The Archaeological Expedition

This photograph shows the Principal Group of ruins in 1891 with all but a small stand of trees cleared and excavations just beginning on the prominent pyramidal buildings, photo by Marshall Saville 1891–92. PM 2004.24.141
Looking north by northwest at the river cut into the 120-meter-long masonry construction of the Copan Acropolis, photo by Marshall Saville 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.66
The Copan River on a direct line into the acropolis construction as seen from standing on Structure 20 along the top edge of the cut. The river's undercutting action is what caused these sections of the ruins to collapse and be swept away. PM 2004.24.177
On the first Peabody Museum Copan expedition in 1891–92, Marshall Saville photographed this remarkable feature from multiple angles, including this systematic sequence of front-on views along the river cut’s full course. PM 2004.24.51
Copan Acropolos, Section 2 of riverfront—photographed by Saville, 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.52, joins with PM 2004.24.51 and PM 2004.24.53
Copan Acropolos, Section 3 of riverfront—photographed by Saville, 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.53, joins with PM 2004.24.52 and PM 2004.24.54
Copan Acropolos, Section 4 of riverfront—photographed by Saville, 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.54, joins with PM 2004.24.53 and PM 2004.24.55
Copan Acropolos, Section 5 of riverfront—photographed by Saville, 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.55, joins with PM 2004.24.54 and PM 2004.24.56
Copan Acropolos, Section 6 of riverfront—photographed by Saville, 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.56, joins with PM 2004.24.55 and PM 2004.24.57
Copan Acropolos, Section 7 of riverfront—photographed by Saville, 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.57, joins with PM 2004.24.56 and PM 2004.24.58
Copan Acropolos, Section 8 of riverfront—photographed by Saville, 1891-1892. PM 2004.24.58, joins with PM 2004.24.57
General view of excavations of (left to right) Structures 22, 21, and 21A, East Court looking northeast. Structures 20 (next image) and 21 are no longer visible today as they were destroyed by the destructive actions of the river. PM 2004.24.185
Excavations of Stucture 20—A view from Structure 16, photo by Marshall Saville, 1891–1892. PM 2004.24.186, joins with PM 2004.24.185
Structure 32 is the dominant building of what is now interpreted to be the royal residential area south of the Copan acropolis. Excavation photo by Marshall Saville, 1892. PM 2004.24.5
Wolf or dog head ceramic effigy vessel, found near Structure 32, by Marshall Saville and John Owens, 1892. PM 92-49-20/C183

The United States’ fascination with Latin America’s cultural heritage in the late 19th century grew simultaneously with its economic and political interests in the area. By the time Peabody Museum Director Frederick Putnam first dispatched an expedition to Copan in 1891, scholars and the public alike were intrigued by ancient Maya writing, sculpture, and architecture.
 
The young expedition explorers were barely prepared for the tropical environment and cultural differences they were to encounter. Their initial enthusiasm often dashed by illness and even death, it is remarkable that they returned with anything at all.
 
The 600 glass plate negatives, paper molds, stone sculptures, ceramics, maps, and notes they carried back established the Peabody Museum and Harvard University as forerunners in Maya and Central American archaeology and ethnology.

Although a number of photograph albums were produced from the negatives, often neither the names of the archaeologists nor identities of the local staff were clearly recorded with their portraits. Through this exhibition project’s recent archival and interview-based research, some of these names and bits of chapters in the history and archaeology of Copan have been recovered.