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Mayan Archaeology at Copan

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Mayan Archaeology at Copan

Archaeology at Copan moves at the pace of a tropical afternoon. That is to say, very slowly. Weeks of work by a crew of fifteen men and one woman amounts to only a few cubic meters of excavated earth. If one is in search for a career which has small chance of ever running out of work, I can fully recommend the field of archaeology- especially Mayan archaeology. I am confident that when New York City is a pile of ruins, and the heathen hoards have conquered and burned the civilized world, archaeologist will still be hard at work excavating the mysteries of the Maya. There will always be work for the archaeologist, and time only adds to the amount of research that has to be done.

I am now standing at the edge of the Copan site looking out at endless fields of un-excavated mounds – which are the buried remnants of this great city. Miles of archaeological ruins stretch out to the horizon of mountains beyond. Archaeological excavations have been going on at Copan for over a century, but the area that has been covered in this time is laughably small portion of what is still buried in the earth – buried in time. It would take the lifetime of a thousand archaeologists working 24 hours a day to even come close to excavating a minor portion of this site. Copan is a city – it stretches up into the mountains and beyond.

This ancient city of Copan has stories. Layer upon layer of human existence going back for hundreds, nay thousands of years. Like their pyramids, the Mayan culture was built upon the backs of its own history, until it became so heavy that it could only collapse.

Then the people ran back to the forests, ran to the northern cities, ran from the empire. Yes, it was a good run at civilization, but, as a famous archaeologist once said about the downfall of the Maya, “ruling powers have no natural defenses against those who simply walk away.”

I detect a certain amount of mania within the makeup of Mayan culture. They built and built, fought and fought, ever expanding the realm of control of their cities. The Maya did not live in an empire, but rather in individual city-states which continuously kept up on-going feuds with other cities. One king would topple another just to be toppled. Allies turned into enemies and back into allies. On and on and on, the story of the civilized human shown in microcosm.

This continued on for many generations, as the ancient Maya continued to alternately build and destroy their own kingdoms. Soon they depleted their natural resources. War, great cities, and feeding ever growing populations reek peril upon natural ecosystems in a way that was no different than today. The Maya were active, they built, destroyed, and then built again. They never seemed to sit still.

Chatwin’s theorys are ringing ever truer as each day of this excavation goes on. Perhaps human restlessness does find its outlets in other expressions if one does not change their landscape, does not migrate, perhaps they change what is around them in a way that is similar to traveling. I think of spring cleaning and the autumn restorations that are common in my own culture.

I think of Santoka Taneda:
“Too much contact with people brings conflict, hatred, and attachment. To rid myself of inner conflicts and hatred, I must walk.”

I return to Chatwin’s self-directed question: “Why do I become restless after a month in a single place, unbearable after two?”

Perhaps the Maya have lessons for the wall building possession havers of today.

Well, at least a bunch of documentary making dorks think so.

Pondering, pondering, as I laugh about the fact that John L. Stephens bought Copan for fifty bucks in 1839.

Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
March 13, 2008

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Filed under: Archaeology, Central America, Honduras

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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