Farther south from the Great Plaza is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which rises up the southeast corner of the plaza up the side of the Acropolis. The impressive structure, now covered with a roof for protection from the elements, contains 2,500 glyphs on its 72 steps and is the longest known hieroglyphic inscription found anywhere in the Mayan world.
Commissioned in A.D. 753 by Smoke Shell, its substandard construction was evident in that it collapsed and was found by archaeologists as a jumbled mess, which they reassembled in 1940. Only about 15 steps, primarily on the bottom section, are thought to be in the correct order. Archaeologists are working on getting the correct order and deciphering the long message encoded on the steps.
Its construction came at a time when Copán’s rulers were attempting to once again instill confidence in their city’s power and glorious history after the gruesome death of 18 Rabbit at the hands of neighboring Quiriguá.
At the base of the Hieroglyphic Stairway is Stela M (A.D. 756), with a figure presumed to be Smoke Shell dressed in a feathered cloak along with glyphs telling of a solar eclipse in that year. An altar in front depicts a feathered serpent with a human head emanating from its jaws.
A tomb thought to belong to a royal scribe and possibly one of the sons of Smoke Imix was discovered underneath the Hieroglyphic Stairway in 1989. It was laden with painted pottery and well-carved jade objects. Digging ever deeper below the stairway, in 1993 archaeologists uncovered an earlier temple called Papagayo, erected by Mat Head. Farther below was a chamber dedicated to Yax K’uk’Mo’, the city’s original king. Archaeologists called it the Founder’s Room and believe it was used as a place of reverence for the shaman king believed by subsequent kings to have been semidivine.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com