Thursday, April 11, 2013

4 - Incidents of Travel: Mayan Ruins

Part 4: Copan

Stela (Monument) at Copan
by Frederick Catherwood

“The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly-discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages,” wrote John Lloyd Stephens’ when he first found the stelae at Copan. 

When Stephens and his artist friend, Frederick Catherwood, travelled to Central American the first time, they sailed all the way around the Yucatan Peninsula to Belize so that they could begin their exploration of lost cities at Copan, which was one of only three archaeological sites in 1839.  He continued:

“… [our guide] conducted us through the thick forest, among half-buried fragments, to fourteen monuments of the same character and appearance, some with more elegant designs, and some in workmanship equal to the finest monuments of the Egyptians; one displaced from its pedestal by enormous roots; another locked in the close embrace of branches of trees, and almost lifted out of the earth; another hurled to the ground, and bound down by huge vines and creepers; and one standing, with its altar before it, in a grove of trees which grew around it, seemingly to shade and shroud it as a sacred thing; in the solemn stillness of the wood, it seemed a divinity mourning over a fallen people."
Topled Monument
by Frederick Catherwood

In addition to the beautiful and exquisitely carved “monuments”, they found great pyramids.  Again, Stephens’ description:
Pyramid and Stela at Copan
by Frederick Catherwood

“We returned to the base of the pyramidal structure, and ascended by regular stone steps, in some places forced apart by bushes and saplings, and in others thrown down by the growth of large trees, while some remained entire.  They were ornamented with sculptured figures and rows of death’s heads.  Climbing over the ruined top, we reached a terrace overgrown with trees, and, crossing it, descended by stone steps into an area so covered with trees that at first we could not make out its form, but which, on clearing the way with the machete, we ascertained to be a square, and with steps on all the sides almost as perfect as those of the roman amphitheatre.  The steps were ornamented with sculpture, and on the south side, about half way up, forced out of its place by roots, was a colossal head, evidently a portrait.  We ascended these steps, and reached a broad terrace a hundred feet high, overlooking the river, and supported by the wall which we had seen from the opposite bank.

“We sat down on the very edge of the wall, and strove in vain to penetrate the mystery by which we were surrounded.  Who were the people that built this city?  In the ruined cities of Egypt, even in the long-lost Petra, the stranger knows the story of the people whose vestiges are around him.  America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones.  We asked the Indians who made them, and their dull answer was “Quien sabe?” “Who knows?”.

Have you been to Copan?  Please share your story.

View videos of the series

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

-- Courtney Miller




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