David Stuart began deciphering Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions at the age of
eight, and at 18 he became the youngest recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant."
Now at Harvard University's Peabody Museum, he is a world-renowned expert on
the written language of the ancient Maya. Among other fieldwork in Mexico and
Guatemala, he is part of an ongoing project to record and preserve the
monumental Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copán in Honduras. In this series of
film clips, join Stuart as he guides you to some of Copán's greatest
John [Lloyd] Stephens came here about 160 years ago, he speculated that the
inscriptions contained royal history, that it was history written in stone. It
turned out he was absolutely right. He had no evidence for this but he had a
good instinct, I think. And right behind me is the great Hieroglyphic Stairway
of Copán, which is perhaps the biggest single text in the world,
certainly the longest text from pre-Columbian America. Carved on it was the
complete royal history of Copán, giving all of the kings' names, all of
the dates, and it encapsulates everything we need to know about Copán
of the inscriptions that we have are written in stone, and places like
Copán and other sites have lots and lots of texts to work with. The
Hieroglyphic Stairway from Copán right behind me is a really great
example. It took about 100 years of concerted effort by a lot of different
people to start to get the decipherment going. And nowadays we can read about
80 percent of the inscriptions that are legible, and that's quite a change from
a number of years ago.
We've had a lot of lucky breaks along the way. One of them is that we know the
language in which it's written; a lot of Mayan people still live today speaking
Mayan languages. And also, one of the clues that was sort of like a Rosetta
Stone for us, was the discovery of a manuscript by a Spanish priest named [Fray
Diego de] Landa, who actually wrote down a little about the hieroglyphic system
and the way it was structured. He didn't really understand it, but scholars
about 50 years ago began working on it and picking up clues that really told us
the way the writing worked and the real structure that allowed us to crack the
Maya number system
One of the first things that was deciphered about 100 years ago was the
calendar system. And I have an example of it here from an ancient Maya book, a
facsimile of one, where we have an example of a date written with five numbers
using bars and dots; that's the way the Maya represented numbers between 1 and
19. The bar was a 5, and a single dot was a 1. So, for example, here we have a
column that reads 8, 11, 8, 7, and then 0—the zero is this football-shaped
Now, this is a date in the calendar using a place notation system. It's giving
us a big number of days. The bottommost number is a single day, and here there
are none of those. Now, 20 days make up the next higher unit, and there are
seven of those; 18 of these periods of 20 days make up the next higher period
and that's 360 days, almost a year. Twenty of those make up the next higher
period, so that's 7,200 days; and then 20 of those make the next one, and
that's 144,000 days each. But these numbers tell us how many of those periods
we have. So we have a lot of time here, a lot of numbers of days expressed.
Now, this big number is the number of days that we add to the beginning point
of the Maya calendar which, in the correlation that most people accept
nowadays, fell on the day August 13, 3114 B.C. And this was far earlier than
any site like Copán or any real Maya civilization existed, so we don't
know why it existed that early—why that day was picked to be the starting
point. It's still a mystery, but that's when time began for the ancient Maya.
[To try your hand at reading ancient Maya dates, see Reading Maya
In the early days of Maya archeology, really before the glyphs could be
deciphered, it was thought that the inscriptions contained a lot of information
about the calendar, about the planets, astronomy, a lot of kind of esoteric
information for the priests to read and contemplate.
About 1960 or so, things really changed. There was a woman working at the
Peabody Museum at Harvard named Tatiana Proskouriakoff. She had been studying
the Maya for many, many years, and she came across a breakthrough that changed
the entire field. She was using the inscriptions from one site called Piedras
Negras in Guatemala, and she noticed that the monuments there were all divided
up into groups of time periods that corresponded more or less to a human
lifetime. She reasoned out that the earliest date in these groups was a birth
date, the latest one would be a death date, and then one in the middle
somewhere would be an accession to kingship.
It turned out she was absolutely right, and she single-handedly transformed our
field into one that studied history. She brought Maya history from obscurity
right out into the open, so today at places like Copán we can talk about
kings, their families, their battles, their lives, in ways that we never
thought possible. And it's really been an amazing experience, just in the wake
of Proskouriakoff's work, to bring all the strands of history together. That's
really what Copán archeology is all about right now.
Stela 63 is the earliest dated stela from Copán, and it records a very
important date in the Maya calendar. There's a long inscription on the front,
and it has these five periods of the Long Count, each with a number associated
with it. And here we have nine baktuns, zero katuns, zero tuns [in the
Maya Long Count, a period of 360 days], zero uinals [a period of 20
days], and zero kins [a period of one day]. In other words, this is the
beginning point of nine baktuns, 126.96.36.199.0, an extremely important period in
Maya history. A baktun only comes about every 400 years or so, so they
commemorated this time period by erecting this stela above where the Motmot
marker was. And it was also the time of the beginning of the Copán
dynasty. This probably isn't a coincidence, that the beginning of the baktun
was also the beginning of the dynasty of Copán.
Evidence of burning
stela was discovered in a building that was constructed on top of the Motmot
building in the marker that commemorated Yax K'uk Mo'. And we believe that it
was a place that was accessible for well over 200 years. People would come in
and burn and present offerings presumably to this stone that was commemorating
the beginning of the ninth baktun. We see evidence of the burning actually on
this part of the stela: This darkening here on some of the glyphs is the
remnants of the soot and the carbon from that time. And we know that this was
therefore a place of great ceremonial importance for centuries, commemorating
the beginning of the dynasty.
"The child of the father"
side of the monument has an inscription that has some key information about the
history of Copán and the early kings. We have to look at the glyphs a
bit sideways here, but we have the name of the second ruler here, written very
clearly. And then, reading down, we have a glyph that says eu nae, "the
child of the man," "the child of the father." The name of the father is the
very last glyph down below, and that's the name of K'inich Yax K'uk Mo'. So
Ruler 2 was the son of the first king.
Earliest royal carving
This simple stone monument is actually the earliest royal carving we have from
Copán. It depicts on one side the founder, K'inich Yax K'uk Mo', in a
near-contemporary portrait; and his son, Ruler 2, flanking this inscription,
which is still very difficult to read in many ways. But what's interesting
about this stone is that it sets the stage for other monuments such as Altar Q,
where we have Yax K'uk Mo' shown as the beginning point. Here there's just the
two kings, yet Ruler 2 is relying on his father, much in the same way Yax Pac
relies on Yax K'uk Mo' on Altar Q.
The ninth baktun
The monument commemorates the beginning of a great Maya cycle called the
baktun. [In the Maya Long Count, a baktun is equal to 144,000 days, or a
little under 395 years.] In fact, it's the ninth baktun in Maya history. It
seems to have been the time when Copán's history really began, when the
founder, Yax K'uk Mo', arrived shortly before and Ruler 2, his son—together
they seem to celebrate this time. It was a time of great ceremony, of great
cosmological importance that the people of Copán were well aware of no
doubt. So there's good reason to believe that these two kings saw this as an
opportunity to represent themselves as great cosmological powers in and of
themselves, people who would oversee the passing of time in this beginning of
the new cycle.
of the kings depicted on the stone have their name glyphs in their headdresses
and also in the text. But the founder's name, K'inich Yax K'uk Mo', is really
the only one of the two we can read. I think the reason for that is because the
quetzal bird, the macaw bird, these are symbols we can recognize and attach
words to. But the name glyph of Ruler 2 has elements and symbols in it that we
can't recognize and make it very difficult to read. Some day we may very well
decipher his name, but for now we can just call him the second ruler, Ruler 2.
in the great plaza of Copán, the 13th king of the dynasty erected a
whole series of large monuments called stelae, one of which is behind me here.
These were really important commemorative monuments that emphasized stations in
the Maya calendar and the ceremonies that went on involving the king on this
day. The king is shown on all of these monuments, like the one here, with all
of his ceremonial regalia, and he's shown actually in the specific setting of a
place called Macaw Mountain, maybe one of the sacred hills around Copán.
There's an inscription on the side that tells us the date and also the kinds of
things going on on that day.
The Maya calendar
can read off the date in the Maya calendar as 188.8.131.52.0, and those three zeros
at the end of the date are key for telling us that it's what we know as a
Period Ending, a very important station in the calendar, when all sorts of
things were going on, probably right here in this plaza, with lots of people
from the community. The inscription goes on and records some of the ceremonies
that happened on that day, on the other side of the stela.
"He casts incense"
can read virtually the entire inscription here. From the very top it says, "It
was erected" (the stone). "It is the image of the Macaw Mountain Lord." "It
ended the 15 katuns." [In the Maya Long Count, a katun is equal to 7,200
days or slightly less than 20 years.] "He casts incense." "He is the
impersonator" (of this deity who is named in these two glyphs). And then, with
the ending of the inscription, it tells us he is the 13th successor in the
dynasty, Ruler 13. Then it gives his personal name, and this glyph we only
deciphered a few years ago. His name was Uaxac Lahun Ubac C'awil.And
once we were able to read that glyph, we had finally resurrected it from history.
since we realized this was a king list of Copán, the first figure in the
list was always mysterious. He's seated not on his name glyph, but on the glyph
that simply says ahau, or king or lord. And he seems kind of an
anonymous figure. He's also dressed strangely. He has a goggle-like device over
his eyes, he has a square shield on his arm, and some fancy elements in his
headdress. And some of these parts of his costume are actually more Mexican
than they are Maya. So he's always seemed to be a strange figure from the very
Now, back in 1986, when I was here conducting a tour of Copán, we
stopped at Altar Q and talked about it, and I realized all of a sudden that the
headdress actually has his name glyph. There's a big bird back here with long
tail feathers, and that a quetzal bird, called k'uk in Maya. The head of
the bird circles around the eye, which mark it as a macaw, which is mo',
then these two little things on the front of his headdress read yax and
also k'inich. So we have all of the elements of the name K'inich Yax
K'uk Mo', and that's the name of the founder of Copán. We finally had
the name of the first king.
Yax K'uk Mo'
top of Altar Q here tells the story of Yax K'uk Mo' really. It begins up here
with a date, and it's a date that comes around the early fifth century. And it
says that on that particular day in that time, he took the emblems of office,
he took the kingship. The place where he took that kingship is recorded in the
next glyph, and we've known for a long time that this glyph has some sort of
connection to Central Mexico. It may not be the name of Teothuacán, but
it's at least some place connected to that area. Then we have his name here,
and then the date's three days later. And three days later he leaves that
The inscription goes on to say something really remarkable. A hundred and
fifty-three days after he leaves this place where he's become a king, then, on
this day, he "rests his legs," or "rests his feet," and "he is the West Lord."
It's a title that Yax K'uk Mo' has throughout his references at Copán.
And then finally it says "he arrived" at Copán. So, I think the
conclusion from this is that Yax K'uk Mo' came a long way before he arrived at
Copán, and he probably originated and took the emblems of office at
Q depicts all 16 kings of Copán, but it's more than just a visual king
list of the site. We have four kings on each four sides of this square altar.
And we have to remember that the Maya worldview was one that was essentially
square, with its cardinal directions and a symmetry that was reflected
precisely on this altar.
This wasn't lost on the king Yax Pac, the 16th ruler, who dedicated this
monument. He wanted to depict his entire dynastic ancestry in the context of
the cosmos. And, above all, he wanted to show his descent from the founding
king, K'inich Yax K'uk Mo'. And he does this on this side wonderfully. He
receives the emblems of office from the founder, almost as if the ancestor is a
contemporary figure. There is a profound sense of destiny, I think, reflected
in this presentation of history. A circle was closed. There's an idea of a
beginning and an end, as if anything that comes after the 16th ruler is somehow
out of order or would begin some sort of new history, some new sense of a
stone monument could be one of the key pieces of the Copán puzzle. It
shows two seated figures: one here and one here, who flank a column of
hieroglyphs. There's a date, recorded in the Maya system: "3 Chicchan 3 Uo,
chumwan," and the event they are commemorating is accession to office; he was
ceded into some sort of position. Well, who was ceded in the position?
This figure over here is Yax Pac, the 16th king of the dynasty and, according
to some of the records, such as Altar Q, the last one. But this fellow over
here could well be his successor. In other words, he could be the 17th king.
This date corresponds to, in our calendar, the year 822, and so we believe that
this altar could be the very last stone monument ever produced here in