biological standpoint, Agurcia seems poorly adapted to his chosen environment. Agurcia stands six feet, four inches tall, and has to bend like a question mark as we move through the tunnels. On his first trip into the tunnels, he learned that he suffers from claustrophobia. "When I started, I told [friend and colleague William Fash] that I would go down there, but that I reserved the right to come running out of the tunnel screaming," he told me later.

Archaeologists have dug more than two miles of tunnels through the Acropolis, every foot of space paid for with hours of labor and at the cost of destabilizing the stones above it. Understandably, Agurcia's tunnels tend to be a little larger than those dug by others. He also makes sure there are two or three ways out of wherever he is working. Over time, his tunnels have become a familiar space that no longer triggers his phobia, and he feels he has good reason to face his fear day after day. "The stuff I've found has been outrageous, totally off the wall," he says. "The work has been fascinating. Who would have dreamed I would find two almost complete buildings."

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This jade monkey head was part of a necklace buried with the king. It symbolizes the noble title Ahau, which means "Lord." Exporting jade was a major source of wealth for Cop´n's rulers. (Courtesy Proyecto Oropéndola)

Agurcia folds himself into a tunnel and the three of us head deeper into the pyramid, turning on our flashlights as we enter a newly excavated section of tunnel. A gradual incline leads to Oropéndola's second story, where I am unwittingly looking at another image of the mountain monster, Witz. Its face nearly stretches across the width of the entire temple.

Oropéndola was not as carefully preserved as Rosalila. The entire third floor and about one-third of the rest of the structure was destroyed during later construction. The two buildings were also designed differently. Instead of decorations made entirely from plaster, allowing the sculptors to create fluid lines and intricate details, Oropéndola's decorations were made of stone blocks covered by a thin layer of painted plaster. The blocks make the artwork look like it was assembled out of Legos, and the plaster is almost completely gone. The image of Witz is 17 feet wide but only a few feet high, so the face is squat and stretched out. It is a radical change from the monster's portrayal on Rosalila.

I wonder why the differences in artwork between two temples that were built just a few years apart are so striking. "It could have just been a whim," says Agurcia, "but I think it had to do with access to plaster." Whether it was getting enough limestone or firewood to heat the stone to produce lime is a subject of debate, but after Rosalila was completed, Copán's temple-builders used much less plaster. If firewood did become scarce, the change in artwork may also mark an episode of environmental degradation. In the 200 years or so after Rosalila was built, stone carving became much more prevalent and Copán became known for its unique sculptures and architectural decorations. "I think [Oropéndola] really was the beginning of a sculptural revolution at Copán that gives way to the great sculptures that come later on," Agurcia says.

In the Maya belief system, night is the time that the sun spends in the underworld. It travels through a watery place inhabited by gods and the dead. The jaguar, a nocturnal predator and one of the few cats that swims and spends time in the water, represents the sun at night. Oropéndola is covered with jaguar icons. On the northern facade's second floor, a large image of a mythical bird spreads across the building, flanked by feline heads with curving stone fangs. On the north face's first floor, a jaguar looks out from the mouth of the mountain monster. Rosalila appears to be the temple of the sun during the day. Oropéndola, on the other hand, is the temple of the sun at night, a ceremonial mountain of the jaguar, and perhaps a passage to the underworld.

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This spiny oyster shell found in a king's tomb contains a large jade bead. The Maya associated shells with the underworld and jade with the human soul. The two together may represent the king's soul in the underworld. (Courtesy Proyecto Oropéndola)

Unlike the sculptural decorations on Rosalila, Oropéndola's do not spell out the name of any known king. "Rosalila has a huge sun-bird on the side of it because the sun-king is buried beneath it," says Agurcia. "So, I've been thinking that the iconography [in Oropéndola] reflects the identity of the guy we found just below but I can't make it add up just yet. We don't have the names of the early rulers," he says. "If his name was Bird-Jaguar, I'd be really happy, but we can't make that connection."

We descend through more tunnels, contorting ourselves into narrow spaces and climbing down ladder rungs set into the walls. Ten feet below the floor of Oropéndola, Agurcia points out some long, flat stones laid side-by-side, the kind that are typically used to cover a tomb. His team found the capstones at the end of a field season when their grant money was about to run out and most of the crew had committed to working on other jobs. So he had to wait three months for new funding and a new crew of excavators.

Fierer-Donaldson was brought in to be the crew's field director. She had to dig another tunnel hoping to come in below the capstones and through the sidewall of the tomb. But instead she had to excavate six-feet of loose soil before reaching the three layers of capstones that actually cover the tomb. "We were looking for a vault," Agurcia tells me. "All of the early tombs have vaults." That wasn't the only strange thing about the tomb. "We didn't find any offerings on top of the capstones like you might expect," says Fierer-Donaldson.

"We realized by the elevation and stratigraphy that we were in the earliest levels of the Acropolis," Agurcia says. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the king was buried sometime between A.D. 450 and 550. The artifacts and decorations point to a date prior to A.D. 500. Agurcia believes the tomb belonged to the second king, the son of Yax K'uk' Mo', but acknowledges that it could be any king between the second and fifth rulers in the dynasty. Although the king's name is still unknown, the tomb provides some clues about Copán's growing prosperity at the time, as well as the role the king played in creating it.

The tomb is empty when I visit. We are about 16 feet below the first floor of Oropéndola and almost 60 feet below the top of the pyramid, deep enough that the air is noticeably cooler and drier. The excavation team has spent the past year recording, cataloguing, and removing everything from the tomb so that the objects can be analyzed in their laboratory nearby. There isn't much to see, but I am surprised at the size of the tomb. Even though Fierer-Donaldson is slender and five feet, eight inches tall, it seems cramped as she climbs inside to point out where different objects were found.

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Archaeologists Molly Fierer-Donaldson and Nereyda Alonso perch on a wooden platform as they lift artifacts from the tomb of the early Maya king discovered beneath the Oropéndola temple. (Courtesy Proyecto Oropéndola)

Agurcia and I sit in the tunnel outside the tomb as he explains some of the surprises it held. "In many ways, this is an intermediate tomb," he says, "they try to do capstones, but they don't really know how to do it. They haven't really learned to make the flat roof. The walls of the tomb aren't very good, they are more like a stone facing."

Although we are sitting next to the tomb, Agurcia can't actually point out the roof because it collapsed some time after Oropéndola was built and crushed everything inside. "The bones were in terrible shape," says Fierer-Donaldson, pointing out that they can't get basic information, such as age, from the skeleton. They can't even be certain that the remains belonged to a male. But the roof collapse had one important benefit--it seems to have helped preserve some of the fragile organic remains, such as the very fine fabric of the king's clothing. Lynn Grant of the University of Pennsylvania is conserving the textiles. Further analysis may reveal the color and type of garment the king wore.

His body had been laid out on a platform, probably made of wood, that has completely rotted away along with the woven mats that covered the floor. A layer of powdered cinnabar (mercury oxide) was scattered over the body. The cinnabar shows up inside some of the skeleton's joints, revealing that the vibrant red pigment was added after the flesh and most of the tendons had rotted away.

A small number of scallop shells lay on the floor near his right shoulder. Two piles of spiny oyster shells were at his feet. Seashells were luxury items associated with the watery underworld. Three scallop shells and one spiny oyster shell contained a jade bead, Agurcia believes the jade may have symbolized the soul, and placing the bead inside the shell represented the soul in the underworld.

The king wore a necklace made of 20 jade beads and 40 shell beads. A large chunk of jade carved into the symbol for the Maya word "K'inich," meaning "Eye of the Sun" or "Embodiment of the Sun," had been placed in the corpse's mouth. A second necklace containing a large piece of jade, carved in the likeness of a monkey head, symbolizing the word Ahau meaning "Lord," was draped across his pelvis. According to Agurcia, these two emblems are clear indicators that the tomb's occupant was a king. But the mass of wealth and exotic goods also reveal something about the king's role in making Copán a major center of trade.

"The city was kind of a gateway for stuff like jade and obsidian going out of the Maya areas. What was coming in is still less documented," Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania and the excavator of Yax K'uk' Mo's tomb, told me in a phone interview. When the dynasty was established, the economic situation in the area around Copán underwent a profound change. "The economy is one manifestation of a more centralized organization in the Copán Valley," he continues. "Tying people in by the economy is just one way that they become more dependent upon and available to manipulation by these centralized rulers."

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The stylized face of Yax K'uk' Mo', the founder of Copán's Maya dynasty, adorns the wall of the Rosalila temple. The markings in his eyes, and the quetzal bird headdress, connect him to the sun god. (Ken Garrett) The curving fangs of a jaguar protrude from a corner of the Oropéndola temple. The stone-block sculptures were once covered with a thin layer of brightly painted plaster, which may have been a scarce resource when the temple was built. (Ken Garrett)

Copán lies near the Motagua River, a major source of jade, which was an important luxury item--not just because it was beautiful, but also because it had ritual associations with rainfall and maize. Being able to control access to jade may have presented a big opportunity for the person in this tomb. "The trade here was very important," says Agurcia. "They were plugged into a network, and had access to these very exotic goods."

Agurcia interprets the large number of shell artifacts as an indicator that the kings of Copán may have increased their trade with settlements on the coasts. Sharer thinks that the shell artifacts may only indicate that the king liked shells.

Items such as four pyrite mirrors and hundreds of tiny green-obsidian beads show that the Maya of Copán were in contact with city-state of Teotihuacán, more than 700 miles north in central Mexico. "Trade with Teotihuacán became very important," says Agurcia. "It was like the Wall Street of its time." Gaining access to trade goods from all over the Maya areas would have drastically increased Copán's prosperity. "So, this guy is showing splendorous wealth that shows major success," Agurcia tells me. "This is the guy who nails the state of Copán into place."

Completing the story of how the early kings of Copán established their state is likely to require many more trips into the tunnels. There were two other temples that sat around the courtyard next to Rosalila and Oropéndola, nicknamed Jiquilite and Peach-Colorado. Their foundations are still intact and they may also have tombs beneath them. Agurcia estimates that finding and excavating these tombs might take another 10 years and he still has a lot of work to do on Oropéndola. "There could be tombs under the other temples," Agurcia says with a smile, "but I'm not going to look for them."

Zach Zorich is a Senior Editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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