The Colgate Scene
May 2005

In the ruins of Copán

Students, alumni, and archaeoastronomy professor Anthony Aveni survey the ceremonial ballcourt at Copán, Honduras, where 1,200 years ago ballplayers in protective gear volleyed a ball using only their shoulders, hips, knees, and elbows. [Enlarge]
[Photo by Margaux Jackson '05]

The retro-looking buses slowed to a stop on the dirt road outside of our motel, La Casa de Café. With my day pack on my shoulder and suntan lotion slathered on my nose, I climbed into one of the vans. As our Honduran driver, equipped with a Colgate baseball hat, maneuvered us through the center of Copán, Honduras, we passed people selling tortillas and trinkets on the sidewalks outside of restaurants and novelty shops. After a five-minute bumpy ride, the vans deposited us at the welcome center at the ruins of Copán.

Emerging from under the vast cover of a ceiba tree, we entered the Great Plaza of Copán. High four-sided stone stelae (slabs or pillars) sculpted with hieroglyphs and pictorial representations of the city's ancient rulers dotted the manicured grass. The grand temples that enclose the open space of the Great Plaza beckoned to us from the southern end of the site, looming high in the air.

With more hieroglyphic inscriptions and carved monuments than any other site in the New World, Copán is rich in aesthetic beauty and cultural significance. Until the city's downfall in the early 9th century AD, each successive ruler added to the city's impressive architecture, enhancing its incredible allure. Consequently, the ruins of Copán encapsulate four centuries of dynastic rule, political eminence, and cultural development.

My explanation that I studied in Copán, Honduras, for a class in archaeoastronomy most frequently results in looks of bewilderment. And, in case you just became acutely aware that your eyebrows are raised as well, allow me to explain. Archaeoastronomy is the interdisciplinary study of the development of astronomy, calendars, numeration, and writing among early civilizations. Our class focused on the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica. Although most extended study trips occur at the semester's end, our group had departed from Syracuse on a frosty January morning. Leaving winter weather advisories behind, I was beginning my spring semester in Professor Aveni's Field Methods in Archaeoastronomy class under blue skies and hot yellow sun.

Three other Colgate professors and Professor Aveni's wife, Lorraine, accompanied us to Central America. Allan Maca, professor of anthropology; Carol Ann Lorenz, professor of art and art history; and Christopher Vecsey, professor of the humanities, all contributed to our learning experience in Guatemala and Honduras. Each was able to offer individual insight into social and cultural aspects of the area.

In addition, alumni Mary Black Adonis '94, Lisa Anaya '95 (sister of Matthew Anaya '07, who was also on the trip), and Bruce Crowley '79, who had published a paper with Professor Aveni about the significance of Temple 22 at Copán more than 25 years earlier, left their busy schedules to reconnect with a class they had taken at Colgate. Polly Peterson '95, now a doctoral student of archaeology at Boston University, generously offered her time and knowledge visiting Copán with the group as well.

Mary Black Adonis '94 and Aveni [Photo by Polly Peterson '95]
The connections and discoveries we students were able to make on our own made our experiences personally and intellectually memorable. Here are just a few examples.
  • "So, Margaux. Why don't you tell us a little bit about Temple 22?" Professor Aveni challenged as we gathered at the ruins. Margaux Jackson '07 stood up and began speaking about one of the most ornate and impressive buildings at Copán. Adorned with rain, maize, and fertility iconography, the elite space at Copán marks the onset of the rainy season by tracking the movement of Venus through a small rectangular window on one of its façades. During Professor Aveni's fall Archaeoastronomy class, Jackson had consciously chosen to study a subject that would be relevant to our trip to Copán. Then, at the ruins, hundreds of miles from the third floor of Case Library, Jackson stood touching the temple she had dedicated her research to since September.

  • Emily Harwood '06 marked the horizon reading on the transit positioned at one end of the ballcourt (a symbolic playing field that functioned as a portal or opening to the otherworld in Mayan culture). "Seven degrees," she called out as I recorded the information on a data sheet. Although this reading had no significance for the three of us gathered with her around the surveying device, Harwood immediately made a connection to the research she had conducted the semester before. The geology major had studied the relationship between different positions in the sky of Venus, a symbolically and agriculturally important planet in Mesoamerica, with dates inscribed on various structures around Copán. Harwood had found that Venus sat at seven degrees on the horizon on a number of significant dates. Upon making this connection, she made additional measurements of the horizon to determine whether a correlation existed in order to further develop her research this spring.

  • During the first semester, I had studied midwifery in Mesoamerica. A trade that is heavily dependent upon the interaction between women who deliver babies and the supernatural world of deities and spirits of ancestors, this topic differs dramatically from Jackson's and Harwood's. Nevertheless, the exposure to the culture and people of the area and a visit to a museum dedicated to the goddess of childbirth and weaving, Ix Chel, deepened my appreciation for my studies back in Hamilton.

Although we visited museums, hiked to outlying stelae, and toured the surrounding towns as one group, our individual experiences were distinctive. Each student's area of knowledge helped not only to shape the experiences he or she had on the trip, but also enhanced the education of everyone there.

Landing back in Syracuse, I watched the snow speed past the airplane window. As clouds of white flakes formed delicate loops where hours before beams of the hot sun colored the air, I thought about how my trip to Copán would inevitably shape my research in the spring semester and the rest of my time at Colgate.

-- In January, senior French major Sarah Hickey was one of 14 students and a group of alumni, professors, and others who took an extended study trip to Guatemala and Honduras led by Tony Aveni, Russell Colgate Professor of astronomy and anthropology and Native American studies. The program served as a bridge experience between two courses: the fall prerequisite, Archaeoastronomy, and the spring 2005 Field Methods in Archaeoastronomy.

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