Two clues from an ancient skeleton led a research team headed by Professor of Anthropology Robert J. Sharer to think they had an extraordinary find.
The researchers were burrowing under the mound of a major Mayan ruin deep in a tropical forest, participating in the Early Copán Acropolis Program, a cooperative effort between the University of Pennsylvania and the Honduran government to explore the mound's interior.
Copán has yielded works -- pottery, bas reliefs, hieroglyphics -- that caught the attention of National Geographic, which ran a piece, including a pull-out history of Meso-America, in the December 1997 issue.
"The findings have important implications for understanding the origin and development of Classic Maya polities and pre-industrial state systems in general," Sharer said.
Back under the mound, the team found the skeleton inside one of the earliest structures at the lowest levels of the Copán Acropolis, later built over and ultimately topped by a pyramid.
The depth of the building suggested it had been built not long after 400 A.D., the approximate date the the Copán acropolis was founded.
The skeleton's two clues were a right arm deformed by a break that had never healed and a jade bar pectoral or chest ornament. Bas relief images depicted the founder of Copán dressed in just such a jade bar pectoral. And, he wore his shield on his right arm, perhaps to obscure just such a deformity.
The find is consistent with hieroglyphics found at the site that suggest where the founder, named K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', or Sun-faced Precious Quetzal Macaw, was buried.
Other finds include the bones of a noble woman -- possibly old Sun-faced's wife -- and carved and painted works in pristine condition. The two burial sites are still being worked on, and probably will be for another year, Sharer said recently, adding that the University helps support the work.
The Acropolis, which rises 100 feet above the bottomlands of the nearby river, grew to that height as successive rulers built new buildings over older ones, sometimes breaking down the earlier ones and sometimes building over whole structures. A governmental center, it may have ruled in its heyday some 20,000 subjects -- farmers who lived in pole-and-thatch houses, craftsmen and tradesmen, and an elite who lived in palaces. The researchers say Copán was abandoned probably by 900 A.D.
Sharer, and David W. Sedat, research specialist in the American Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, began digging into the earliest parts of the mound in 1991. One of their earliest major discoveries were the stone-carved hieroglyphics, still in pristine condition, stating where the body and the buildings of the founding king lay -- beneath the very center of the Acropolis.
"Penn's Copán Acropolis project is the first research to document the full development of a Classic period Maya royal center and find the royal buildings and courts associated with a dynastic founder and his immediate successors," Sharer said.
Originally published on January 14, 1998