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Allan L. Maca

Foothill Settlement and Urban Planning at Late Classic Copán, Honduras
Interim Report
Vea este informe en Español.

Research Year:  2000
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Late Classic
Location:  Copán, Honduras
Site:  Comedero Region

Table of Contents

Introduction to Harvard’s Project at Group 9J-5
Proposal for FAMSI Funding
Results of Proposal to Date
Outline of Final Report
Sources Cited

Introduction to Harvard’s Project at Group 9J-5

The recent project at Group 9J-5 developed out of a growing interest on the part of IHAH (Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History) to protect areas of the northern foothills of the Copán ruins. Currently, the ancient monuments of this foothill region are located on privately owned land. The long-term aim has been to work towards incorporating the monuments of this area into the archaeological park of Copán, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is presently the third largest generator of revenue from tourism in Honduras. Thus, plans for the preservation of its monuments and their inclusion within the Institute’s administrative purview are ongoing, as demonstrated, not least, by the drawing up of a new park management plan, due for submission by the end of March 2001.

In 1994, the owner of the land around Group 9J-5 bulldozed a minor portion of the site in order to build a new house. Professor William Fash of Harvard University has long-recognized the importance of the group (see Fash 1983) and, at the urging of the Institute, he initiated the Archaeological Project at Group 9J-5 the following year. Fash has served as Project Director since that time, and Allan Maca, a graduate student at Harvard, has been Field Director since 1996. Many of the data from five seasons of large and small-scale excavations at 9J-5 are included in Maca’s (upcoming) doctoral thesis.

Within the Harvard typology (see Willey and Leventhal 1979), Group 9J-5 is a ’Type 4’ site, i.e., one of the most complex and monumental in the Valley of Copán. Outside of the Principal Group, there are only eight other architectural groupings so designated. Group 9J-5 consists of more than thirty mounds organized around six plazas. Although there are considerably earlier strata (dating to ca. A.D. 500), all of the sampled surface architecture and deposits date to the Late and Terminal Classic periods, between A.D. 750 and 950. Two of the group’s plazas are considerably large and notable. Plaza B measures approximately 20 × 40 meters, and is framed on all four sides by architecture, most notably by a 30 m long range structure on the east side. Plaza A, while smaller in area than Plaza B, is perhaps the most remarkable architectural assemblage of the group. Its elevated and monumental U-shaped arrangement, remnants of façade sculpture, and its sweeping view to the southeast over the Copán Valley, make this plaza one of the foremost wonders of the ancient city.

Located approximately 600 meters northwest of the Principal Group of ruins, in the Comedero region (Fash and Long 1983), Group 9J-5 sits approximately twenty meters above the valley floor. At 617.50 m (above sea level), the elevation of Plaza A is within about fifty centimeters of the elevation of the East Acropolis platform, on which sit the prominent buildings of the East Court, including the Council House (Str. 10L-22A) and Temple 22 (Str. 10L-22). Were it not for the modern forest cover in the Principal Group, one could peer just beyond the remains of the structure atop the Hieroglyphic Stairway to the (dance) platform located immediately south of Structure 22A on the East Court.

From the west side of the Great Plaza of the Principal Group (approximate elevation, 600.00 meters), remnants of one of the two ancient roads (or sacbes) extends northwestward in an arc, terminating just 100 meters from Group 9J-5. The actual terminus point is marked by a low structure near the base of Cerro Chino, a hill to the west of Group 9J-5 upon which rest approximately ten mounds dating to the Proto and Early Classic periods. Part of the final length of this road extends along the west side of the (Plaza A) U-Group at 9J-5.

Fash has proposed that the road conducted pilgrims and celebrants between the Principal Group and Cerro Chino, the latter of which may have served as a natural shrine or ancestral monument. Due to 9J-5’s proximity to Cerro Chino, its direct association with the road, and the presence of sculpture fragments discovered in surface survey, Fash hypothesizes that Group 9J-5 was intentionally integrated into the dynastic sphere (1983). Test excavations carried out in the 1980s and in 1995 demonstrate that the majority of large surface architecture at the site dates to the Late Classic Coner ceramic phase. The project was begun in an attempt to assess to what extent the growth of the site could be attributed to royal designs for social and spatial circumscription of local communities or lineages. For example, did Group 9J-5 develop ex nihilo for purposes dictated by the dynasty, or did the site have its own long, and complex history? To answer this and other questions, the project began with three simple objectives: To understand (1) the length of the site’s occupation; (2) the relationship between the site and the sacbe; and (3) what information regarding site function could be gleaned from in situ sculptural motifs.

Before 1995, two other projects dug test pits at 9J-5: PAC I in the late 1970s (during which time William Fash himself supervised excavations); and an extension of PAC II (during which time AnnCorinne Freter, then of Penn State, supervised excavations of about a dozen pits). The current Harvard/IHAH Archaeological Project at Group 9J-5 began largely as sculpture reconnaissance, with much of the strategic test-pitting carried out along the sides of large buildings. This was done in an effort to evaluate the broader importance of the site during the Late Classic period, and to enable comparative analyses with other sculpture-bearing monuments in the Principal Group and elsewhere (as has been done successfully in projects from PAC I to PAAC, and the ongoing effort of the Copán Mosaics Project under co-Directors William Fash and Barbara Fash).

Early in the 1997 field season, however, it was discovered that the site had a longer and more complex history than had been anticipated. Although dozens of sculptural fragments were found, none could be found in situ. Rather, a significant number of sculptural fragments were found incorporated into late constructions dating to the late 9th or early 10th century. Due to this discovery, methods and objectives were shifted to include limited excavations of two large buildings (9K-89 and 9K-88) and sections of the plaza (Plaza B) associated with them. This was deemed necessary in order to derive more and better information relating to site development, to attempt to answer the initial questions with straight-forward horizontal exposure. Through analyses of stratigraphy and excavated ceramics, we now know that the site was occupied up to and through much of the 10th century. This characterizes for the first time a Terminal Classic ceramic phase at Copán, one that accentuates the role of the settlement groups in the northern foothills of the city.

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Submitted 02/26/2001 by:

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