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Unearthing Skeletons at Copan

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Unearthing Skeletons at Copan

Copan is the first archaeology site that I have worked on with the regular presence of human remains. Skeletons are growing out of the bottom of trenches as the soil is gingerly removed from their exteriors. The Central American and Japanese excavators stand over the remains and talk shop. Digging up the ancient remains of humans is all part of the day’s work for these weathered Mayan archaeologists.

I cut my archaeological teeth in the forests of the United States and on the Manabi Coasts of Ecuador. A big site for me is a few post molds, a couple good hearths, and a scatter of lithic remnants and tools. Copan has pyramids. Copan is a city of mortar and art and sporting courts. Copan is far beyond anything that I have experienced in archaeology.

As I peered down into an excavation unit on my second day of working at Copan, I found the discarded remnants of a crushed human skull tucked away on the inside of a broken clay vessel. A single tooth sat neatly on top of the clotted, white flecked, and crushed mass of skull that laid untouched below the earth for centuries.

I gasped. The other workers joked, jested, and went right on talking about penises, cockfights, and girls- the usual conversational fare among archaeologists. My face felt stark white, as they laughed at the musical jests of an old Honduran excavator who was making up little songs about the ancient family whose child’s tomb he was uncovering with a curved, stainless steel dental tool. It quickly became apparent to me that these Mayan archaeologist excavate human bodies on a regular basis, and the corpse of a couple ancient babies was no reason to put a leash on the laughter of a good ol’ live-long-day.

I stood watch as three small skeletons began to take shape out of the sandy, brown earth. I took some notes, drew plan maps, and observed the excavation rituals as the soil was ever being chipped away to reveal the bodies more clearly. With an excited face the Japanese human-osteology specialist, who was sized and shaped like a baby sumo wrestler, nimbly stuffed himself into the excavation trench and hovered his face directly above the bones as he declared that he was gazing upon the rib cage of a small child. As the dirt was strewn off, it became apparent that he was.

The excavation unit where I have spent the majority of time these past few days was nearby to the one that I just mentioned. For the better part of a week I drew the plan maps of a rock filled pit feature that sat almost centered within the excavation unit. For days I drew the layers this circular rock pit that went down into the earth over a meter. We thought that was a burial. We were right.

Today we reached the bottom of this feature.

There, under the final large slab of rock that was lifted away, was the remains of another human skeleton. This one was of a man and was all tucked up with his knees pull up to what was once his chest. I thought for a moment about why skeletons from most ancient cultures are usually all tucked up in this fashion. My pondering arrived at the conclusion that if I was going to bury a body I would want to dig the smallest hole possible. So ball it up!

The excavators quickly went to work uncovering the skeleton in full, as they debated about what bone corresponds to what body part. Most of the excavation crew was now gathered around this burial. As they picked about the skeleton, the former occupant of the bones laid upon his side with mouth fully agape. I do not think that he could have closed his mouth even if he tried, as he no longer had a lower mandible. For all the poking and prodding that the archaeologist were subjecting him to on this day, he did not squirm an inch. He was taking the excavation like a champ.

I stood above the trench and observed the operation. I began wondering about who this skeleton was and what he did and how he died. My mind was wrapped into the depths of the past, as I learned how to sex a human skeleton and how to uncover their bones.


Excavating the works of the ancients excites any hunter of antiquities, but to úncover the dried up and barren remains of the ancients themselves seems to be an absolute delight to these Mayan archaeologists.

Perhaps Chatwin was correct when he proposed that the entire study of archaeology is cursed.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
March 7, 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 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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