A major architectural and artistic wonder of the Mayan realm is found at Copán, in Honduras. While it had a rule of vast areas the Mayan center at Copán came to an end around 1000 A.D. for causes that are the subject of speculation but no certitude. It was built and lasted for generations detailed on the Hieroglyphic Staircase and stayed a ruling ceremonial center beginning somewhere in the area of 600 B.C. until its sudden decline.
Little is known of the rulers of Copán before the founding of a new dynasty with its origins at Tikal in the early 5th century AD, although the city’s origins can be traced back to the Preclassic period. After this, Copán became one of the more powerful Maya city states and was a regional power in the southern Maya region, although it suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of its former vassal state Quirigua in 738, when the long-ruling king Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was captured and beheaded by Quirigua’s ruler K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky). Although this was a major setback, Copán’s rulers began to build monumental structures again within a few decades.
The area of Copán continued to be occupied after the last major ceremonial structures and royal monuments were erected, but the population declined in the 8th and 9th centuries from perhaps over 20,000 in the city to less than 5,000. This decrease in population took over four centuries to actually show signs of collapse showing the stability of this site even after the fall of the ruling dynasties and royal families. The ceremonial center was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanishin the 16th century.
The Main Group represents the core of the ancient city and covers an area of 600 by 300 meters (1,970 ft × 980 ft). The main features are the Acropolis, which is a raised royal complex on the south side, and a group of smaller structures and linked plazas to the north, including the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the ballcourt. The Monument Plaza contains the greatest concentration of sculpted monuments at the site.
The Acropolis was the royal complex at the heart of Copán. It consists of two plazas which have been named the West Court and the East Court. They are both enclosed by elevated structures. Archaeologists have excavated extensive tunnels under the Acropolis, revealing how the royal complex at the heart of Copán developed over the centuries and uncovering several hieroglyphic texts that date back to the Early Classic and verify details of the early dynastic rulers of the city who were recorded on Altar Q hundreds of years later. The deepest of these tunnels have revealed that the first monumental structures underlying the Acropolis date archaeologically to the early 5th century AD, when K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ established the royal dynasty. These early buildings were built of stone and adobe and were themselves built upon earlier earth and cobble structures dating to the predynastic period. The two styles of building overlap somewhat, with some of the earthen structures being expanded during the first hundred years or so of the dynastic history of the city. The early dynastic masonry buildings of the Acropolis included several with the Early Classic apron-molding style of Tikal and one built in the talud-tablero style associated with Teotihuacan, although at the time the talud-tablero form was in use at both Tikal and Kaminaljuyu as well as in Central Mexico.
The dimension and depth of the art work at Copán are developed to an extent found few other places in the Mayan regions, and have a skill that is seldom found on such vast scale.