CONTACT US Wed Nov. 13, 2013

CASS 中国社会科学网(中文) Français

.  >  WHAT'S NEW  >  TOPLINE

Excavations at Copán yield new results

Author  :  Li Xinwei, Guo Zhiwei and Fu Yongxu     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-08-05

Assorted carvings unearthed from the Copán site 

a cleared corner with carvings

HONDURAS—Chinese archaeologists have unearthed a number of exquisite carvings, buildings and tombs during an ongoing excavation of Copán, an ancient Mayan city in western Honduras.

The excavation is a project of the Innovation Program at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) titled “Center of Maya Civilization—Archaeology of the Copán Site and Research on Central American Civilization.”

Digging started in August 2015 with the exploration of an aristocratic compound that covers an area of approximately 4,000 square meters. In December, they finished excavating the tallest central building in the northern terminus and discovered a number of meaningful carvings and relics that confirmed it was an important venue for ceremonial activities.

Some fine pottery and obsidian artifacts were found when the eastern and western buildings in the northern terminus were cleared in January 2016. Three months later, archaeologists began work on the central building while also excavating architecture in the northern section of the western terminus.

The dig uncovered a number of ornamental carvings, including a head of Kukulkan, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent deity, and a head of the maize god. Archaeologists also found carvings of the cruciate flower, which symbolizes the sun, along with abstract patterns of centipede heads, bird claws, water drops and seashells.

The Maya believed that the West was a kingdom of spirits and its entrance was the ocean. Kukulkan is the patron saint of the ocean, and seashells, conchs and water drops are also symbols of this underwater realm.

In earlier excavations, the Peabody Essex Museum at Harvard University found similar heads of Kukulkan in the palace area but failed to restore the carvings. The sculpture discovered this time is no less exquisite than works unearthed in the palace area, which indicates the unusually high status of the noble family.

After initial restoration and analysis, CASS scholars concluded that the unearthed carvings are related to scenes in the underworld as well as myths that the maize god and Kinich Ahau fell into it and were reborn afterward.

In 1990, the University of Pennsylvania explored the eastern terminus of the compound and also excavated a variety of delicate carvings. In the southern part of the eastern terminus, there was an image of the young maize god with a water lotus on his head. Moreover, there was a head of warrior-equipped Kinich Ahau in the central building.

The carvings were supposed to embody the vigorous and mighty images of the reborn maize god and Kinich Ahau . They are consistent with the underworld images Chinese archeologists unearthed in the current expedition.

The Maya also believed that buildings are part of the life-death-rebirth cycle. Therefore, they regularly dismantled old buildings and constructed new ones in the same place, symbolizing rebirth. Huge buildings often contain the remains of earlier architecture underneath the surface.

Working off information uncovered in small-scale trial excavations by Mexican archaeologists in 1982, CASS scholars opened 17 tunnels through later architecture in the northern terminus, revealing buildings from two earlier periods underneath.

It is noteworthy that residents of the third period established a temporary building after tearing down the central architecture of the second period. The colonnade-like structure of the temporary architecture was similar to a building on the tomb of Chan Imix K’awiil, the 12th king of Copán, but the latter was larger, with eight columns in the front and rear.

Lasting from 628 to 695, Chan Imix K’awiil’s reign was the longest, and it was a time of great prosperity. During that time, Copán reached its zenith, putting in control of the entire Mayan world and vital jade resources produced by dependent states like Quirigua.

His tomb was one of the most important discoveries in the archaeological history of Copán. An array of incense burners, jade objects and obsidian implements were found in the sepulchers of the first 12 kings. There are signs that tombs might lie beneath the recently uncovered temporary colonnade architecture.

Archaeologists held that the evolution of the buildings of the three periods is closely related to the rise and fall of the Copán Kingdom. During the early rule of the 13th king, which lasted from 695 to 738, the kingdom continued to thrive and became one of the four major city-states in the Mayan world.

However, during his later reign, the vassal state Quirigua was instigated by another powerful city-state Calakmul to challenge Copán, and it killed the 13th king, which shook the foundation of the city. The 14th through 16th kings took various measures to bring the kingdom back to prosperity, which included treating the nobility better to garner their support.

Archeologists speculate that the relaxation of certain restrictions on nobility permitted the owner of the compound to build tombs in the royal style, which was normally reserved for members of the ruling dynasty.

Further excavations are planned to find more evidence to support the assumptions and paint a clearer picture of the kingdom’s development.

Editor: Yu Hui

>> View All

Chinese scholar devoted to studies on Africa for decades

Li Anshan is a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies and director of the university’s Ce...

>> View All