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TitleOld America - Ancient Ruins (4)
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1875
AuthorsOttinger, G.M.
MagazineJuvenile Instructor
Issue Number14
Date Published10 July 1875
KeywordsAncient America; Mesoamerica

Series of articles dealing with archaeological, anthropological, geographical, societal, religious, and historical aspects of ancient America and their connections to the Book of Mormon, which is the key to understanding “old American” studies.

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The peculiar characteristics of the ruins of Copan are the elaborately carved stone obelisks, varying from eleven to thirteen feet in height, and from three to four in width and in depth, in every case having on the principal face a human figure, male or female, sculptured in high relief, presenting its full front and having the upper part of the arm pressed close in to the body, and the lower part, or forearms brought forward so as to allow of the hands being pressed against the breast. They are all clad in rich garments, some in the form of tunics, others more like pantaloons. The feet are clumsy and generally covered with a kind of sandal or buskin. The heads are adorned with helmets with carved work of the most fanciful description, the details of which can hardly be separated from the mass of intricate ornamental work which covers the monuments on all sides from top to bottom. The expression of the faces on the different obelisks varies, though the calm and placid predominates. The sculptured ornaments are graceful and pleasing in design, and the back and sides are covered with hieroglyphics. In front of one, the monument described by Mr. Stephens as differing from others in its vicinity, is an altar four feet high and six feet square, of one block of stone, resting on four globes cut out of the same material. The bas reliefs on the sides represent sixteen human figures seated in oriental fashion, cross-legged. In the hand of each is a weapon, the character of which is difficult to define. The heads of all are covered with very peculiar head dresses, without plumes. On the western side are the two principal figures, sitting with their faces towards each other, as if engaged in discussion, while of the other fourteen figures seven are placed in the rear of each principal face, in the same direction as their respective leaders, of which they are evidently the retinues. The. top of the altar is divided into thirty-six tablets of hieroglyphics, evidently recording the important transaction that the two parties have met to discuss. In regard to costume, no two of the head dresses are alike, and though the remarkable facial angle is preserved, there is likewise a variety of expression in the countenances.

Down the sides of the pyramids and covering the ground are innumerable remains of sculpture, some still remaining in position, others forming heaps of fragments, among which many blocks are remarkably well preserved. Half way up the sides of one of the pyramids are rows of death's heads of colossal proportions, but of such peculiar construction in the conformation as to represent the heads or skulls of monkeys, not of men. The supposition that they were so intended, is in a manner confirmed by the finding of the effigy of a colossal ape at the foot of the pyramid, bearing, it is said, a strong resemblance to the same species originally figured on the great obelisk from the ruins of Thebes, now in Paris. These animals were worshiped at Thebes, and it has been thought not unlikely that the same may have been the case among the inhabitants of Copan. Among the fragments are found several human heads, which have evidently been chiseled with a close adherence to nature, impressing the beholder with the belief that they were portraits, the features and expression of each bearing a strong individual character. The whole of the sides and walls of the pyramids and terraces have evidently been decorated with similar sculptures, which were fixed by stone tenons, which in many cases still adhere to them, and which were driven into the wall. Traces of color are still visible, indicating that these sculptures, like those of the old world, had been painted. In the outer wall of the small court within the temple a subterranean passage leading to the river wall, and below this a sepulchral vault, were examined several years ago by Colonel Galindo, who explored the ruins by order of the Mexican government. On each side of the vault, which is six feet high, ten feet long and five and a half wide, are small niches, which contained, at the time of opening, earthenware vessels of different descriptions filled with human bones packed in lime. On the floor of the vault, which was paved with stones and coated with lime, were strewn various articles, such as stone knives, marine shells and a small death's head cut in green stone and described as of exquisite workmanship.

At some distance from the temple, in a level area enclosed by walls stands a group of eight obelisks, or idols, similar in size and position to those described, but each having a distinct individuality. They are placed at distances of from fifty to two hundred feet from each other, and in front of each is an altar. The chief object of the sculptor has evidently been to inspire awe and terror, and to produce the desired effect he has resorted to exaggeration of feature, some of the countenances being ludicrously hideous, some purely terrific and only one or two pleasing in expression. Some of them are covered on all sides with hieroglyphics, and the workmanship is considered equal to the finest Egyptian sculpture. At the foot of one of the statues lies a colossal sculptured head of an alligator, half buried in the earth. In the eyes of antiquarians these idols have always been most interesting, as there is a hope that some day a key may be found to the hieroglyphics, and the mysteries of Copan unraveled.

Palacios, who described Copan nearly three hundred years ago, saw much more than Mr. Stephens. He tells of the "ruins of superb edifices built of hewn stone, which manifestly belonged to a large city." In connection with the great wall he mentions a colossal eagle, carved in stone, which bore on its breast a square shield covered with hieroglyphics. He also mentions a "stone giant," and a "stone cross," one of the arms of which was broken. He saw a plaza, or square, circular in form, surrounded by ranges of stone steps, or seats, similar to the Coliseum at Rome. It was "paved with beautiful stones, all square and well worked; six great statues stood in the enclosure, and in the centre was a great stone basin." Huarros, in his history of Guatemala, states that the "circus of Copan," as he calls this "plaza" described by Palacios, was still perfect and entire in the year 1700. He mentions gateways, which led into the enclosure.

Copan was first discovered and described in 1576; it was then as strange and mysterious to the natives living near it as it is to-day; native tradition had forgotten its history, even its existence. The Spaniards under Cortez assaulted and captured a native town not far (some twenty miles) from the forest-covered ruins, but heard nothing of them. The captured town afterwards gave its name to this nameless city. Forty years afterwards Palacios discovered the ruins, and tried "in all possible ways" to get from the natives some account of the ruined city, but they could tell him nothing about it, so long had its existence then been lost to the memory of man. Mr. Stephens has very singularly fallen into the mistake of confounding this old ruined city with the town captured by the Spaniards. The ruins, like others in the country, were discovered accidentally, and to approach them it was necessary to cut paths through the dense tropical undergrowth.

Within a few miles of Copan, on the banks of the river Montagua, are the ruins called Quirigua. These ruins have a close resemblance to Copan, and it is manifest that a great city once stood here. Antiquarians are of the opinion that these ruins are much older than Copan, for they have to a great extent become little more than heaps of rubbish. Mr. Stephens confines his description chiefly to a pyramidal structure with flights of steps and monoliths larger and higher than those at Copan, but otherwise similar. He states, however, that they are hardly so rich in design. One of the obelisks here is twenty feet high, with the figures of a man on the front, and on the back a woman; the sides are covered with hieroglyphics similar in appearance to those at Copan.