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Lost King of the Maya
Tour Copán with David Stuart

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 treasures.

Stuart 1  
Hieroglyphic Stairway
When 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 history.

Stuart 2  
Deciphering glyphs
Most 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 code.

Stuart 1  
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 element here.

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 Hieroglyphs.]

Stuart 4  
Proskouriakoff's breakthrough
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.

Stuart 5  
Stela 63
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,, 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.

Stuart 6  
Evidence of burning
The 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.

Stuart 7  
"The child of the father"
The 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.

Stuart 8  
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.

Stuart 9  
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.

Stuart 10  
Ruler 2
Both 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.

Stuart 11  
Stela 1
Here 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.

Stuart 12  
The Maya calendar
We can read off the date in the Maya calendar as, 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.

Stuart 1  
"He casts incense"
We 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.

Stuart 14  
Altar Q
Ever 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 beginning.

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.

Stuart 1  
Yax K'uk Mo'
The 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 location.

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 Teotihuacán.

Stuart 16  
Yax Pac
Altar 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 beginning.

Stuart 1  
Altar L
This 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 Copán.

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