Lost King of the Maya (2001) PBS NOVA

Lost King of the Maya

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NARRATOR: His name is Yax K'uk Mo'. His spirit haunts this valley, deep in the rainforest of Honduras. He is the legendary founder of Copan, a Maya city mysteriously abandoned over 1000 years ago. For 400 years, his dynasty of Holy Lords rules a kingdom through hallucinogenic visions, ritual warfare and human sacrifice.

If the legend of Yax K'uk Mo' is true, then scientists believe he must be buried here, beneath this massive temple pyramid. One-hundred-thirty feet down and 1600 years back in time, anthropologist Robert Sharer burrows deep into the pyramid, searching for the bones of Yax K'uk Mo'.

After 10 years of excavating and tunneling, following lines left from plaster floors long ago buried, Sharer uncovers an immense underground temple. On a vibrantly colored stucco panel, carved with symbols only recently decoded, is the name of the legendary first king of Copan, Yax K'uk Mo'.

ROBERT SHARER (University of Pennsylvania): When we found this stucco panel in our tunneling into the Acropolis, we knew we had found the first explicit evidence that this area was associated with Yax K'uk Mo', the founder of the Copan dynasty. We wanted to get to even deeper levels to be able to find things—buildings, whatever—that were directly associated with Yax K'uk Mo', such as his tomb.

NARRATOR: Sharer descends into the humid darkness, traveling back in archaeological time. In the depths of this sacred monument a modern scientist rediscovers a 1600-year-old tomb.

ROBERT SHARER: There's the slab.

NARRATOR: Inside, Sharer finds the disintegrating, jade-studded skeleton. Are these the bones of Yax K'uk Mo'?

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NARRATOR: November 17th, 1839, in the jungles of Honduras, a small expedition is about to make a momentous discovery. Two young explorers, American John Lloyd Stephens and Englishman Frederick Catherwood, stumble upon a vine-strangled ruin. They are entering the ancient Maya city of Copan.

Catherwood, an excellent draftsman, brings the exotic world of Copan back to life through his drawings of temples and monuments. Their best-selling book, Incidents of Travel in Central America , captivates the public with stories of a lost civilization, newly found.

Stephens and Catherwood explore a world that stretches from the highlands of Chiapas, in Mexico, to the lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula and into the tropical rain forests of Central America. They discover 44 Maya cities, remains of a culture that flourished for more than 700 years, from roughly 200 to 900 of the Common Era.

But beyond their sheer beauty and size, the towering temple pyramids conceal something even more amazing—many are astronomically aligned to the sun and Venus. And the strange markings that cover the buildings are more than decorative, they are evidence of Maya picture writing, the most comprehensive ancient script of the Americas and one of only five original writing systems in the world.

Who are these Maya? How did they build these magnificent cities rising out of the jungle?

The answers lie in the place that best exemplifies Maya art, architecture and culture—Copan, the Athens of Central America.

Throughout Copan's nearly 10 square miles (about half the size of Manhattan), beautifully carved monuments and temple pyramids rise from the jungle. At the center of the ruined city, Catherwood and Stevens find a key piece of the puzzle, that will eventually explain the rise and fall of the great Maya civilization—the Acropolis, a massive stone complex of temples and pyramids.

Close to its center is a four-foot square monument that archaeologists call Altar Q. Carved on its sides are 16 enigmatic figures. What secrets are locked away in these cryptic carvings?

As he looks out over Copan, John Lloyd Stephens ponders the mysteries of the Maya. "One thing I believe," he writes,"the history of Copan is graven on its monuments. Who shall read them?"

One-hundred-fifty years later, Stephens finally got an answer to his question—David Stuart.

Stuart, the son of Maya experts, took his first trip to Central America when he was three years old. He began deciphering glyphs at age eight, and by the time he was 18 he became the youngest person ever awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Today David Stuart is working at Copan with Barbara Fash, director of the Hieroglyphic Stairway Project.

Each of the stairway's 2200 blocks displays a carved glyph. Unfortunately, many of the glyphs are wearing away.

DAVID STUART: When John Lloyd Stevens came here about 160 years ago, he speculated that the history was written in stone—that the inscriptions contained historical records. And it turns out he was absolutely right. He had good instincts. Behind me here is the great hieroglyphic stairway of Copan, which is one of the longest texts in the world, certainly the longest text from pre-Columbian America, and written in it are the dates and names of the royal history of Copan. And we've really only been able to read the details of this in the last, oh, 15 to 20 years.

NARRATOR: To resurrect the voice of the Maya, scholars must overcome one of the most tragic losses in history—that of the Maya code.

For centuries, the Maya created thousands of books made of bark and covered with hieroglyphs. But in the 1500s when the Spanish conquer Central America, the Spanish priests declare the strange books to be the work of the devil and burn them. A thousand years of knowledge and the key to understanding the Maya writing go up in smoke.

Fortunately the Maya wrote on other surfaces that couldn't be burned; and miraculously, four of the Maya books, or codices, escape the Spanish bonfires. One of those books leads to the first major breakthrough in deciphering Maya writing and understanding the Maya's reverence for time.

DAVID STUART: 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 Maya represented numbers between one and 19. A bar was a five, and a single dot was a one. So, if we look at this column for example, right here, we have five numbers, the top one being an eight, the next down is an eleven, then after that an eight, and a seven. And then this football-shaped sign is the way the ancient Maya wrote a zero sometimes.

NARRATOR: Their knowledge of the number system helped early scholars discover that the Maya books were celestial almanacs. The Maya could chart the 365-day solar cycle, predict solar and lunar eclipses, and even track the complex orbit of Venus. Amazingly, their Venus almanac is accurate to within two hours every 500 years.

This incredible astronomical ability and the apparent lack of any fortifications around Maya cities led early scholars to see the Maya as not only the most advanced civilization in the Americas, but also a peaceful people. When these scholars looked at Altar Q they believed they were seeing a conference of peaceful astronomer-priests.

But a shocking discovery in 1946 would forever change the image of the peaceful Maya.

Bonampak, a ruined Maya palace in the jungles of southern Mexico, unveiled a series of startling murals depicting torture, warfare and bloodshed. Yet it took another 40 years for scholars to accept that the Maya, for all their heavenly concerns, practiced the earthly tradition of warfare, torture and human sacrifice.

And at sites like the Venus Temple at Copan, modern archaeo-astronomers began to detect the true purpose of Maya skywatching. Here, Maya astronomer-priests tracked the complex journey of Venus through the sky with astounding accuracy.

ANTHONY AVENI (Colgate University): Why the need for this Maya precision in watching the sky? A precision unattainable in Europe until the time of Galileo, a thousand years after the Maya? Well the objects that move around in the sky were the ancestors of the Maya, they were the gods of the Maya, and the Maya needed to follow them with great accuracy to know what to do here on Earth. I suppose we could say the planets became the...the reason that their authority was legitimized. And one object in particular, Venus, became their patron god of war. They wrote about it in their codices; they inscribed it in their stelae of Copan; they used it to time their rituals, their sacrifices, the precise times when they would conduct war.

NARRATOR: To the Maya, Venus was not the planet of love, but the god of ritual warfare and bloody sacrifice.

But if the figures on Altar Q are not peaceful astronomer-priests, who are they?

DAVID STUART: 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. And, about 1960 or so, things really changed. There was a woman working at the Peabody museum at Harvard named Tatiana Proskouriakoff. And she noticed that she could divide up the inscriptions into segments of time that corresponded more or less to a human lifetime. And using those texts, she identified a glyph that she thought was a glyph for birth, another glyph for death and then for a very important event that occurred in between these two dates that was, she surmised, the inauguration of someone to kingship. It turned out she was absolutely right.

NARRATOR: Are these the kings responsible for Copan's magnificent temples and bloody rituals?

After 150 years of slow progress, the pace of decipherment suddenly explodes. In the 1970s, scholars could only identify perhaps 10 percent of the glyphs. Thirty years later, they can read 80 percent of Maya writing.

And by studying the language the Maya people use today, Stuart and other scholars learn the sounds and meanings of the ancient Maya glyphs.

Now when David Stuart looks at Altar Q, he's reading the history of real people.

DAVID STUART: When we were able to actually decipher Maya hieroglyphs, these anonymous characters were suddenly transformed into real people. We now know that they are kings, and that on the altar they are all sitting at...on their name glyphs. When we can read those names we can actually read the names of ancient Maya kings.

The 16th king's name is Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat.

NARRATOR: The Sky is Newly Revealed.

DAVID STUART: The 15th king's name is K'ahk' Yipyaj Chan K'awiil.

NARRATOR: Fire is the Strength of the Sky God K'Awiil.

DAVID STUART: The 13th king's name is Waxaklajun Ubah K'awiil.

NARRATOR: Eighteen Are the Images of the God, nicknamed 18 Rabbit.

DAVID STUART: The 11th king's name is K'ahk' Uti' Chan.

NARRATOR: Fire is the Mouth of the Snake.

DAVID STUART: The seventh king's name is B'ahlam Nehn.

NARRATOR: The Jaguar Mirror.

All the figures sit on name glyphs, with one prominent exception. The first figure, the one who anoints the 16th king with the baton of office, sits on the glyph that represents the Maya word "lord."

Years after the other kings were identified the first figure on Altar Q remained a mystery. Dressed differently from the others and wearing the eye-goggles of the Central American rain god, many Maya scholars believed this figure must surely be a god.

Then David Stuart found his name hidden in plain sight.

DAVID STUART: Ever since we realized this was a king list of Copan, the first figure in the list was always mysterious. We always wondered, "where is his name? Who is this guy?" And I was here back in 1986, and I realized that he's not actually sitting on his name glyph, but rather has his name up in his headdress. And if you look closely you'll see that he's got a quetzal feather device back here, he has a macaw head on—a bird, he has a sun symbol, and the symbol yax for green or blue. And I realized they're...that there are all four elements of the name K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo'. That was the name of the founder.

NARRATOR: After 150 years of trying to crack the Maya code, the most prominent figure on Altar Q now has a name—K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo'—Great Sun Green Quetzal Macaw.

Now archaeologists want to find the crucial piece of evidence to confirm his existence—his bones. But where should they dig?

Archeologist Bill Fash has been exploring the secrets of Copan since he first visited as a teenager. Today he is director of the Acropolis Project.

Like Catherwood and Stephens, Fash believes the key to understanding Copan lies at the heart of its sacred geography—in the Acropolis. At the height of Copan's glory, the Acropolis was crowned by magnificent temples and served as the spiritual and political center for Copan's rulers.

The Copan River has been diverted from its natural course, but centuries ago the river cut through part of this gigantic stone platform. The erosion left a unique cutaway view of the Acropolis and offers a window into the history of Copan.

WILLIAM FASH (Harvard University): Over the course of the last 1000 years, slowly but surely the Acropolis has been getting eaten away by the river. Now the upside of all this is that it has exposed 400 years of construction in the resulting Acropolis cuts, so we have the opportunity to look at the works of all 16 kings of Copan. It is, in effect, like Altar Q, only in architecture rather than in a single stone sculpture.

NARRATOR: Each of Copan's 16 kings built his own temples on top of the previous king's, a tradition which, over many generations, formed the monuments of the Acropolis.

If Yax K'uk Mo' is indeed the founder of the Copan dynasty, then his tomb and temples should be at the lowest level of the Acropolis. But his bones could be buried anywhere in the half square mile of this vast stone ruin, an area the size of 14 city blocks.

Bill Fash looks to Altar Q to point him in the right direction.

WILLIAM FASH: On Altar Q we have a handsome portrait of K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo', the founder. And a textual reference to this being the stone of Yax K'uk Mo'. The implication is, this is his place and his monument. It happens to be placed in front of one of the most massive temple pyramids on the site. The implication is that this is the funerary temple of K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo', the founder of the Copan Dynasty. But to find out if that is true we have to dig.

NARRATOR: After working their way down through the layers, archaeologists finally reached the depth that should correspond to the origins of the mighty Copan dynasty. Here, at the very foundation of the Acropolis, Bill Fash's colleague Robert Sharer hopes to uncover the truth about Copan's legendary founder Yax K'uk Mo'.

SHARER: There's the slab.

NARRATOR: Before his eyes is a disintegrating skeleton decorated with jade and jewels. Are these the remains of Yax K'uk Mo'?

ROBERT SHARER: The offerings here are shell ear-flares, each with a jade bead. There is also a series of tubular shell beads. These were adornments that he once wore.

NARRATOR: This particular jade bead is carved with the woven mat motif, which, to the Maya, represented rulership. And this person's teeth are filed and inlaid with jade, also a symbol of Maya aristocracy

As Sharer and his associate, Ellen Bell, remove the precious contents of the tomb, they still face the question, "Are these the remains of Yax K'uk Mo'?"

Once again, Sharer turns to a familiar source—Altar Q. The image of Yax K'uk Mo' on the side of Altar Q is one of the most detailed in all of Copan, right down to his jewelry. It depicts him wearing ear-flares and a single jade bar, jewelry identical to ones found by Sharer in the tomb. The image of Yax K'uk Mo' on Altar Q also depicts him holding a shield on his right arm, making him a left-handed warrior. That corresponds intriguingly to evidence from the bones.

ROBERT SHARER: The bones in the tomb tell us many things about the man buried here. They tell us his age—he was an elderly individual, probably over 50 years old at death. They tell us, of course,he was male. They also tell us about a series of injuries, combat-style injuries, that he suffered during life. Perhaps most dramatic, a severe blow to the right forearm, of the type that's usually called a parry-fracture, the kind of fracture that one gets in warding off a blow with the forearm—in this case probably with a shield on that forearm. This also gives us added information about the individual's identity, because on Altar Q, that individual is depicted wearing a shield on his right arm. This is one more case where the myth of Copan's dynastic founder is becoming real through archaeological evidence.

NARRATOR: But the skeleton holds more clues. Studies of the minerals found in the teeth and bones indicate that this individual is not from Copan. In Maya legend and hieroglyphic text, Yax K'uk Mo' is referred to as Lord of the West. But if he is not native to Copan, where is he from?

DAVID STUART: The inscription on the top of Altar Q really tells the story about Yax K'uk Mo' and how he came to Copan. It begins with a reference to a day in the early 400s, when it says that he took the emblems of office at a place that we think is connected somehow to Teotihuacan or with Central Mexico somewhere. Three days later, it says, he comes from that place. He leaves that very spot. And then the inscription goes on to say something really remarkable. A hundred and fifty three days after he leaves, apparently Central Mexico, he rests his legs. And then it says he is a West Lord, and that's a title that he has throughout the Copan inscriptions throughout history. And then finally, the last two glyphs of the passage read "Hu'li Uxwitikî," "he arrived at Copan." So there's no question in my mind that K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo' became a king at a very far away spot in Central Mexico and brought those emblems of office back here to Copan to found the dynasty.

NARRATOR: Based on the evidence—the location of the tomb in the Acropolis, matching the jewelry and fractured bones from the tomb with the image of Yax K'uk Mo' on Altar Q, and the origin of the bones confirming the text on Altar Q—archaeologists are now sure Yax K'uk Mo' was a real king, and that they have discovered his tomb.

But these findings pose new mysteries. What did Yax K'uk Mo' find when he arrived? How did this outsider conquer Copan and create a 400-year dynasty? To answer those questions, Honduran archeologist Ricardo Agurcia starts at the source—the Copan River.

RICARDO AGURCIA FASQUELLE (Copan Association): From the earliest of times, the history of Copan is tied to this river. Not only did it provide water for drinking, for washing and for bathing, it also provided the rich alluvial soils which were essential for the agricultural systems of the ancient Maya.

NARRATOR: The river was also a valuable trade route for cotton, exotic bird feathers, obsidian and jade. The rulers of early Copan grew prosperous and began to build. And by the year 400, the time of Yax K'uk Mo's arrival, Copan is dominated by feuding warlords.

RICARDO AGURCIA: Into this arena steps K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo' who brings with him the might and the power to consolidate the political power and create a new kingdom, which flourishes for the next 400 years.

NARRATOR: Yax K'uk Mo's arrival is probably marked by terror and bloodshed. He may have consolidated his power through a strategic alliance, marrying into the family of a local warlord. But how did he ensure the lasting success of his dynasty, one that endures for the next 15 generations? Evidence of his strategy is hidden in the forest on the edge of Copan's Great Plaza.

WILLIAM FASH: By 160 AD, in the Copan Valley, there are all different kinds of evidence that indicate that things were getting pretty interesting. And there are a number of archaeological finds that indicate a large population with extensive trade connections building some fairly monumental structures.

NARRATOR: Fash suspects that one of those structures lies beneath this tree-covered mound. His field-study students survey the area. As soon as workers start to excavate, they uncover cut-stone building blocks. These blocks are the remains of an earlier Acropolis, a ritual center that pre-dates the arrival of Yax K'uk Mo'. The structure that would replace it seems to have been carefully designed by Yax K'uk Mo' to solidify his rule.

WILLIAM FASH: After the arrival of Yax K'uk Mo' in AD 426, he decides to make a clean break with the past and the old dynasty. The old Acropolis and center for performances is abandoned, and instead he creates his own regal ritual center about 200 yards south of the old Acropolis. And for this magnificent historic occasion, he dedicates a whole series of new monuments in his new center, including a new ball court, new palaces, new temples, and essentially puts a new stamp and a new seal on the kingdom of Copan, saying this is a new place now. This is a new dynasty, and we're going to start afresh, with a new vision and a new regal ritual center.

NARRATOR: Yax K'uk Mo' builds bigger than any Maya lord before him. For the first time in Copan, the temples and monuments are inscribed with Maya writing. In these inscriptions the legend of Yax K'uk Mo' is born.

But also hidden on the carved stones of Copan is evidence of Yax K'uk Mo''s most powerful weapon—the perfect timing of his arrival.

The year 426 corresponds to a powerful milestone in the Maya calendar—the Baktun. The Maya Baktun is a recurring 400-year period. Like our own millennium, its onset was both an auspicious and fearful occasion.

Yax K'uk Mo's arrival ushers in the Ninth Baktun and elevates him to the realm of the supernatural.

DAVID STUART: Stela 63 is probably the earliest dated stela we have from Copan, and it commemorates an extremely important time period in the Maya calendar. It has a date on the front of it that reads nine, zero, zero, zero, zero. In other words, it was the beginning of the Ninth Baktun. This was a period that would only occur every 400 years or so, and the scribes and kings of Copan decided to commemorate that time period using this stela, and associating it with K'inich Yax K'uk Mo', the first king of the dynasty. And it can't be a coincidence that the beginning of the Baktun was also the beginning of history at Copan.

NARRATOR: Yax K'uk Mo', Lord of the West, the outsider, accomplishes what had never been done before—he consolidates power into a single dynasty and sparks a period of unprecedented growth and artistic achievement.

Copan's Holy Lords, the successors of Yax K'uk Mo', rule for the next 400 years, an entire Maya Baktun.

But with the death of Yax K'uk Mo' around the year 450, how does his son and the next 15 generations maintain the power of the great founder? What new weapon could they add to their arsenal of monument building, warfare, calendar worship and blood rituals?

Found buried beneath the Hieroglyphic Stairway, this monument holds the answer. Inscriptions on this altar, called the "Mot Mot Marker," reveal that it was dedicated by the second ruler of Copan. The new weapon he brings to the dynasty is the image of his father, Yax K'uk Mo'.

DAVID STUART: This simple marker stone is actually the earliest monument we have from Copan. It shows the king K'inich Yax K'uk Mo' on one side, along with his son, Ruler 2, on the other side. The presentation of the scene here anticipates other monuments at Copan that come much later, such as Altar Q, where we have the 16th ruler receiving the staff of office from K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo'. Here Ruler 2 does much the same thing, relying on the founder, his father in this case, as the ultimate symbol of his power.

NARRATOR: This iconographic connection to Yax K'uk Mo' becomes the visual propaganda technique employed by each of the fourteen kings that follow. From the Mot Mot Marker, to the Hieroglyphic Stairway, to Altar Q, the kings of Copan legitimize their power by linking themselves to the dynastic founder, Yax K'uk Mo'.

But they also invoke his power more directly.

The holiest site in Copan's sacred geography is the place where Yax K'uk Mo' is buried. It lies at the heart of the Acropolis. Behind Altar Q, deep within this temple pyramid, Ricardo Agurcia discovers the best-preserved Maya temple ever found. He names it Rosalila.

RICARDO AGURCIA FASQUELLE: Rosalila sits in the middle of a long sequence of constructions built over 400 years by the ancient Maya. It is built in the year 571 AD by Moon Jaguar, the 10th ruler of Copan. And like all the other buildings in the central axis of the Copan Acropolis, it is dedicated to the memory of the founder of the dynasty, K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo'. But unlike all the other buildings in this long sequence of constructions, Rosalila is the only one that's completely and entirely preserved. It is, in fact, embalmed by the ancient Maya, and reflects the art and architecture, as well as the religious thought of the ancient Maya like no other building does.

NARRATOR: For nearly a century the Maya kings maintain Rosalila, retouching its ornate sculpture with fresh plaster and paint. The original grandeur and beauty of Rosalila is restored in this full-scale model in the Copan museum.

A subsequent Maya king carefully buried Rosalila intact within a newer temple pyramid—the ultimate expression of his reverence. But while Rosalila was still in use, the kings of Copan would worship there, conjuring the wisdom and power of Yax K'uk Mo'.

RICARDO AGURCIA FASQUELLE: As the living king would walk into the Rosalila Temple, he would be entering the realm of the supernatural. This was a sacred cave, a passageway to the underworld and the world of the dead. And it was through ritual acts that the king would be able to communicate then with his dead ancestors. Normally this required bloodletting. It required the king to pierce himself with a stingray spine, either in the genitals, the tongue or in his ears. This sacred blood was then placed on paper or on cloth and was put inside of an incense burner. From this would spew smoke. And it was in this smoke that the king would have his vision, that his ancestor would come forth and share his wisdom and knowledge with him. In Rosalila we have found the archaeological evidence for these rituals. We have found the incense burners, the stingray spines, jade flowers and the incense itself, proving therefore, that this was a doorway to those ancient ancestors for the living kings of Copan.

NARRATOR: But how long could the legacy of Yax K'uk Mo' sustain a dynasty? By the time of 18 Rabbit, the 13th ruler of Copan, the city reaches the height of its power. Copan has vassal cities in Quirigua, Los Higos, and Rio Amarillo. 18 Rabbit extends Copan's sacred geography far beyond the Acropolis and Great Plaza, erecting monuments deep into the valley.

Along the Great Plaza of Copan, Ruler 13 dedicates rows of these stelae or as the Maya call them, big stones. Each one marks the sacred passage of time and describes the ritual the king performs at that time.

Just at the edge of the Great Plaza is the site of the most sacred of these rituals, the ballgame. The game was played on two levels, within the mythological Maya underworld, and here, on Copan's ball court. It was a game that often ended in the ritual beheading of the defeated team. The loser's skull sometimes replaced the ball.

MARY MILLER (Yale University ): The Maya ballgame lay at the heart of religious ritual. And when the Copan king took the court against his enemy, they were playing for stakes of life and death. But in this the one who controlled the ball was the one who was also controlling the sun. For the ball was like the sun, moving in and out of the underworld. And when finally the winner could be determined, and the victim was slain, it was his blood, the defeated one's blood, that would seal the deal and keep the sun in perpetual motion.

NARRATOR: For over 400 years, this elaborate system of ceremony and sacrifice secured power for the kings and ruling elite of Copan and other Maya cities. So what happened to this potent dynasty?

Ironically, its very success led to its downfall. The story of Copan's decline is written between the lines of the 2200 glyphs carved into the massive stone blocks that form the 90-foot-tall Hieroglyphic Stairway.

The 61st and final step of the stairway is dedicated to 18 Rabbit. He ruled for 42 prosperous years. To celebrate completion of Copan's Great Ball Court, one spring day in the year 738, he goes looking for sacrificial victims to play ball. Unfortunately for 18 Rabbit, the tables turn and the king of Quirigua, one of Copan's vassal cities, captures 18 Rabbit and beheads him. The Hieroglyphic Stairway, the monument meant to celebrate the divine power of Yax K'uk Mo's dynasty, suddenly takes on a new purpose.

BARBARA FASH (Harvard University): The text of the Hieroglyphic Stairway is a history of the dynasty starting with Yax K'uk Mo'. But also, interestingly, is a phrase about the decapitation and demise of 18 Rabbit the 13th ruler at the hands of Quirigua. And so at that point then, the stairway seems to become somewhat of a propaganda tool for the dynasty to reestablish its power after that defeat.

NARRATOR: Smoke Shell, the 14th king of Yax K'uk Mo's dynasty, builds the colossal Hieroglyphic Stairway to demonstrate his authority and assure his people all is well. But as soon as archeologists start excavating the Stairway in the 1890s, they find its shoddy construction contradicts the propaganda.

BARBARA FASH: The archaeological investigation of the stairway has shown that the mortar the ancient Maya used to put it together originally was some of the weakest at the site. And so the irony of the stairway is that here we have this grandiose statement to the power and glory of the Copan dynasty, but it's one of the first buildings to probably collapse.

NARRATOR: Over the next 100 years the power of the dynasty continues to decline. In a last desperate attempt, Yax Pasah, the 16th and final King of Copan, tries to resurrect Copan's former glory by commissioning the carving of Altar Q.

Altar Q is the ultimate symbol of the continuity of Yax K'uk Mo's regime, invoking his power through building, blood and sacrifice. But even the Maya gods seem to be saying that it is time for the dynasty to end.

DAVE STUART: Altar Q, with its 16 portraits of the rulers of Copan, is much more than just a visual king list. All of the kings are shown in a remarkable symmetry that reflects cosmology and its combination with history in the Maya sense of the world. There are four kings on each of the four sides. And I think the lord who dedicated this stone certainly was aware of the fact that he could construct a monument that would show all of his ancestors in such a remarkable pattern of symmetry that reflected the cosmos, the cardinal directions and the four points. And one gets a sense from this stone also that there is a sense of destiny, a profound sense of destiny in Maya history—a beginning and an end point. Yax K'uk Mo' is the founder. Yax Pasah is the closing ruler who receives the emblem from the ancestor on this side of the stone. And so we can conceive, I think, of Copan's history as coming to an end almost automatically with the 16th ruler. What came afterwards was essentially the collapse of the dynasty. And anything that would have come afterwards would not have fit into this perfect scheme.

NARRATOR: It is the end of the Ninth Baktun. The dynasty of Yax K'uk Mo' has endured an entire 400-year cycle.

The new Baktun will be a time of upheaval and change. Even as the dynasty's power declines, Copan's population is on the rise. Forests and fields are destroyed as more people compete for dwindling resources. Archeologists find an increasing number of infant and adolescent graves from this period, an indication that Copan had fallen on hard times.

Yax Pasah dies in 820. Excavations at his funerary temple show it is ransacked and burned. The burning of Yax Pasah's temple marks the official demise of Yax K'uk Mo's dynasty. In Maya writing the glyph for the end of a bloodline is a burning temple.

The last carved monument at Copan is this stone, Altar L. Dated 822, it shows Yax Pasah passing power to a king who never rules, on an altar that is never completed.

Within a hundred-year period, many of the great Maya cities fall by invasion. Others, like Copan, collapse from within. The regal ritual centers are empty and the stones of their mighty temples lie scattered around a ghost town. The people of Copan and many Maya centers abandon the cities and retreat into the jungle.

Yet the legacy of Yax K'uk Mo' lives on—in the carved stones of the great city of Copan, where archaeologists piece together the history of his dynasty; in the millions of Maya living in Central America, speaking Maya dialects, and performing ceremonies that echo the distant glory of Copan and its Holy Lords.

The spirits of Yax K'uk Mo' and the mighty Maya, one of the greatest civilizations of ancient times, continue to haunt the Copan Valley and all of the Americas forever.

What was it like to be one of the first explorers to lay eyes on Copan? Read the first person account of John Lloyd Stevens, who stumbled upon the ruins in 1839. Log onto NOVA's Web site at PBS.org or America Online, keyword PBS.

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Source: PBS

Documentary Description

Sixteen hundred years ago, a mysterious left-handed warrior seized control of the Mayan city of Copán, founding a dynasty that would last for 400 years. Eventually the Maya abandoned Copán and all other Mayan cities, which lay undisturbed for over 1,000 years. Then, in the 19th century, explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood stumbled on the vine-strangled remains of huge complexes of temples and monuments covered with strange portraits and hieroglyphs. In this program, NOVA takes viewers deep into the Central American rain forest to the resurrected ruins of Copán, a once majestic jewel of Mayan civilization which was inexplicably abandoned over a thousand years ago.


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