Are all artifacts treasures?

Why is Copán a tourist destination?




What is archaeology?

Archaeologist at work

Archaeology is the study of how people lived in the past. People who study archaeology are called archaeologists and they are interested in everything about people from the past: how they built their houses, their art, religion, food etc. They don t only want to know how the rulers and their families lived, but also what common people ate or how women dressed.
Archaeologists learn about the past investigating remains of buildings and the artifacts they find within them. These are all remains of past cultures. They can be pieces of ceramics, bones, buildings, murals or any other object. The archaeologists learn most from these artifacts if they find them exactly on the spot where they were left behind. If you find for example a piece of pottery in what used to be a kitchen, it s logical to think that the pottery comes from some pot that was used to cook. But a piece of pottery without any information on where it was found could just be anything!
In order to study the people of the past, you have to remember that despite the differences, they were very much like us. They ate, they slept, they fell in love, they liked to laugh and dance and they also had to use the bathroom, just like us!
Copán in Centruy XIX

How to investigate an archaeological site?

First of all, the archaeologist selects a site where he expects to find some interesting remains. Sometimes these sites are selected because there're a lot of stories going on around it (oral history), other times farmers have found objects on the land.
The next step is to measure the site and make a detailed map. Then the archaeologist starts to excavate, digging around very carefully to see what is underneath the first layers of dirt. If he or she finds something, the object or artifact is cleaned, labeled and stored away after the exact place where it was found is drawn on the map.
The artifacts are usually stored in a laboratory or center of investigation where they are measured, photographed, drawn and then properly archived. Sometimes chemical tests are done to see how old they are. If the artifact is a bone, it is tested to see if it is human or animal. When all the artifacts are safely stored away and the excavation is done, the archaeologist gathers all the information obtained from the investigation and starts writing his or her theories on how people used to live in the past!

Are all artifacts treasures?

Most of the artifacts that are found are no treasures at all. It is possible that during an excavation thousands of small pieces of pottery are found, but never so much as a single mug. Or maybe hundreds of pieces of bones are found that are definitely not interesting enough to exhibit in a museum. But that doesn t mean they're not important! For example, the fact that turkey bones where found at several Maya sites means that the Mayas probably ate turkey. And the fact that no chicken bone was ever found means that the Mayas never had the pleasure of eating a piece of fried chicken!
All this information is very important, but hardly interesting enough to exhibit in a museum. Who would be interested in seeing thousands of fragments of turkey bones? In the museums and books about the Mayas we only see a very small part of everything that was ever found. But remember: just because an artifact isn't that spectacular, it doesn't mean it gives us important information about how the Mayas lived.

Is it adventurous to be an archaeologist?

Indiana Jones
Every archaeologist will probable tell you he or she has the best job in the world! And sure enough, it is very exciting to try to reveal the mysteries of the ancient Mayas and other peoples; to crawl through tunnels hidden under temples; to find royal tombs or decipher Maya glyphs & Sometimes the work is dangerous and there are encounters with hairy spiders and poisonous snakes. And how amazing and wonderful to discover that one special object or building that sheds a whole new light on what we knew about the Mayas...
But not every archaeologist is looking for an important temple or the tomb of a king. Oftentimes, the work of an archaeologist is really boring, excavating thousands of pieces of pottery under the soaring sun or in the pouring rain. O what a bout drawing hundreds of bone fragments in the lab? But every archaeologist will tell you it's all worth for learning more about the people from the past!
Archaeologist at work

How can trash be important?

Archaeologists are very happy when they find a place where people from the past deposited their trash, because it can give them a lot of information. Imagine a future archaeologist going through our trash: he'll know exactly what we like to eat from what he finds: chips bags, soda bottles, candy wrappers & And he'll also know that we don't always use the trash can to deposit our waste.

Our trash!
Piec of Pottery
Piece of Pottery
Now imagine the things the Mayas threw out: leftovers from their supper, old toys, broken pottery, sandals that were no longer fashionable, a broken necklace or a ruined loincloth. Not all this trash has been conserved. Of the food, for example, only the bones remain. Everything made of wood, paper or fabric has probable rotted away without leaving a trace. But stone, ceramics and some pieces of leather may have been conserved and now form pieces of a puzzle about the life of the Mayas from the past.

How did archaeology evolve in Copán?

Sylvanus Morley
The first archaeological investigation in Copán took place in the year 1834. Since that moment, hundreds of specialists have investigated the site. Every time a new discovery is made, the archeologists know more about the past.
The first archaeologists made many a mistake. They believed, for example, that the men depicted on Altar Q represented famous astronomers, but now we know they are the first sixteen rulers of Copán. It's not that the first archaeologists weren't as smart, it's just that they didn't have the information we have now and neither did they have the fancy equipment and technology that is used these days in archaeology.

When the first archaeologists came to Copán they were impressed with the glyphs they found, but they had no idea it was a way of writing. They thought the glyphs were just for decoration. Nowadays, the archaeologist can decipher about 85% of the glyphs and that is incredibly important, because these glyphs give us a lot of information, such as dates and the names of the rulers.
Because of all the new discoveries we think now very differently about the Mayas than a hundred years ago. But the archaeologists still don't know everything. It is very possible that tomorrow s discovery will change archaeologists' theories yet again!

Sylvanus Morley and team

Why is Copán a tourist destination?

Since the ruins of Copán were first discovered, the place has always attracted visitors. The first explorers came to the dense jungle to look for the mysterious buildings and statues. Then scientists came who took a close look at the monuments and artifacts. When the town of Copán grew bigger and the roads were getting better, more and more people found their way to Copán to see with their own eyes the traces of the Maya past.
Today, thousands of visitors from all over the world come to the beautiful archaeological park of Copán. It's a gorgeous place where you can marvel about Maya culture or just enjoy the natural surroundings. Of course the archaeologists keep working in this site, but more than anything it has become an important tourist destination.
In the past, people traveled on horseback and had to cross many a river or creek. They spent the night in the small village of Copán Ruinas in the houses of local farmers and shared their food.
These days, the visitors arrive by bus or car and stay in one of the many hotels in town. They eat in restaurants and buy souvenirs at the market or in the shops. Copán Ruinas has changed a lot in the last few years and all of it because of the heritage of its Maya ancestors. If it wasn't for the Mayas, all these people would never visit the town!

Head of a sky bearer, Archaeological Park

Did you know that...

Tatiana Proskouriakoff
Tatiana Proskouriakoff was a famous Russian art historian who worked at several Maya sites about fifty years ago. She wasn't just a very enthusiastic historian and archaeologist, but also a gifted artist. Her paintings of what she thought the Maya world looked like in the past are beautiful and very famous.
The first archaeologists who made the site of Copán known world wide were John Lloyd Stephens and the artist Frederic Catherwood who visited Copán in 1839. Thanks to the beautifully illustrated book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, may people learned about Maya culture in a time that little was known yet and archaeological sites were not valued much. John Lloyd Stephens bought the site in Copán for no more than $ 50!!!
Painting by Catherwood
Cathedral in Copán Ruinas
In 1576 the Spaniard Diego García de Palacio described the Maya ruins in a letter to the king of Spain, Philip II. He mentioned the name “Copán, which at the time was what the nearby small village was called. When this village grew, the inhabitants named it San José el Obrero but when the Mayas ruins became more famous, the town became know as Copán Ruinas, and that's what its name still is, both that of the town as well as the municipality.