The Great Hieroglyphic Staircase at Copan, Honduras

Hieroglyphic Staircase at Copan

William Fash writes: "The final version of the Hieroglyphic Stairway was built by Ruler 13 [18-Rabbit or Waxaklajun Ub'ah K'awil], not, as we and others had believed, in the years following his death. In re-modelling this ancient and revered edifice to honor the memory of Ruler 12, Waxaklajun Ub'ah K'awil felt compelled to compensate for burying Stela 63, and the Papagayo step, by creating a much more complete record of the city's dynastic history.

In this innovative effort, he cited the birth, accession to power, important rituals and other achievements, parentage statements, and death of the most distinguished rulers in the city. Special interest was focused on his long-lived predecessor, Ruler 12.

Ruler 15 [Smoke Shell, whose stela stands at the foot of the stairway] subsequently doubled the length and historical content of the stairway inscription, and was likely also responsible for creating the balustrades that framed it. It was he who dedicated the final version of the temple of Structure 26, with its impressive temple façades, roof crest, and extraordinary interior inscription."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 144-146

Ruler 12, Smoke Imix, near the base of the stair, his face inside the war mask jaws

Hieroglyphic Staircase

In this portrait near the base of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Ruler 12 looks out through a huge open-jawed war mask surrounded by a feathered headdress. His tomb has been discovered inside this structure.

"David Stuart has deciphered texts on the Hieroglyphic Stairway that say the steps 'cover the tomb of the Copán lord' (Step 1), describe the burial of Ruler 12 (Step 5), and state that the Hieroglyphic Stairway was dedicated in honor of the memory of Ruler 12, by his successor [18-Rabbit]."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 111

Effigies of Copan's Rulers from Smoke Imix's Tomb Inside Hieroglyphic Stairway

Pottery Figures

Four of the twelve incensario lids which were found next to the tomb of the Ruler 12 [Smoke Imix or Smoke Jaguar] inside the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway (10L-26).

"Finally, the exhaustive excavation of the tomb and all of its surrounding context recovered 12 censer lids in the form of human effigy figures, reminiscent of the ruler portraits on Altar Q. One of the effigy figures is clearly labelled as the founder of the dynasty by the bird in his headdress and the goggles over his eyes, just as seen on his portrait on Altar Q [not shown in these photos]

Perhaps the 11 censers with their effigy lids that were grouped around the sides of the funerary chamber were fired up to summon the spirits of his royal ancestors, to accompany him on his journey to the spirit world. They were all deliberately smashed shortly thereafter, perhaps to send the spirits back where they came from.

The 12th and last effigy lid was not placed, or its censer base fired up, until the last capstones of the protective vault had been secured at the very top of the entire assemblage.

This may well have been the 13th ruler's [18-Rabbit's] final ritual in the burial ceremonies, summoning the spirit of his predecessor several days after the tomb itself had been sealed. Later that effigy, too, was smashed, and the rest of the fill and façades of the monumental Esmeralda Structure were put in place."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 144-146

Stela of Ruler 15 (Smoke Shell) in front of his great hieroglyphic staircase

Hieroglyphic Staircase

"The Teotihuacan theme is seen in...the ruler portraits that graced both the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the roof crest of Temple 26.

The rulers are portrayed as warriors par excellence, bearing feathered-fringe rectangular shields and lances. One of them is surrounded by multiple images of the rodent head that forms the mainsign of the name of Waxaklajun Ub'ah K'awil, and is thought to be a portrait of that ruler...

Thus the main theme of the final phase temple and stairway sculpture completed by Ruler 15 is that of royal ancestor worship, embedded in the context of war, sacrifice, and Teotihuacan symbolism.

The date of Ruler 13's death is cited in the final stairway text, ennobling it by saying that he perished 'with his flint, with his shield', i.e., on the field of battle. So it may well be that a good deal of the martial iconography on the final version of this singular monument does in fact, as we had originally thought, represent an attempt to compensate for the loss of Ruler 13 to a former vassal from Quiriguá.

Indeed, the final building and its elaborate decorations project the sense of a call to arms, erected to galvanize support behind the royal line and its governing systems. The portraits of the rulers serve to identify the distinguished sovereigns whose accomplishments are heralded in the lengthy inscription.

The portraits on the stairs and the roof crest also stress the roles of the royal ancestors as great warriors, for virtually all of them bear shields. In this way, the original meaning of Copán's Hieroglyphic Stairway was expanded, enriched, and to a significant degree, transformed."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 145-146

The altar at the base of the staircase is shaped like an inverted Tlaloc head

Hieroglyphic Staircase

"Stuart and Schele have noted that the base of the stairway itself represents an elaborate inverted Tlaloc head. The figures and entire stairway inscriptions are being belched forth out of the open mouth of this beast, whose lower jaw was at the top of the steps.

According to Stuart the figures were being made to appear in a vision produced by the auto-sacrifice of the living ruler. A cache was placed inside the head of the inverted Tlaloc, precisely where its brain would be located. The auto-sacrificial rite was thus the engine behind the production of the vision."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 148-49

Exquisite eccentric flints from the offertory cache at base of the stairway

Eccentric Flints

These flints are part of an offertory cache found at the base of the Hieroglyphic Stairway. They are tentatively dated to about 755 A.D. and are on display at the Village of Copán Museum of Archaeology.

"In his 1987 excavations underneath the altar that forms the base of the Hieroglyphic Stairway, David Stuart uncovered the offertory cache placed there when the stairway was commemorated.

Comprising one of the finest ceremonial offerings ever uncovered at the ancient city, this cache contained some very important clues about the building and its meaning to the king who commemorated it.

The cache was placed under a stone cap directly underneath the altar, and included: a lidded ceramic censer containing two jadeite pieces, a lanceolate flint knife, a shell, some ash and carbon, and some sting-ray and sea urchin spines. Carefully placed next to the ceramic vessel were three elaborately chipped eccentric flints.

The objects selected for burial all had a stong symbolic value, and can be related to the images and messages of the overall monument.

The three eccentric flints are among the finest examples of this exquisite art form yet uncovered, each displaying seven Classic Maya heads depicted in profile. The flints are lanceolate in form, and from the size of their tangs it is obvious that they were hafted to some sort of shaft, in all probability a long lance.

The amount of skill required to produce objects of this sort is beyond the capability of any present-day flint-knapper, and must have been exceptional, even in Classic Maya cities such as Copán. Thus, the individual who bore such a lance was distinguished indeed.

These were symbolic weapons worthy of divine warriors, and I would argue that some of the stairway portrait figures carried lances topped with eccentrics such as these."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 120

Military motifs from Teotihuacan decorate the balustrade which frames the staircase

Hieroglyphic Staircase

Copán: Hieroglyphic Staircase

The balustrades which framed the Hieroglyphic Stairway are thought to have been added by Ruler 15, Smoke Shell.

Their "feathered fan" motif is derived from highland Mexican art, and reinforces the martial imagery associated with Teotihuacan themes. Writing about Temple 26, which once stood at the top of this stairway, William Fash continues to discuss the Teotihuacan theme:

"The text that graced the interior of Temple 26 is unique in the annals of Mesoamerican writing. Reconstructed by David Stuart and Barbara Fash in the new Museum of Copán Sculpture, this inscription framed an interior niche in the back of the temple. Stuart notes that it actually conveys the same information in two different scripts running in paired, parallel columns.

The right-hand columns are carved in the magnificent 'full-figure' style of Maya hieroglyphic writing. The left-hand columns display symbols derived from the art style of Teotihuacan, prompting Stuart to conclude that it represents a sort of 'Teotihuacan font', an interpretation by a Copán Maya scribe of what Teotihuacan writing would have looked like.

The Teotihuacan theme is also seen in the temple iconography, and the ruler portraits that graced both the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the roof crest of Temple 26. The rulers are portrayed as warriors par excellence, bearing feathered-fringe rectangular shields and lances."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 144-5

The glyphic stairs were in a very disorganized state when discovered

Hieroglyphic Staircase

The 1891 and 1895 expeditions of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University were the first to investigate the stairway. Tatiana Proskouriakoff writes: "When John G. Owens of the Peabody Museum first began his excavations on the stairway, little was to be seen on the surface but a mass of fallen sculpture and a section comprising fifteen consecutive steps, which appeared to be in position.

After digging was begun, however, it became clear that this series of steps had slipped downward for a considerable distance, as if it had been dislodged by the sudden shock of an earthquake, and that, as found, it actually overlapped the base of the stairway, which still remained intact beneath it.

This extraordinary accident was made possible by the steepness of the stairway, a very common trait of such Maya structures, in which the treads of the steps actually measure less than the risers, reversing the proportion usual in modern design.

Mr. Owens died at Copán of one of those malignant fevers that are a dreaded hazard to all travelers in Middle America, but his work was continued by his former assistant, who later published a detailed report. The repair of the stairway was one of the chief project of the co-operative undertaking of the government of Honduras and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and was completed in 1942. "

Tatiana Proskouriakoff, An Album of Maya Architecture, p. 35-6

The glyphic stairs were reassembled in a haphazard order

Hieroglyphic Staircase

"The restoration of the Hieroglyphic Stairway was directed by Stromsvik during the late 1930s and early 1940s. At first, only the steps that had been found in order were restored, with the bottom-most steps merely consolidated in situ, and the other (slumped) steps placed about two-thirds of the way up the stairway. This proved to be an unsatisfactory solution, because it meant that hundreds of blocks would be left on the surface of the site, to collect moss, deteriorate further, and be subjected to the whims of visitors to the site.

Stromsvik therefore subsequently returned all the other known glyph blocks and human figure fragments back to the stairway. In doing so, the glyph blocks which made up deciphered dates in the Long Count were placed in sequence, while the rest were placed in a more or less haphazard way, to fill in the remaining spaces. Given their knowledge at the time and their concern for the conservation and restoration--or 'repair', as they called it--this was the most responsible course of action available to them."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 140-41

The first step to understanding the original text was drawing all 2,200 glyphs

Hieroglyphic Staircase

The next major step in attempting to understand the inscriptions involved redrawing many of the glyphs, which were not up to modern standards.

William Fash writes: "The abundant early dates and historical material on the stairway provided information that could be compared with texts on the standing monuments and on the buried fragments of older ones. The immense task of drawing the stairway inscription was undertaken by project artist, Barbara Fash.

As Fash proceeded, Riese and Peter Mathews (another epigrapher) began to realize and assess the historical material covered in this inscription. Mathews picked out the accession date of the 12th ruler by joining together glyph blocks which had not been restored in their original places.

The precise fit of the lines that formed a single glyph shared by the two non-separated blocks demonstrated beyond doubt that they were indeed originally joined. Riese used these and other data to fill in the historical sequence at the site, including the recognition of the names of several rulers on the sides of Altar Q."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 142

For an update on the ongoing work of deciphering and preserving the stairway text, watch this 2017 YouTube video of Barbara Fash's Peabody Museum lecture Decoding Maya Hieroglyphs with 3D Technology.

Smoke Shell's portrait stela stands in front of the hieroglyphic stair

Hieroglyphic Staircase

Stela M was erected in 756 AD by Ruler 15

The final renovations to the Hieroglyphic Stairway were made by Ruler 15, named K'ak' Yipyaj Chan K'awil, translated as "Smoke Shell". His portrait, Stela M, stands at the foot of the stairway and was erected on the Period Ending (AD 756).

"Stela M is now badly weathered and battered because of a damaging fall in antiquity. Originally one of the most graceful and refined stelae, this monument portrays the 15th ruler Smoke Shell."

William L. Fash, Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya, p. 139

Copan Stela M has a lengthly glyphic inscription which faces the stair

Hieroglyphic Staircase

The back of Stela M is covered with glyphs. It is known as a wrap-around stela because the feathers and tassels of Smoke Shell's ceremonial backrack wrap around and frame the area where the text glyphs are carved.


The Altar in front of Stela M is similar to Quiriqua zoomorphs

Hieroglyphic Staircase

The altar in front of Stela M is a precursor of the zoomorphic altars at Quiriguá. Altar M features the head of a snake monster, the back of a turtle, and the legs of a jaguar. The face of the king is seen emerging from the snake monster's mouth.