Discovered in 1570, the ruins of Copán in western Honduras is one of the most important sites of the Mayan civilization. Not excavated until the 19th century, the ruined citadel and imposing public squares reveal the three main stages of development before the city was abandoned in the early 10th century.
Discovered in 1570 by Diego García de Palacio, the Maya site of Copán — located in the Copán Department of western Honduras, not far from the border with Guatemala — is one of the most important sites of the Mayan civilization. The site functioned as the political, civil and religious center of the Copán Valley. It was also the political center and cultural focus of a larger territory that covered the southeast portion of the Maya area and its periphery.
The first evidence of population in the Copán Valley dates back to 1500 B.C., but the first Maya-Cholan immigration from the Guatemalan Highlands is dated around 100 A.D. The Maya leader Yax Kuk Mo, coming from the area of Tikal (Petén), arrived in the Copán Valley in 427 A.D., and started a dynasty of 16 rulers that transformed Copán into one of the greatest Maya cities during the Classic Maya Period.
The great period of Copán, paralleling that of other major Mayan cities, occurred during the Classical period, AD 300-900. Major cultural developments took place with significant achievements in mathematics, astronomy and hieroglyphic writing. The archaeological remains and imposing public squares reveal the three main stages of development, during which evolved the temples, plazas, altar complexes and ball courts that can be seen today, before the city was abandoned in the early 10th century.
The Mayan city of Copán as it exists today is composed of a main complex of ruins with several secondary complexes encircling it. The main complex consists of the Acropolis and important plazas.
Among the five plazas are the Ceremonial Plaza, with an impressive stadium opening onto a mound with numerous richly sculptured monoliths and altars; the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza, with a monumental stairway at its eastern end that is one of the outstanding structures of Mayan culture. On the risers of this 100 m (328 ft) wide stairway are more than 1,800 individual glyphs which constitute the longest known Mayan inscription. The Eastern Plaza rises a considerable height above the valley floor. On its western side is a stairway sculptured with figures of jaguars originally inlaid with black obsidian.
From what is known today, the sculpture of Copán appears to have attained a high degree of perfection. The Acropolis, a magnificent architectural complex, appears today as a large mass of rubble which came about through successive additions of pyramids, terraces and temples.
The world's largest archaeological cut runs through the Acropolis. In the walls of the cut, it is possible to distinguish floor levels of previous plazas and covered water outlets. The construction of the Great Plaza and the Acropolis reflects a prodigious amount of effort because of the size of its leveled and originally paved expanse of three hectares and the latter because of the enormous volume of its elevated mass, which rises some 30 m (98 ft) from the ground.