The Hieroglyphic Stairway

An early image of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and plaza before the Peabody excavations began shows a trench dug by Alfred Maudslay in 1886. Photo by Marshall Saville, 1891.PM 2004.24.144
Jumbled inscription blocks from Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, with George Shorkley and Don Juan Ramón Cueva, photo by Edmund Lincoln, 1893. PM 2004.24.294
This historic image of the initial Peabody Museum excavations by John Owens shows the lower 7 of 15 steps in situ with another section of 15 steps that have slid over them as a result of the structure’s collapse, 1893. PM 2004.24.285
Taken two years later than the previous photograph, this image shows portions of the shifted steps have given way after the rainy season following Owens’s death. G. B. Gordon is overseeing lowering of the steps, photo by R. Burkitt, 1895.PM 2004.24.361
Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, cleared after excavation, with stair blocks laid out in the plaza, photo by Robert Burkitt, 1899-1900. PM 2004.24.1848
Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway: in 1894, the first steps on the stairway still revealed fine details of the hieroglyphs; this image shows their state of preservation. PM 2004.24.1873
George Byron Gordon poses next to what is probably a depiction of Copan’s Ruler 12 on the Hieroglyphic Stairway. This image is one of the few surviving that clearly shows the figure in an excellent state of preservation, 1895–1900. PM 2004.24.1926
The man shown here by the Hieroglyphic Stairway altar is probably Felipe Desiderios, a local field assistant of many years who knew how to operate the camera and most likely shot the previous image of Gordon, 1895–1900. PM 2004.24.1927

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.