On October 8, 2005, our speaker was Julia Miller, a PhD candidate in
the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania,
whose primary research interest is in the field of ancient Maya architecture. Julie has conducted her dissertation research at the site of
Copan, Honduras. She has worked both in the tunneling project of the Early Copan Acropolis Program and in surface excavations. She has
also worked at the sites of Xunantunich in Belize, and Palenque, Mexico. While at Palenque, Julie worked with Alfonso Morales in the Cross
Group Project, which, in 1998, excavated Temple 19. She and Dr. Morales were involved in the discovery and preservation of four new
inscribed monuments: the well preserved carved stone panel, a stucco panel found in pieces and later restored, a throne and a balustrade.
Ms. Miller presented her approach to the study of ancient Maya
architecture, which focuses on patterns seen in the construction,
modification, and destruction of buildings. Ms. Miller feels that changes in different architectural factors, such as construction material,
scope of construction projects, and type and location of decoration, can reflect changes in the greater society of an ancient civilization.
Julieâ€™s talk particularly concerned patterns of change seen in all levels of the construction, modification, and destruction of the elite
buildings of the Copan Acropolis, and how they reflect change in Copan society over time. After first delineating the different styles of
archaeological analysis: classic stratigraphy, site plan analysis, economic, or energetic analysis, symbolic analysis of form and decoration,
archaeoastronomical analysis, and epigraphic analysis of inscriptions, Julie explained that her work needed to reach beyond these to reveal
the changes that she sought. Her intention was to discover the time span of different â€śconstruction eventsâ€? at Copan. Before
embarking on this analysis, Ms. Miller had to posit the following assumptions: that structural modifications were intentional and significant;
that changes in architecture signify changes within the society, and that the uses of various buildings are not immediately apparent to later
viewers. For example, structures may have been used by different groups within the community in differing manners, and the primary use
area of the building may, at times, have been its exterior, or even its surrounding space, rather than the interior.
Julie's initial searches for patterns in the buildings of Copan's Acropolis,
especially in the much eroded Structure 21, were stymied,
as construction patterns were not immediately evident. Focusing on the different levels, or divisions, of construction, Ms. Miller found that
there were four "break points" in construction seen in the East Court area of the Acropolis: the change from adobe to stone
construction, the move from modeled stucco to carved stone ornamentation, the apparent removal of administrative buildings from the
Acropolis, and the modifications of the East Court into a sunken plaza which later was surrounded by increasingly elevated buildings.
Beginning with the earliest stone constructions, Julie found that the builders relied upon thick layers of stucco to cover fairly irregularly cut
volcanic tuff blocks. Later construction, often reusing the prior construction as fill, evidenced much more finished stone work, increasingly
thinner layers of stucco and more reliance on carved stone, as opposed to carved stucco ornamentation. These changes imply changes in
the availability of lime and firewood and a concomitant increased number of man-hours required to decorate a building with carved stone. The
closing off of entrances to the East Court, followed by the terracing and elevation of the latest structures raised and isolated the Court from
the rest of Copan's ceremonial areas. The height and distance from the nearest source of water may have caused the drier quality of later
construction. It also would have further increased the number of man-hours required, which could well be the cause of the slower rate of
construction in later levels. The ceremonial use of the court probably changed with its gradual isolation from the general populace; its
increased elevation would have removed it from their view.
Julie notes that following this period of increasing isolation and elevation,
the 13th king, Waxaklahun Ubah K'awiil (or "18 Rabbit",
as he is nicknamed) and his successors returned to the Great Plaza area, filling it with stelae, the ball court and the great Hieroglyphic
Stairway. Was this an attempt to reinvolve the general populace of Greater Copan in the affairs of the elite? Did administrative structures
move out to areas like Las Sepulturas? We shall have to wait for the completion of her dissertation, and perhaps beyond, for the answers to
these, and other, questions!
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