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Finding Ancient Kings of Copan

Posted On June 22, 2020 | 16:43 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Loa Traxler synthesizes what the physical remains of a dynastic founder reveal about the Classic Maya world and interactions with Teotihuacan

Loa Traxler, associate professor of anthropology and director of museum studies at the University of New Mexico, was a 2019–2020 fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her research report, “Establishing the Dynastic House: The Founding and Early Evolution of the Copan Acropolis,” reconstructed the founding of a Maya kingdom from years of field investigations.


Q&A with Loa Traxler

What is Copan, and what did scholars wonder about its history?

Greeting every visitor to the Dumbarton Oaks library is a full-scale replica of a monument from the great plaza at Copan—a UNESCO world heritage site in western Honduras and the capital of a Classic Maya kingdom. It's a portrait of the thirteenth king of the Copan dynasty, Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil, standing in royal regalia and cradling the double-headed serpent bar signifying his authority and role in sustaining proper order in the universe. 

I study the acropolis at Copan: the architectural center where the royal dynasty lived, held events, and carried out their work. Many colleagues and I worked on archaeological tunnel excavations to reach the very beginnings of the acropolis. The founding king of the dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, was mentioned in inscriptions and texts dated centuries after he lived. Were these retrospective inscriptions accurate about historical events and individuals from the past? Or were they somehow creating a deep history for the site for the political gain of kings in later centuries?


What did excavations reveal?

My book project tries to distill years of archaeological research for the long-term use of scholars and the public. One of many discoveries we made was an ancient building with a burial chamber holding what are almost certainly the physical remains of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. This building was likely his residence and palace. Analyzing the architecture of the built environment where he lived along with his physical remains, we have come to better understand the inscriptions that reference him. Our work allows us to reconstruct a tremendous amount about the life of this individual, who died sometime around 437 CE.

For example, colleagues who specialize in osteological (skeletal), molecular, and biochemical research have revealed he almost certainly was born very far away from Copan, in the eastern Petén area of the Maya lowlands. He moved more than once and ultimately came to live in Copan during the last ten to fifteen years of his life.

During his adult life, he suffered significant bodily injuries, likely from combat, but he survived these episodes and went on to live many more years. We suspect he was left-handed, because his right forearm was broken and remained unhealed from what today we call a parry fracture: a break to the radius and ulna caused by a defensive motion to ward off a blow. He also had a broken left shoulder that hadn’t healed before he died. On top of his unhealed injuries, he had, during his life, sustained blows to the head, broken ribs, a blow to the sternum, and a broken toe—all of these healed but retained evidence of where the injury had been. In spite of all this, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ carried out ceremonial events to mark the completion of a grand cycle of time in the Classic Maya calendar, according to a monument found under the acropolis, carved much closer to the time when he lived than other inscriptions. The monument also shows his son, who likely provided significant help during his life and perhaps during the calendar celebration.


What connections did you find between Copan and the rest of Mesoamerica? 

Prestige items, gifts, and goods in this individual’s burial chamber give us reason to believe that although his kingdom was on the southern frontier of the Classic Maya world, he was connected to lowland and highland polities involved in long-distance trade and territorial expansion. This reconstructed history points to interaction between the Maya region and highland-central Mexico, at that time controlled by the metropolis of Teotihuacan. For me, it was a tremendous opportunity to be here at Dumbarton Oaks with [Pre-Columbian Studies fellow] Saburo Sugiyama, whose longstanding work at Teotihuacan has been incredibly important. Before the founding of Copan’s royal house, there is evidence of incursions in the Maya lowlands by people from afar, whose regalia, material goods, and references express strong connections with highland-central Mexico. 

According to Copan’s texts, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ attained power in 426 at an undiscovered ceremonial location, then traveled for many days to reach Copan in 427 with the authority to reign over a new capital he established. Some scholars are quite persuaded the far-flung ceremonial location was at Teotihuacan. Did he travel to the great city to participate in transformative rituals and obtain symbols of authority, potentially from a ruler of Teotihuacan? We will probably never have the smoking gun that answers this question unambiguously. But we can say that this founder and his efforts to establish a royal house started a new chapter in the history of Copan, shaping the site for centuries to come.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.