Copan boasts the longest hieroglyphic inscription in the New World. Gracing the stairway of Structure 26, this historical record describes the important milestones in the lives of the Copan dynastic rulers from AD 425 to AD 755.
When uncovered in 1893, the stairs had slumped and splayed out from their original locations. These jumbled steps were never fully reordered, and what we see reconstructed at the site today by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1936 to 1942 is 65 percent out of order. This disarray has made deciphering the stair’s hieroglyphic message a challenge and until recently nearly impossible.
Since 1986 a massive archaeological project has worked to uncover the sequential building phases of the pyramid buried deep within the pyramidal structure. The project also recorded the 64–step inscription and related iconography for epigraphic study.
Since its uncovering in the 1890s and reconstruction in the 1930s, the stairway has suffered severe erosion. Fortunately, the glass plate negatives preserve details that have been crucial for correctly re-creating the stairway and understanding Copan’s past. Thanks to these images and recent archaeological work, the original order of the stairway is approximately 71 percent virtually reconstructed today, and epigraphers can once again read the history.