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A Nobleman from Maya Copán

August 10, 2016
Head of a Young Noble

Susan E. Bergh Curator, Pre-Columbian and Native North American Art

Head of a Young Noble ad 746, front and side (left) views. Structure 10L-22A, Copán, Mesoamerica, Maya style. Stone; H. 53.3 cm. Gift of the Hanna Fund 1953.154. The noble wears ear flares and a headband, above which his tied hair rises; the meaning of the disembodied hand that cups the chin is debated. 


Installed high on a wall in the museum’s Pre-Columbian gallery is a stone head that, because of its location, is easy to overlook. The head is a portrait of a handsome young Maya man of serene countenance who lived during the eighth century at Copán, a populous city in eastern Maya territory near today’s Honduras-Guatemala border. Placement of the head at an unusual height was guided by work of the Copán Mosaics Project, an initiative begun in the mid-1980s under the direction of Harvard University archaeologist William Fash, artist Barbara Fash, and architect-archaeologist Rudy Larios. The project focused in part on a structure with stone mosaic decoration that included the Cleveland head; the structure, known in archaeological parlance as 10L-22A, is located in the city’s architectural core. 

When the team started its research, the building’s roof and most of its walls had collapsed. Many of the hundreds of large mosaic components that originally graced the entablature and roof comb lay either where they landed or in piles of sculpture fragments gathered in modern times from various locales at the site; others had migrated into collections. But parts of two mat motifs—an interwoven design long recognized as an important Maya symbol of political authority—remained in place on the façade, leading Barbara Fash to suspect that the structure once functioned as a council house or, in the Yucatec Maya language, a popol na (mat house).


Head of a Young Noble side

This side view shows the stone tenon that anchored the head in the façade; the tenon is now buried in gallery 233’s wall, where a platform supports it.

Based on clues ranging from intact imagery to the shapes of tenons—the stone protrusions on the backs of individual mosaic pieces that anchored them in the façade—project members painstakingly pieced together the enormous puzzle, presenting their reconstruction of the structure’s original appearance in drawings. Their efforts revealed that the Maya decorated all four sides of the building. The lower part of the entablature was adorned with ten renditions of the mat motif, each made of many individual stones; a few of the mats managed to retain their basic original configuration after their constituent parts fell from the building, apparently en bloc. A single, large hieroglyph occurred between neighboring mats, directly beneath T-shaped niches that held human figures, each seated with crossed legs on a simple dais or throne. The Cleveland head comes from one of these figures, which seem to have totaled nine, each with individualized features and ornaments that suggest portraiture. Thus, the head is installed in the gallery in the way it was meant to be seen: at a distance and from below.

In the spaces between the figures, a hieroglyph based on a face-like design appeared in identical repeats. It translates as “9 Ahau” (also spelled Ahaw or Ajaw), a date in the Maya 260-day ritual calendar that likely refers to the building’s dedication date and in the Gregorian calendar corresponds to June 12 of ad 746. (The glyph demonstrates the bar-and-dot system that the Maya used to record numbers; a dot stands for 1 and a bar for 5.) It may be no coincidence that the total number of figures on the structure was nine and that the Maya also used the term “ahau”as a title that designated first-rank nobles of both sexes. Thus, in punning wordplay, the 9 Ahau glyph could refer not only to a date but also to the nine lords (ahaus) enthroned on the façade.


Copán Council House

Copán Council House (Popol Na). Reconstruction drawing by Barbara Fash, Copán Mosaics Project


The much larger male figure on the now-collapsed roof comb sat upon an elaborate jaguar throne, his legs arranged in a typical posture of royal ease. He probably represents Copán’s 14th ruler, who came to power after a turbulent, humiliating period in the city’s history. In May of ad 738, Ruler 14’s distinguished predecessor had been taken prisoner and killed by rivals from Quirigúa, a smaller, subservient town not far from Copán. The shattering political ramifications of this assassination seem to be reflected in a long hiatus in the creation of royal sculpture at Copán, a register of political turmoil and uncertainty.

Members of the mosaics project suggest that a key element of Ruler 14’s strategy to stabilize the situation after this dispiriting nadir involved constructing the popol naa council house where the ruler could meet with representatives of his kingdom’s most important factions. The point of such a maneuver may have been to give the factions a voice in Copán’s affairs and thus to shore up their loyalty, create a personal stake for each in restoring the polity’s prestige, and boost confidence in Ruler 14’s leadership.

The nine sculptured figures on the structure’s façade may depict these elite representatives, whose places of origin, lineage names, or official titles may be recorded in the hieroglyphs beneath each throne. If this interpretation is correct, the figures perhaps were the counterparts of local Maya chieftains known by the title holpop at the time of the Spanish conquest, eight centuries later; according to Spanish written sources, holders of the holpop title served higher-level lords as “regidors [councilors] or captains.” Little more can be said at present about the nine earlier councilors commemorated on the popol na.

Archaeologists from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum collected the Cleveland head at Copán in the mid-1880s during early explorations of the city; the terms of an agreement with the Honduran government allowed them to remove sculptures from the site, including four heads from different structures. The heads remained in the Peabody’s collection until the early 1950s, when the museum, following a then relatively common practice, exchanged two of them for other types of objects not represented in its holdings. One of the two made its way into Cleveland’s collection in 1953.

For more details about Copán’s popol na, see “Investigations of a Classic Maya Council House at Copán, Honduras,” an article published by Barbara Fash and several of her colleagues in the Journal of Field Archaeology (Winter 1992). A more comprehensive review of Copán’s history, including its art and architecture, can be found in William Fash’s readable book Scribes, Warriors, and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya (Thames & Hudson, 2001). This brief summary draws on both sources.  

Cleveland Art, July/August 2015