Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2001:
Robert J. Sharer

Early Copán Acropolis Program 2000 Field Season
Vea este informe en Español.

Figure 6b: Two decorated slate mirror backs were recovered from the Margarita Tomb during the 2000 field season. This drawing of Disk 2 shows a winged Teotihuacán figure standing in profile.

Research Year:  2000
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Early Classic
Location:  Copán, Honduras
Site:  Hunal and Margarita tombs

Table of Contents

Goals and Results of ECAP Research
The 2000 ECAP Research
Conservation of Architecture
Conservation of Artifacts
Documentation of Archaeological Materials
Analyses of Archaeological Materials
Results of Materials Analyses Thus Far
Analysis of Pottery
Analysis of Obsidian
Analysis of Other Artifacts
Archaeobotanical Analyses
Zooarchaeological Analyses
Analysis of Activity Residues
Analysis of Construction Materials
Analysis of Human Remains
List of Figures
Sources Cited

Goals and Results of ECAP Research

The University of Pennsylvania Museum began work at the Classic Maya center of Copán, Honduras, in 1989 with the formation of what came to be the Early Copán Acropolis program (ECAP). Phase I of this research corresponds to the active collection of archaeological data from excavation–in this case, mostly from a network of some 3 kms of tunnels ECAP has excavated beneath the Copán Acropolis. The excavation of new tunnels ended in 1996, with portions of the following three field seasons (1997-2000) devoted to completion of stratigraphic test pits, architectural probes, and the documentation, conservation, and removal of materials from two royal interments, known as the Hunal and Margarita tombs (Sharer, 1999). Overlapping with this data collection effort, Phase II of ECAP’s research was undertaken to fully document, conserve, and analyze all the material remains recovered in Phase I.  Much of the Phase II work has been conducted in conjunction with Phase I, but the documentation, conservation, and analysis effort accelerated considerably beginning with the 1997 field season. The greatest impetus for both the acceleration of this effort, and the successful completion of most of the Phase II objectives has been a three year grant from FAMSI aimed specifically at supporting documentation, conservation, and analysis for the years 1998-2000.

Since its beginning, ECAP’s research has been directed at the origins of state systems as revealed by the conjunction of archaeology and history (Fash and Sharer, 1991; Sharer et al., 1999). Copán provides a unique source of data from the time of the early development of a Maya state during the Early Classic era (usually dated at Copán as ca. A.D. 400-650). The focus of ECAP’s research was the epicenter of this regional state, the Copán Acropolis, which served as the royal religious, administrative, and residential center for Copán’s kings for some 400 years (ca. A.D. 400-800). At the same time, recent breakthroughs in the decipherment of Maya writing (Coe, 1999) resulted in new historical information gained from Copán’s texts which greatly enhanced the archaeological data. In other words, ECAP research essentially comprises historical archaeology at Copán.

When our research began there was disagreement about the accuracy and meaning of Maya texts. At Copán a number of Late Classic (ca. A.D. 650-800) retrospective texts referred to a dynastic founder who took the royal scepter in A.D. 426 and apparently arrived at Copán in A.D. 427 (Schele, 1986; Martin and Grube, 2000; Stuart, 2000). While some scholars held that Maya accounts of founders and early kings were records of actual people and events, many others believed these retrospective accounts were mythical–created by later kings to expand their royal ancestry and enhance their prestige and authority. Until ECAP’s research there was not enough archaeological data to test the proposition that a king named K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ ("Great Sun, First Quetzal Macaw") founded the Copán dynasty, or that he and his son and successor were even real people who lived and ruled at Copán. By excavating over 3 kms of tunnels into the earliest levels of the Copán Acropolis, we have been able to recover a wealth of evidence bearing directly on the dynastic founding era and the remainder of the Early Classic period. Twelve years of exposing and documenting the architectural development of this royal complex has provided the archaeological data which clearly supports the later Maya historical accounts, and just as clearly negates the "mythical king" thesis (Sharer et al., 1999).

The disagreement over the veracity of Maya texts was also part of a larger issue involving the development of Maya sociopolitical organization. One position held that the Maya did not develop large-scale, state-type organizations until the Late Classic period, after ca. A.D. 600.  The contrary position held that the Maya developed large-scale, state-type organizations long before the Late Classic era, or by the Early Classic period (ca. A.D. 300-600). One critical indicator of state systems is the appearance and scale of royal palace structures. In addition, since the size of royal architecture reflects the amount of labor and materials harnessed by Copán’s rulers to construct their royal compound, a major increase in such investments is another indication of state systems.  ECAP’s Acropolis tunnels provided unique data which document the appearance and development of royal palaces at Copán (Traxler, 1996, in press), and the amount of architectural expenditures and their changes over time (Carrelli, 2000). Together, these lines of evidence furnish very significant support for the development of an Early Classic state system at Copán, several centuries earlier than had been proposed by earlier investigators.

Overall, ECAP’s research has reinforced and expanded our knowledge of the founding events at Copán, initially revealed by decipherments of inscriptions. The system of tunnels beneath the Acropolis has documented the buildings used by the dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, and his son and successor. At the same time, the discovery of several new hieroglyphic texts dating from the founding era have added new historical information about this critical time period.  ECAP also discovered three royal tombs, including the two earliest known tombs beneath the Acropolis. Various lines of evidence were gathered to propose the identities of the royal occupants of these tombs. In the case of the first of these royal burials to be excavated by ECAP, the Sub-Jaguar Tomb, the evidence suggests it is the burial place of Copán’s seventh king, Waterlily Jaguar (Traxler, 1996). In the cases of the two earliest tombs, the evidence allows one, the Hunal Tomb, to be proposed as the burial place of the founder himself, and the other, the Margarita Tomb, to be the burial place of an extraordinary royal woman who was probably his queen (Bell et al., 1999; Sharer et al., 1999). Beyond this, analysis of the archaeological, historical, and bioanthropological data allows us to propose that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ came from Tikal, founding a new dynasty at Copán as part of an effort of political and economic expansion sponsored by this great Maya capital (Sharer, in press). This latter finding implies that the origin of the Copán state involved a process of royal colonization that originated at Tikal.

To summarize, ECAP’s excavations beneath the Copán Acropolis provide a unique documentation of the origins and development of an Early Classic royal complex. The timing and patterning of these remains are direct evidence of the founding and growth of Copán as the capital of a Classic period polity just as was recorded on later historical texts at the site. After 12 seasons of excavation, documentation, and analysis of data we can begin to define patterns in the archaeological data that allow us to reconstruct the origins and development of the Acropolis and, by extension, the origins and development of the Copán state. For example, specific sequences of superimposed buildings reveal how Copán’s rulers reinforced their power through time by venerating important ritual locations to maintain symbolic links to the past. Findings such as these certainly advance our knowledge of the origins of Copán as a Maya state, and have implications for better understanding the development of early civilizations elsewhere.

Click to download the report in PDF format:

Early Copán Acropolis Program 2000 Field Season  (575 KB)

The PDF files require Adobe Acrobat Reader.
To download the latest version, click the Get Acrobat Reader button below.

Get Acrobat Reader

Submitted 11/01/2000 by:

The University of Pennsylvania Museum

Return to top of page