Saturday Art and Archaeology: Copán Stelae
A feature of the Mayan site at Copán that attracts visitors from around the world is the field of stelae that have been carved to honor the rulers that put them and the temples up. These were called lakamtun, or ‘great stones’ by the Maya and were associated with a power that they attributed to the rulers. Those carved columns show the rulers of the area in their role at rituals, and have glyphs that establish their credentials to rule over the Mayan peoples and describe their heritage and role. Among them are found some of the most skillfully rendered art works created by Mayan craftsmen.
Starting at the left of the field visitors encounter first Stela A, then go on around the field through the various pillars carved to commemorate the various rules there.
Stela A is located in the Plaza de las Estellas. The original of this stela is in the Sculpture Museum. Stela A is perhaps the most beautiful of all the Stelae in Copán. It was dedicated on Long Count 18.104.22.168.12 (30 January, 731 CE). It portrays the 13th ruler of Copán Waxaklajun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit, see Maya ruler genealogy) carrying a two-headed centipede bar that is symbolically giving birth to sun deities. In the headdress is a woven mat design with four centipedes in the corners. Small figures that crouch at his feet and in his headdress seem to represent the sun at different stages of its daily and yearly cycles.
The inscription on Stela A outlines the erection of the monument on the Calendar Round date of 12 Ajaw 18 Kumk’u, the month period is also 1 day before the end of the solar year. It represents the convergence of several cycles at that time with the iconography predominantly a solar theme. The inscription continues on the west side, with the erection of the monument, its name – The Great Sun (solar deity), then a distance number of 60 days (3 winals). It continues with the dedication date of Stelae H (Calendar Round 4 Ajaw 18 Muwan’) which began the tzolk’in cycle. It then gives us the name of Stelae H, then launches into a very interesting passage. This passage tells what rituals 18 Rabbit performed in the 60 day tzolk’in division between Stelae H and A. It concerns the death, afterlife, and rites of veneration of an ancestral ruler – Cauc Chan or Fire
The walk through Copán’s field of commemorative art created to represent the progression of rules there will take us by many artworks that are now being studied and preserved. To protect them from the elements, many of the significant pillars and monuments have been taken into the museum there while their image has been replicated to stay on the field itself. Stela B has been less noted, but presents as compelling a presence, as intended by the artist: