The Great Plaza
After sneaking a peek of the Great Plaza through the trees, visitors head down a stairway that brings them to the extraordinary Hieroglyphic Stairway, the longest hieroglyphic inscription found anywhere in the Americas. Rising from the southeast corner of the plaza up the side of Acropolis, and now unfortunately covered with a roof to protect it from the elements, the 72 steps contain more than 2,500 glyphs. It was built in 753 by Smoke Shell to recount the history of Copán’s previous rulers.
Since the city was declining in prestige at that point, the stairway was shoddily made compared to other structures and collapsed at some point before archaeologists began working at the ruins. In the 1940s, the stairs were assembled in the current, random order. It is thought that about 15 of the stairs, mainly on the lower section, are in their correct position. A group of archeologists have been using computer analysis of photographs to try to recreate the correct order of the stairway and thus read the long inscription left to us by Smoke Shell 1,250 years ago.
Underneath the Hieroglyphic Stairway, a tomb was discovered in 1989. Laden with painted pottery and jade sculptures, it is thought to have held a scribe, possibly one of the sons of Smoke Imix. In 1993, farther down below the stairway, archaeologists found a subtemple they dubbed Papagayo, erected by the second ruler of Copán, Mat Head. Deeper still, under Papagayo, a room was unearthed dedicated to the founder of Copán’s ruling dynasty, Yax K’uk’ Mo’, dubbed the Founder’s Room. Archaeologists believe the room was used as a place of reverence for Yax K’uk’ Mo’ for more than 300 years, possibly frequented by players from the adjacent ball court before or after their pelota matches.
Just north of the Hieroglyphic Stairway is the Ball Court, perhaps the best-recognized and most-often-photographed piece of architecture at Copán. It is the third and final ball court erected on the site and was completed in 738. No exact information is available on how the game was played, but it is thought players bounced a hard rubber ball off the slanted walls of the court, keeping it in the air without using their hands. (A video, made by National Geographic of a re-creation of the ball game filmed in Mexico, is on continuous loop at the Casa K’inich.) Atop the slanted walls are three intricate macaw heads on each side, as well as small compartments, which the players may have used as dressing rooms.
The Ball Court leads out to the Great Plaza. In this expansive grassy area, which was graded and paved with white stucco during the heyday of the city, are many of Copán’s most famous stelae—freestanding sculptures carved on all four sides with pictures of past rulers, gods, and hieroglyphics. Red paint, traces of which can be seen on Stela C, built in 730, is thought to have once covered all the stelae. The paint is a mix of mercury sulfate and resins from certain trees found in the valley. Most of the stelae in the Great Plaza were erected during the reign of Smoke Imix (628–695) and 18 Rabbit (695–738), at the zenith of the city’s power and wealth.
All of the stelae are fascinating works of art, but one of particular interest is Stela H (built in 730), which appears to depict a woman wearing jewelry and a leopard skin under her dress. She may have been 18 Rabbit’s wife.
Also worth noting is the round stone next to Stela 4, with a bowl-shaped indent carved into the top, from which curving indentations swirl down the sides. It is believed that human sacrifices were made upon this rock, the blood caught in the bowl-shaped indent, then running down the sides of the stone along the curved indentations, where it was either collected or spilled on the ground.
A wide path leads out of the plaza through a forested area, with many uncovered mounds among the trees, returning visitors to the entrance gate.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition