Fragile Memories: Images of Archaeology and Community at Copan, 1891–1900

Child Seated on Altar S
Child Seated on Altar S, a small hieroglyphic altar, situated at the summit of the large mound next to the church. PM 2004.24.242


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The spectacular ancient Maya ruins of Copan, Honduras, have engaged Harvard researchers for more than a century. Starting with five pioneering Peabody Museum expeditions in the 1890s and continuing today, archaeologists crossed seas, rivers, and mountains to reach the ruins of this great fifth- to eighth-century Maya city.

The expedition’s 1890s photographs affixed to glass plates recorded a wealth of archaeological information. Recently digitized, these images reveal new information about Copan’s early excavations, providing clues about the original structure of the world-renowned Hieroglyphic Stairway. They also weave together a visual narrative about the early archaeologists’ interactions with the budding 1890s local town and community that became contemporary Copan Ruinas. Today, the newly digitized images have been used to facilitate interviews with long-term residents about the town’s history.

This exhibition of digital prints from the Peabody Museum’s collection of 19th-century historical glass plate photographs draws on the achievements of past and present expeditions and highlights the importance of photography in deciphering a field site. These images also trace the development of archaeological practices, and show how archaeologists and communities continue to shape each other's lives.

This exhibition was originally mounted at the Peabody Museum in 2008, curated by Barbara Fash, director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program. It was later gifted to the town of Copan Ruinas, and installed with Spanish translations in the Copan Municipal Hall in 2009.


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