Spring 2018: By Elizabeth Lunday.

In 1885, when British scholar Alfred Percival Maudslay and his wife Anne Cary Morris Maudslay first explored the ruins of the Maya city Copán, Morris Maudslay described the unexcavated site as filled with “imposing plazas, studded with strangely carved monuments and surrounded by lofty mounds and great stone stairways . . . very solemn and imposing in their decay.”

Morris Maudslay’s description contains one of the first mentions of one of the most important Maya monuments: the Hieroglyphic Stairway of Copán. The area was covered by trees, mud, and rubble, but Maudslay was able to reconstruct what had happened: a great stairway had once risen up a massive stepped pyramid. In the following centuries, earthquakes had rocked the site. One section of fifteen stairs had slid down the slope and was covered by debris that rained down from above.

Further excavation by archaeologists with Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology between 1891 and 1901 found more steps, each covered with carved hieroglyphics. They realized the stairway had originally formed a single, lengthy inscription. Later research would prove the Hieroglyphic Stairway is the longest known Maya inscription and among the largest single inscriptions from the ancient world. At thirty-three-feet wide and eighty-five-feet high, its sixty-four steps contain some 2,200 glyphs. UNESCO named Copán a World Heritage Site in 1980.

Scholars in the 1890s recognized the significance of the stairway even though they were unable to decipher the glyphs. But today, after more than a century of effort, epigraphers can read the majority of the Hieroglyphic Stairway. It’s a breakthrough that required the best of both old and new technology—century-old glass-plate negatives were as critical in deciphering the inscription as cutting-edge 3-D scanning and printing. “The glass-plate negatives have done as much as the 3-D scans in a different way,” said Barbara Fash, director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program at the Peabody Museum. “We’re using the best technologies from different eras to advance to the stage where we are now.”


In the video below Barbara Fash, Director, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program and the Gordon R. Willey Laboratory for Mesoamerican Studies, Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology; speaks on the project. Learn more at https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/decoding-maya-hieroglyphs

Read More in our SPRING 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 21 No. 1.             Browse Content of this Issue: Spring 2018.

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