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The sculptures of Copán March 22nd, 2015 by

The Maya recycled their temples, building new pyramids over the top of older ones, cannibalizing the sacred works of a previous generation. Archaeologist who wanted to see the inner pyramids without destroying the outer ones had to tunnel into the pyramids. It was a gutsy thing to do. The pyramids weren’t meant to be bored into. The tunnels could have collapsed. A world class site like Copán could have been destroyed. But archaeologists like William and Barbara Fash were successfully digging the tunnels when I lived in Honduras in the 1990s. You couldn’t go inside then, but now you can.

They named one of those inner temples Rosalía, and learned enough about it to reconstruct it in a new sculpture museum at Copán. The recreated temple is painted a brilliant red, white, green and yellow paint, and is complete with giant masks of macaws (New World parrots).

The tunnels inside the Maya pyramids are dark and claustrophobic. You can barely see the stucco sculptures of macaws on the faces of the inner temples, but it is still worth going inside, if only to be in the heart of a vanished world.

Macaws still live at Copán, rescued from various cages across the country. The site guides all put a macaw feather on the tip of a pole, and armed with this handy invention, stroll around the site with their groups in tow. When they stop at a sculpture, the guides use the feathers to point at the delicate carvings on the stelae. It’s a nice trick, and strictly speaking, the feather even counts as a new, ICT (information and communication technology). All innovations need not be digital.

All the site is a stage for the guides who speak as proudly as if they had made Copán themselves.

I thought I was too smart for a guide. But I soon noticed that I was doing what all the other guide-less tourists do, walk around and snap photos. Copán must produce a million amateur photos a day, blurry and over-exposed or landscapes filled with flocks of people following a feather.

I imagined what fun it would be to be a guide, and how I would pepper my captives with fact and speculation. I would say things like “See this hole in the ground, next to the imaginatively named ‘Stela A’; it could have symbolized a cave, the entrance to the underworld. Perhaps a masked dancer leaped from here during ceremonies!”

Each stela is a stone portrait of a Maya king, in ceremonial regalia, such as jaguar pelt kilts, and trophy heads of slain enemies. The glyphs carved on the back of each sculpture are not just decorations. The Mesoamericans were one of three peoples who invented writing from scratch, along with the Sumerians and the Chinese. The glyphs on the stelae were texts, even if they look more like cartoon characters. In her book Forest of Kings, Laura Schele says that these words, written in stone, may have been read out loud during ceremonies in the plazas.

Culture is real, but so is human nature. Some of the things the Maya did strike us as distinctly “other,” like ceremonies where the king jabbed his penis with a stingray spine to get a blood offering. Yet sometimes Maya sculptures speak to us in ways that are comfortingly familiar, such as the life-like carving of a water bird with a fish flapping in its mouth.

Nowadays the guides stroll around Copán like the ancient kings and priests, “reading” the sculptures for an awed audience. It’s a vague mockery, an accidental imitation of an ancient performance. The original Maya act would have encouraged native farmers to keep bringing their produce to town and sending their sons off to die in wars that fed the kings’ ambitions. Today’s audience of global tourists is just looking for some blurry pictures to put on face book. The show goes on, and the tributary offerings continue as the tourists leave foreign currency in the economy of Honduras.

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