From Founding to Fate

K’uk Mo’ began his journey to becoming a Mayan king on, or September 5, 426 when he took the God scepter. It was at this time that he earned the title of K’inich.   He arrived at Copan on or September 8, 427 (Sharer and Traxler 2006:342).  This is the record on Altar Q of the founding of Copan from the ancient Maya people.   He came from a city far away, perhaps Tikal.  Though a foreigner, he laid the foundation for a society that would survive 400 years.  During his time as king, he established trade or contact with people from far away including Tikal, Teotihuacan, and Kaminaljuyu.  His accomplishments during life were recorded the Motmot Marker as well as Xukpi Stone.  He was a warrior who fought for his position in society and worked hard to maintain this status though it may have been hard on him physically.  In AD 437, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ died and was buried within the Hunal Tomb.  His son honored his death and his accomplishments in life by building Yehnal.  This building placed both him and his son within the cosmology of Copan, ensuring their continued importance to the people of the city.  Even after his death, Yax K’uk Mo’ continued to be honored as the founder of the city through the construction of consecutive buildings over his place of rest; the Margarita Structure, Chilean, Celeste, Rosalila, and finally, Temple 16.  Temple 16 was built by Yax Pasaj, sixteenth ruler of Copan.  Along with the pyramid, Yax Pasaj built Altar Q which was dedicated on or the year AD775.  Altar Q told the founding story of Copan and depicted all 16 kings.  It specifically depicted Yax K’uk Mo’ as he handed the God scepter to Yax Pasaj, indicating that Yax Pasaj was fated to rule and illustrating the lasting effect of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ on the people of Copan.

altar Q


What’s in the Bones?

The burial in the Hunal Tomb continues to tell us more about Copán.  While the objects tell us about the life style and daily activities of the community, the bones tell us more about the individual.  Marks of the toils and experiences of the deceased can be read through the bones, telling of early life, habits and death.  This is examined through the condition of the bones as well as through modifications and even isotopic analysis.  By looking at the bones, parts of the story of the individual can be revealed.

Copan; Honduras; Maya; Yax Kuk Mo, Tomb; Robert Sharer, founder, burial
Body modification was a fairly common practice in Mesoamerica before the 400s.  This modification included cranial deformation and tooth modification.  The reasoning behind these modifications is not clear today however evidence suggests that it was restricted to the elite classes as some modifications involved rare and valuable items such as jade.  It has been proposed that the modification of the skull is meant to imitate an ear of corn, a very important symbol to the Mesoamericans.  While Yax K’uk Mo’ does not show signs of cranial deformation, he does show signs of dental modifications.  His teeth were notched and inlaid with jade disks (Sharer and Traxler 2006:346).  The purpose of notching teeth is not known however it is an important visual symbol that this man was an important figure in Copán and was able to afford the jade.  It also shows that he was willing to undergo this modification in order to differentiate himself from the commoners.  It is possible that this process had an important cosmological significance but that significance is unknown.
The physical state of the bones tells us about what happened to the body during life.  The bones indicate that this was a male around the ages of 55 to 70 years old upon his burial (Sharer and Traxler 2006:346).  Some ways that gender can be determined by bones is the shape of the mandible as well as the pelvis which differs in size and shape between males and females.  Age can be determined by examining fused bones as well as looking at the osteons.  Certain bones fuse when the individual reaches different ages for example the clavicle fuses between the ages of 19 and 30.  For more information on determining age and gender, go to this website.


The bones of this individual also suffered a great deal of wear and tear throughout his life.  He suffered several injuries that left skeletal evidence.  He suffered a severe parry fracture of the right forearm, also called a Monteggia fracture or a nightstick fracture (Price et al. 2010: 18).  This fracture is defined as a dislocation of the proximal radioulnar joint in association with a forearm fracture (Putigna)  This type of injury very uncommon and makes up less than 5% of forearm injuries today (Putigna).  It is often caused by blocking a blow from a weapon indicating that he may have suffered this injury while fighting.   This injury could also have resulted from falling and landing on the forearm.  He also suffered from a dislocated left shoulder and fractures to the sternum and skull (Sharer and Traxler 2006:346).  Any of these injuries could have been the result of daily activities or accidents but they could also be the results of fighting or warring.  None of these injuries appears to have killed the man in the tomb because they were healed at the time of death.


Isotopic analysis can indicate where and individual lived and what they ate for most of their lives.  The strontium isotope analysis of this individual indicates that he grew up near Tikal before coming to Copán (Sharer and Traxler 2006:347).  Strontium isotopes are absorbed from the environment through water and plant food.  The isotope is then incorporated into the bone and enamel that is being formed at that time.  Archaeologists are then able to analyze the layers of bone and detect the layers of the isotope.  The ratio between 87 strontium and 86 strontium differs by location so different sites have unique ratios (Fowler).  By this method, you can identify where individuals lived by the isotope ratio they incorporate into their bones.  This supports the idea that Yax K’uk Mo’ was a foreigner who founded and ruled Copán.  It also helps to explain some of the Teotihuacan influence in the area because Tikal was greatly influenced by Teotihuacan as well. Image

The bones of the Hunal Tomb tell the story of a man born in Tikal who came to Copán and ruled.  He suffered many injuries along the way from fighting, accidents, or every day work.  He lived to be an older man but was revered by the people and held an elite status.  This tells the story of the founder of Copán.

Goods Among the Bones

An abundance of artifacts were found within the Hunal tomb.  These artifacts allow archaeologists to begin to understand the life and history of the man that was buried there.  Many artifacts that are buried with the dead have cosmological significance that indicates what ideas and items were held important culturally in Copan.  Connections can be found between the past and other cities that tell the story of how the city was founded.

The body of Yax K’uk Mo’ was placed on a large stone bier in a supine position, meaning that he was lying on his back (Sharer and Traxler 2006:344).  Under this bier, a large cache of offertory vessels was found, many of which did not originate in the Copan Valley (Sharer and Traxler 2006:347).  This is significant because it indicates that Copan interacted with other cities in the region either through trade or a more direct mean such as actual descent from the ruling elite in Tikal and Teotihuacan.  Two of the vessels in the cache come from Tikal while five come from Central Mexico (Sharer and Traxler 2006:347).  Some of the vessels are tripods which are associated with Teotihuacan.  A large deer effigy vessel of ceramic was also found in the burial.  This vessel contains traces of cacao indicating that the cacao was used as an offering at burial, connecting the elite with Kaminaljuyu of the Guatemalan highlands (Sharer and Traxler 2006:437).  The imagery of a deer is often associated with Mayan rulers, reinforcing the idea that this burial was one of the elite in Copan (Bell et al. 1999:32).Copan-Deer-Vessel
Jewelry and clothing are often indicators of status within society because it is a visual declaration to those who view it.  For this reason, clothing and jewelry are important in burials as well to give a visual representation of the individual’s status during life.  The man in the burial wore a Teotihuacan-style shell platelet helmet (Sharer and Traxler 2006:346).  This headdress is similar to the headdress depicted on Stela 31 in Tikal, showing a connection between the two sites.  The burial in the Hunal tomb had an abundance of jewelry indicating that the individual buried was able to afford these status symbols.  A jaguar claw anklet was found on one of the legs of the man, a clear association between jaguars and rulers (Zorich 2009).   A collar-shaped pendant decorated with a jade mosaic was found near the body (Sharer and Traxler 2006:347).  The pendant had the hieroglyphs “yuh wi’ite’” which means root tree.  Root tree is a name that is associated only with the founder of Copan, contributing to the identity of the buried man as Yax K’uk Mo’(Sharer and Traxler 2006:348).  A second necklace was found on the body along the pelvis.  This necklace was jade with the carving of a monkey head symbolizing the word “ahau,” which means lord (article).  Another jade object was found placed in his mouth.  This piece was carved with a matt design and the symbol that means “Eye of the Sun,” both associated with rulership (Sharer and Traxler 2006:346).  Both the jade necklace and the carved jade piece are important indicators that individual with which they were buried was the ruler of Copan.  A large jade bar pectoral was found in association with burial and appears similar to the jade bar that is depicted in the portrait of the founder on Altar Q (Sharer and Traxler 2006:347).  The clothing and jewelry that were preserved are good indicators of the importance of the individual because they depict images reserved only for the elite of Mayan society and show that this individual was revered by the people who buried him.

Cosmology plays a significant role in explaining Mayan society and how they perceived their world.  Almost all items found within the burial have cosmological significance that archaeologists are able to study in order to understand the status of the buried individual and daily life.  The stingray spines found near the leg of the man were used for bloodletting rituals that were done by the elite of Mayan society (Bell et al. 1999:33).  They also indicate trade of stingray spines, which were not local items.  Another item that was traded a great distance was a spiny oyster shell with a jade bead within.  This oyster shell represents the watery underworld while the bead represents the human soul, placing the individual cosmologically in the underworld after death (Zorich 2009).

The connection between other states and Copan is shown through the foreign goods found in the Hunal tomb.  The goods also serve as a strong indicator, cosmologically, that the individual buried in the Hunal tomb is indeed Yax K’uk Mo’, the founder of Copan.

The Temple within the Temples


The structures surrounding the Hunal tomb are confusing because they were built in many stages and were not always directly on top of the previous buildings.  We may not cover all of the buildings associated with the tomb.  Many of the buildings CopanMapthumbail01were also destroyed as new structures were built. The Hunal tomb is found under Temple 16 in the image on the right.

The Hunal Structure was built prior to the burial within it.  It may at one time have been the house of the first king, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (Traxler et al. 1999:5).  The burial occurred around AD 437.  This date is associated with Xukpi Stone which was later used in the construction of the Margarita Structure (Bell et all. 2004:133).  This stone is inscribed with the date 437 and was part of the funerary rites.  The Mot Mot marker supports this date because it was a monument dedicated by K’uk Mo’ in AD 435 (Evans 2008:348).  The marker was found at a different location, Temple 26 (Traxler et al. 1999:11).  The Hunal Structure was created in the style of Teotihuacan, showing that their influence was wide at this time (Martin and Grube 2008:193).  We will go into the detail of the tomb itself in a later post.

Yehanl was built over the Hunal Structure during the reign of Popol Hol, the son of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ as a funerary monument to his father, the founder of Copan (Traxler et al. 1999:11).  This monument was built in the style of Tikal and Peten (Martin and Grube 2008:195).  The position of the structure is also significant because it shows signs of the significance of Maya cosmology.  The stairway faced the west, the direction associated with death and the underworld (Traxler et al. 1999:10).  This direction would continue to play an important role in later structures.   There was also a façade featuring the mask of the sun god (Martin and Grube 2008:195).  This may be because he was called the Sun King.  His name translates to “Sun-eyed Resplendent Quetzal Macaw”(Zorich 2009).  This theme is seen in later structures.

The Margarita Structure was built soon after these first two structures and covered both the Hunal Structure and Yehnal.  This may have been the original location of the Xukpi Stone (Sharer and Traxler 2006:348).  The structure consists of two chambers, a lower chamber and a higher chamber.  ThK'uknamee Red Lady, thought to be the wife of K’uk Mo’ and the mother of Popol Hol is buried in the lower chamber.  The upper chamber was used for many years for offerings while the body of the Red Lady was reburied later and covered in cinnabar (Sharer and Traxler 2006:349-350).  The western façade of the structure features hieroglyphs, pictured to the right, which spell K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ (Martin and Grube 2008:196).

Two platforms were later constructed to the cover the summit of the Margarita Structure.  The first was the Chilan platform, built between AD 480-490 (Traxler et al.1999:11).  The second platform covered Chilan and was called Celeste (Traxler et al. 1999:13).

Around AD 553, Ruler 10 built another temple on top of the Margarita and Celeste structures, encompassing all previous buildings (Traxler et al. 1999:4).  This temple was called Rosalila and is pictured belowe.  It is one of the best preserved temples because it was later encased in yet another structure.  Rosalila was given its name because of the colors decorating the outside and inside; red, yellow, and green (Evans 2008:306).  This temple is an excellent example of Maya architecture as well because it remained fairly intact.  The outside of Rosalila was decorated using plaster (Martin and Grube 2008:199).  The floor depicts the face and headdress of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’(Zorich 2009).  A reproduction of the temple Rosalila is at the museum at Copán.  It remained here for many years.rosalilaimage

Rosalila was covered in AD 775 by Ruler 16.  Temple 16 is the ruins that are seen at Copán today.  It underwent 7 phases in its creation (Zorich 2009).  This temple remained important and was a center ritual.  Outside of Temple 16 was an altar.  Altar Q was placed here by Yax Pasaj, the 16th ruler of Copán.  It was dedicated in AD 775 and commemorated the founder and the descendants of the founder.  The faces of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ and the rulers that followed him were featured on the altar.  When the altar was discovered, the remains of 15 jaguars were found underneath, indicating that the altar was of great importance when it was dedicated.  These jaguars may have signified the 15 rulers prior to Yax Pasaj.  He may have used both the temple and the altar to solidify his position of ruler in Copán by establishing his descent from the founder who was buried deep under all the temples and structures in the Hunal Tomb, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ (Sharer and Traxler 2006:488).3531297286_3ab5fdb51c_z


Hunal is a monument within a monument within a monument.  This burial dates to the early Classic Period of the Maya (AD 250-600). Copán is found along the Copán River in modern day Honduras in southeastern Mesoamerica, a region known to have severe earthquakes, active volcanocopan mapes, hurricanes, and electrical storms.  The terrain is mountainous with some river valleys.  It contains tropical forests as well as swamplands and some dry areas (Evans 2008:570). A stela, an upright standing monument, found in Copán indicates that it was one of the four capitals of the Maya world during the Late Classic Maya Period (AD 600-900) (Sharer and Traxler 2006:480). The tomb was found in 1996 and excavated from 1997-1999 by the Early Copán Acropolis Program.  The burial was found through the excavation of one of the structures near Hunal, the Margarita Tomb (Bell et al. 1999:32).  The tomb itself is believed to belong to Yax K’uk Mo’, the founder of the ruling dynasty at Copán.  He may have actually been from the nearby region of Tikal (Evans 2008:306).  It is not known for sure if the remains found in the tomb are actually Yax K’uk Mo’. If so, this would be the founder hunal tombof the capital of Copán.  This is important because Copán played a key role in the Maya world.  During the Late Classic Period, the Copán dynasty controlled much of the surrounding regions and controlled many key resources such as jade and obsidian (Sharer and Traxler 2006:476).  The burial itself is also very important because many material goods were preserved.  These goods provide information about the social structure as well as economy at the time of the burial.  Both skeletal remains and burial goods create an image of the lifestyle of the individual. It is a testament to the importance of this individual that the final monument for the Hunal burial was built almost 200 years later (Sharer and Traxler 2006:477).