Copan's New Sculpture Museum

Copán: General view; Hieroglyphic stairway and ballcourt. Photo by W.L. Fash.

The older residents of the modern town of Copán Ruinas remember the earthquake that shook western Honduras in April 1934. The church in the town square was nearly destroyed, and dozens of houses were leveled. The nearby Maya ruins themselves suffered damage: four of the buildings on the Acropolis, already undercut by river erosion, collapsed into heaps of rubble, and what few sculptures remained on the other nine major buildings toppled. When Carnegie Institution archaeologist Gustav Stromsvik arrived shortly thereafter, he found people living in temporary lean-tos on the patios of their houses as they weathered the aftershocks of the following week. Cleanup work left ancient sculptures stacked in piles around the site.

The earthquake only added to the disarray created over the past centuries, during which local people and foreign visitors scavenged through the rubble of the Maya ruins and took attractive pieces for their own. This process began in the years following the collapse of the ruling Classic period dynasty in Copán, in about A.D. 820. Postclassic people removed sculpture from the temple that housed the tomb of the last ruler, Yax Pasah (New Dawn), and carried it off to their own homes. They buried their children and other loved ones in the east court of the Acropolis, using the carved blocks from what had been a funerary temple to line the bottoms of the graves. They carried broken fragments of stone incense burners high into the mountains and left them in caves and crevices of the sacred mountains where they revered their ancestors.

Collectors of a different kind later scattered Copán sculpture all over the world: to museums in Brussels, Cambridge, Chicago, Cleveland, Esquipulas (Guatemala), Genoa, London, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seville, Tegucigalpa (Honduras), the Vatican, and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile sun, wind, rain, and temperature change assaulted those sculptures that remained. As the great Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff observed, "As if jealous of this superb creation of man, all the most violent forces of nature seem to have conspired to destroy it."

This history presents a challenge for those seeking to study the ancient sculptures. As a result of major research and conservation efforts by archaeologists from the United States and Central America (working under the auspices of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History), in the past decade more than 25,000 stone sculpture blocks from Copán's fallen temples and palaces have been studied and cataloged, and indoor storage areas have been created to protect them from the elements. Now we and our Central American colleagues (including Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia, the executive director of the Copán Association, and Guatemalan architectural restorer Rudy Larios, the codirector of the Copán Acropolis Archaeological Project) have completed another ambitious mission: to create a new sculpture museum in Copán.

Left: Stela A. Photo by , W.L. Fash. Right: Stela N. Photo by   B.W. Fash.

Built by the Honduran government and just opened on August 3, 1996, the museum insures the safekeeping of the monuments and unveils reconstructed façades with bold, sculptural messages from buildings throughout the ancient city. Although less familiar to the public than Copán's free-standing stelae and altars, these façades contained the most plentiful, and often the best, stone sculptures in the city. The carvings fit together like mosaics to depict human figures, gods, animals, flowers, crops, and other motifs.

Set within the Copán National Park, the museum consists of one main building and will eventually have several smaller ones connected by outdoor trails. Designed by Honduran architect Angela Stassano, the building is two stories high, broader at the second story. A large mound around the base is planted with trees native to the area to help the museum blend with its mound- and tree-filled surroundings. Natural light illuminated the Copán monuments and buildings for centuries, and every attempt has been made to use natural light within the museum. In addition to skylights, the museum has a large opening in the center of its roof to aid in circulation and so that at any given time, the daily and yearly movements of the sun will highlight some exhibits more clearly than others, just as they do at the archaeological site.

  The building was planned to reflect the central concepts of the Maya worldview. The entrance is a stylized mouth of a mythical serpent, symbolizing a portal from one world to the next. As people proceed through the tunnel, they have a sense of entering another place and time. The entrance also evokes the tunnels that archaeologists dig to reveal the earlier constructions buried inside the pyramidal bases of Maya buildings.

Museum entrance; serpent mouth. Photo by , R. Frehsee.

Tunnel into museum. Photo by , R. Frehsee.

Aligned with compass points, the four-sided building reflects the horizontal ordering of the ancient Maya world, to which the four cardinal directions and the yearly path of the sun were fundamental. Four was the number associated with both the sun god and the perimeters of a milpa, or cornfield.

Bat sculpture. Photo by R. Frehsee.

Skulls and Tlaloc sculpture from stairway of Structure 16. Photo by B.W. Fash.

  In addition to the horizontal directions, the Maya envisioned an axis through a center point connecting the human plane to the supernatural worlds above and below. This vertical axis is also reflected in the museum. Images of deities and denizens of the underworld appear on the first floor. These include killer bats, skulls, and long bones of the dead, portraits of deceased ancestors, and stingray spines. The spines were used in rituals by rulers, nobles, and commoners alike to draw blood from fleshy parts of their bodies as a sacrificial offering for gods and ancestors. 

Reconstructed façade from ancient royal residence, now in sculpture museum. Photo by W.L. Fash, III.

Replica of Rosalila temple; museum centerpiece. Photo by B.W. Fash.

On the second floor, the world of the living is represented by pieces from eighteen different buildings, including seven complete façades. These illuminate a series of important themes in the lives of Copán's ancient inhabitants: agriculture and fertility, the ballgame and natural cycles, mountain deities, ritual sacrifice, warfare and the ruler as paramount warrior, links to other cities, the role of the scribe, the patron of sculptors, the royal residence and shrines, residences of the nobility and the role of nobles in the collapse of the king's divine authority, and the council house. The second floor also presents celestial deities, including sun disks surrounded by clouds and a throne decorated with a sky band. The ceiling that frames the opening in the roof is decorated with Maya symbols for the celestial bodies and constellations of the night sky. These tricolored paintings are based on carvings from Copán.

Interior of museum; construction of central temple "Rosalila" in progress; open roof and decorated ceiling. Photo by W.L. Fash.

The centerpiece of the museum, rising through both floors and piercing the open ceiling, is a reconstruction of an Early Classic temple - a terraced, two-story building dubbed Rosalila (rose-lilac) by its excavators. (Early structures, discovered by tunnel excavation, buried beneath later versions - like nested eggs - are given field names of birds or colors to keep them straight in field records.) The original, discovered beneath Structure 16 of the Acropolis by Honduran archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia, is the most intact structure ever found in Copán. A hieroglyphic step carved on its front stairway describes it as the work of Copán's tenth ruler, Moon-Jaguar, who reigned from A.D. 553 to 578. Unfortunately, it is only accessible by narrow tunnels, making it impossible to relocate and very difficult to observe. The full-scale replica reveals it in all its multicolored splendor. When the ancient Maya stopped using the original structure, they painted over its modeled plaster decorations in white. Barbara Fash made careful probes beneath this white layer which uncovered several layers of paint, each color ed differently, often with numerous repaintings. The museum replica duplicates the final color scheme.


Detail of original stucco decoration on Rosalila showing color investigation. Photo by K. Garrett.

Detail of stucco relief; bird on lower story of Rosalila. Photo by B.W. Fash.

As a whole, the temple represents a deified mountain - a place of creation, a source of life-giving water (such as a cave, spring, stream, or waterfall), and birthplace of the sacred maize plant. The head of this mountain deity, which combines the attributes of both mother and father, is depicted on the lower central part of the roof crest, with a cleft in its forehead from which maize sprouts. Draped over the sacred mountain images and framing the image of a cave in the upper story are two-headed celestial dragons. Mythical creatures that combine attributes of snakes and crocodiles, they are depicted like smoke emanating from the skeletal-head censer in the center.

Representations of the Sun God adorn the lower parts of the temple. The sun's daily journey and the life cycle of maize were linked together in veneration of the process of birth, life, death, and rebirth. The faces of the Sun God images are human-like, while he is shrouded in the guise of a mythical bird. With his serpent-shaped wings outstretched, the sun as a celestial bird soars in four directions around the building. On the lowermost façades are seven serpent-winged birds, from whose open mouths emerge the head of the Sun God. This is not only the Sun God however. The bird is marked with features of both quetzals and macaws (note the central green quetzal head over the Sun God's own, and the yellow macaw beaks in the serpent wings). This is interpreted to be a representation of the founder of the Copán dynasty, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' (Sun-faced Green/ New/ First Quetzal Macaw), approximately two hundred years after his death, apotheosized as the mighty Sun God.

Within the many chambers on both Rosalila's ground level and second story, the Maya rulers held rituals that put them in touch with their universe and their ancestors. When the building was closed and covered over, in about A.D. 650, a ritual bundle with nine elaborately shaped flints, three flint knives, stingray spines, and marine animals was deposited on the first floor in a small room. (see National Geographic, Sept. 1991) Other offerings were left in large clay vessels in the central room and altar. A portion of the lower rooms has been reconstructed in the museum replica so that visitors will be able to see where the offertory caches were found and will be able to experience what a temple was like on the inside.

Local artisans at work on replica of Rosalila, clay. Photo by B.W. Fash.

Local masons work to rebuild a hieroglphic text. Photo by W.L. Fash.

Two important goals of the museum are to give Copán's modern inhabitants greater insight into the importance of the ancient sculpture and to train local workers in its conservation and restoration. Like the sun on its daily journey, or the maize through its yearly cycle, the Maya buildings and sculptures - and their meaning - are being resurrected. The sculptors who replicated the reliefs of Rosalila, together with all the other participants in the project, have shared the joy of renewing their ties to their heritage, and they take pride in returning Copán and its artistry to its proper place among the world's cultural treasures.

Sculpture mosaic of maize god. Photo by B.W. Fash.

The Copán Acropolis and its surrounding urban core and rural settlements lay in a pocket of the Copán River Valley, whose fertile bottomland attracted agriculturists to the region more than 3,000 years ago. At the city's height, about A.D. 800, some 20,000 people occupied the Copán pocket, and the urban concentration displaced most farming to outlying lands. The city was a huge machine at work at the center of a civilization with hieroglyphic writing, and advanced calendar, and complex astronomy. The gradual collapse of that civilization - as a result of such stresses as overpopulation, contaminated water sources, political unrest, and warfare - is a common theme in the story of human life on earth.

Present Day Copán

In the modern-day town of Copán Ruinas, people speak Spanish, worship the Christian God, and attend schools that emphasize history after 1492. They partake of many aspects of Western "civilization," such as the telephone, electricity, MTV and CNN, and a diet enriched by Old World products. But the inhabitants of the town, as well as the humble farming families that eke out an existence in the mountains, still carry on many ancient Maya traditions. Their love of the Mesoamerican trinity of crops - corn, beans, and squash - is unchanged. Corn, prepared in myriad ways, is still the diet mainstay of everyone, rich and poor, rural and urban. Pom, the incense used by the ancient Maya in household and royal ritual, is still a prized commodity in the local market. 

Left: Cobbled street in Copán village center. Photo by Flanagan. Right: Modern potter in rural mountain community. Photo by D. Flanagan.

In the rural areas, dwellings are still designed and constructed as they were two millennia ago. Wattle-and-daub walls are covered by thatch or palm roofs, and each family's compound consists of three or four small buildings grouped around a central courtyard. One structure serves as the bedroom; another is the kitchen; a third serves as a storage room for maize, beans, and other goods; and a fourth houses a shrine. Atop the shrine is a cross, but even this quintessential Christian symbol has pre-Columbian counterparts in the art, writing, and cosmology of the ancient Maya. Incense is burned on the altar in ceramic censers not unlike those found with the ancient altars and shrines.

Other aspects of traditional culture include beliefs in spirits that reside in the mountains and streams, even in the ruins of the dynastic center of the Copán Acropolis. Some of these spirits, which bear Maya and Nahuatl (Aztec) names, can be recognized in ceramic and stone sculptures recovered in the archeological excavations. As in more traditional Maya communities elsewhere, the people of Copán take these supernatural and ancestral spirits very seriously. They sacrifice chickens at house dedication ceremonies and when they plant their fields of corn, beans, and squash each May. On May 3, the Day of the Cross, a superficially Catholic procession goes up to a concrete cross on the top of the nearest high mountain, in hopes that the devotion will bring the life-giving rains.

In years gone by, the more hispanicized, Ladino members of the community ridiculed the traditional beliefs and lifeways of the more humble, Indian segments of the population who lived in the rural areas. This is beginning to change, as the work in the ruins and at the sculpture museum have shown the breath-taking works of art and architecture left by the ancient inhabitants of the Copán Valley.

Travel Information for Potential Pilgrims to Copán

The modern village of Copán. Photo by W.L. Fash.

The Classic Maya ruins of Copán are nestled in a fertile mountain valley in western Honduras. As in ancient times, farming has eliminated most of the forest in the area surrounding the civic-ceremonial center, but the Archaeological Park protects a large forest. The nature trail running through part of the forest is greatly prized by botanists and birders alike.

The main park includes the Acropolis, the Great Plaza, the ball court, and the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Other "musts" include the residential area of Las Sepulturas, linked to the center of the ancient city by a causeway; the Regional Museum of Maya Archaeology in the town of Copán Ruinas, which houses portable art in all media; and of course, the new Sculpture Museum, which is located at the entrance to the main park.

Copán is reachable by bus, tour, or rental car from San Pedro Sula, the major city on Honduras' north coast. the best months to be in Copán are February, July, and October, when the country is green, the temperature moderate, and rain relatively light. Many other archaeological features and sites are scattered throughout the Copán Valley. Another major archaeological park with a museum is that of El Puente, thirty miles east of Copán, just off the main highway. Anyone with an interest in colonial-period ruins will enjoy the fort of Omoa, which is on the north coast near Puerto Cortez.

All text ©1996 Barbara W. Fash and William L. Fash; all photos ©1996 by photographer.

Some sections previously published as "Maya Resurrection" in Natural History, 1994,  by Barbara W. Fash and William L. Fash, pp. 24-29.