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    Members’ Reports

    Catherine H. Popovici
    Center 42

    Catherine H. Popovici

    Stones of Statehood: Art, Politics, and Placemaking in Classic Maya Landscape 

    In ancient Maya urban centers, ruling elites typically erected stelae—upright stone pillars, often paired with a low circular altar—in plaza spaces, visually tethered to ceremonial architecture. In the scholarly literature, stelae have been treated as a distinctly urban phenomenon, but a suite of seven stelae ringing the city of Copán challenges this long-standing notion. The Copán Valley stelae (652 CE) constitute the first known political and ritual statements by K’ahk’ Uti’ Witz’ K’awiil, the 12th king of the ancient Maya city-state of Copán in modern-day western Honduras. Two of these stelae are uncarved and the remaining five are incised with lengthy hieroglyphic texts. This sculptural ensemble served as the polity’s outermost expression of monumentality and Copán was the only Maya city to deploy the traditional stela form in this innovative manner. The unique context of this sculptural suite hints at its multi-vocality, in which calendrical statements were merged with politically charged messaging.

    Stela 12, c. 652 CE, Copán, Honduras. Photo: Courtesy of Kenneth Garrett

    My dissertation, which I defended and filed while in residence at the Center, comprises the first cohesive, art-historical treatment of the Copán Valley stelae. I use this suite of monuments to reframe the communicative role of Maya sculptural programs and investigate how different observers may have interpreted these sculptures. In disentangling the physical and ideological placements of these stelae, I contend that sculpture situated beyond the ceremonial precinct operated as a crucial component of Classic Maya (250–950 CE) articulations of kingship and ritual.

    The first chapter provides the necessary structure for the entire project, introducing each of the seven monuments in its entirety, including its excavation history and current state of preservation. Using archival sources and newspapers, I trace how interpretations of these stelae aligned with prevailing and popular theories about the ancient Maya that circulated midway through the 20th century. The following chapter explores the triangulation of sculptural placement, hieroglyphic text, and issues of literacy. I suggest that these monuments communicated both textually and visually, depending on the viewer’s literacy level as related to social class. The appearance and content of these inscribed surfaces certainly locate such stelae within a Maya and, more specifically, Copán context, but the script and sculptural form also establish a specific communicative relationship with peoples beyond the Maya-Copán sphere. Even within a hyper-local framework, the texts and sculptural forms would have been understood in myriad ways depending on societal rankings within the local Copán population. What was the role of overtly Maya sculpture in Copán’s multiethnic, multilingual, and cosmopolitan environment? 

    West side of broken piece of Stela 10, c. 652 CE, Copán, Honduras. Gift of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1958. © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 58-34-20/65031

    The third chapter of my dissertation contributes to the production of an emic understanding of this ancient Maya landscape. The Copán Valley stelae are placed near caves, springs, lagoons, and a river. These natural features not only informed their specific placements but contributed to the creation of their immediate environment. These seven monuments are also placed along an ancient road and various footpaths, indicating that they marked and shaped the experience of human movement across the landscape. The fourth chapter explores the ritual landscape of the mountainous Copán Valley through the lens of calendar cycles. The hieroglyphic texts that wrap around the carved monuments inform us that they were initially commissioned to commemorate the upcoming ending of the 11th k’atun (a unit of time in the Maya calendar that corresponds to a cycle of 7,200 days). Thus, the circular shape of k’atun cycles dictated the physical contours of human ritual movement within the Copán Valley. This sculptural program revolutionized the ritual stage, enabling the kinetic grafting of cosmological models onto the landscape. 

    The final chapter, pursuing a more phenomenological approach, investigates how this ensemble of sculpture engaged with multiple types of mutable limits, ranging from textual frontiers to cosmological and topographical boundaries. Looking to various historical Maya dictionaries, I privilege Maya definitions of these spatial conceptions. In challenging simplistic territorial understandings of these stelae, I contend that K’ahk’ Uti’ Witz’ K’awiil creatively used these sculptures to demarcate a multitude of spaces—physical and conceptual—within this domain. Ultimately, my project asserts that the Copán Valley stelae challenge traditional scholarly understandings of the significance of Maya stelae.

    The University of Texas at Austin
    Ittleson Fellow, 2020–2022

    Following her residency at the Center, Catherine H. Popovici will join the Department of the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University as the 2022–2024 Austen-Stokes Ancient Americas Endowed Postdoctoral Fellow. 

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