Unravelling the Secrets of the Maya’s Precious Rosalila Temple
Rosalila Temple is a monument located at the Maya site of Copan (located in the western part of Honduras, not far from the border with Guatemala). This temple was constructed during the 6th century AD and is arguably one of the most impressive structures discovered at the site.
The Rosalila Temple is extremely well-preserved, as the inhabitants of Copan carefully and ceremoniously buried the religious building when it was no longer used. Therefore, archaeologists were able to obtain much valuable information from the site. A life-size replica of Rosalila Temple can be seen at the Copan site museum.
The word ‘Rosalila’ may be translated from Spanish to mean ‘lilac rose’, and this name was given to the temple when it was discovered by archaeologists. Although the Rosalila Temple is commonly referred to as a temple, it may also be considered to be a temple phase. The area occupied by Rosalila Temple was used over an extended period of time, and different temples were built, one on top of the other.
The last phase of the temple is known as Temple 16 (or Structure 10L-16). This pyramid-shaped structure was constructed between the 8th and 9th centuries AD, during the reign of the 16th ruler of Copan, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat (known also as Yax Pac).
Other phases of the temple include Oropendola (a type of bird), Nispero (a type of fruit), and Margarita (another type of flower). It can be said that these phases were named after objects of nature.
Rosalila Temple Hides Under Temple 16
In any case, Temple 16, along with all the phases before it, was built on the Acropolis, one of the two elements (the other being the Great Plaza) that form the core of Copan. The Acropolis is a man-made hill, formed gradually over a period of about 400 years and 16 rulers. As Temple 16 lies at the heart of the Acropolis, and is its highest point, it is not surprising that it attracted the attention of explorers as early as the end of the 19th century.
Looking towards Temple 16 and the entrance of the tunnel that goes under it to the Rosalila Temple. (Artix Kreiger 2 / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
By the way, the site of Copan was discovered by Diego Garcia de Palacio, a Spanish explorer, in 1570. By then, the site had been long abandoned by the Maya. The systematic and scientific exploration of Temple 16, however, only began much later, in 1988, and was part of a broader multi-disciplinary program known as the Copan Acropolis Archaeological Project.
It was during the investigation of Temple 16 that the Rosalila Temple was discovered. This discovery was made on the 23rd of June 1989 by Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle, a Honduran archaeologist who is today the Executive Director of the Copán Association.
Although there are several other phases under Temple 16, Rosalila Temple is unlike any other. These pre-Temple 16 structures were destroyed whenever a new building was to be built. Therefore, only the base of these temples, one on top of the other, were preserved.
Rosalila Temple, on the other hand, was not destroyed when it fell out of use. Instead, it was carefully and ceremoniously buried before a new temple was built over it. As a consequence, Rosalila Temple managed to survive till this day in a remarkable state of preservation.
Tunnel to the buried Rosalila Temple. (youngrobv / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Configuration of Rosalila Temple
Rosalila Temple is a three-story building rising to a height to 42.3 feet (12.9 meters), with a base measuring 60.7 feet by 41.0 feet (18.5 meters by 12.5 meters). Archaeologists discovered that Rosalila Temple was built directly on top of the remains of another temple, which they called Azul.
The two upper stories serve as a “giant pre-Columbian billboard”, as they display artwork that reflects the religious belief of Copan’s population at that time. The first floor, on the other hand, contains four rooms, each being long and narrow.
The central room, which is also the most intimate one, can only be reached by traversing the first three. It is believed that elaborate rituals were performed in this sacred space when the temple was in operation.
In terms of orientation, Rosalila Temple, like all other temples built on the central axis of the Acropolis, has its principal façade facing west. This direction is significant for the Maya, as they associate it with the entrance to the underworld. It is also from the western side of the temple that archaeologists were able to determine when Rosalila Temple was built.
The temple’s principal stairway has seven steps, and on the fifth one is a dedication date in hieroglyphs. This date is equivalent to the 21st of February 571 AD, which is around the end of the reign of Tzi-B’alam (known also as Moon Jaguar), the 10th ruler of Copan.
Rosalila Temple at the Copan site – here pictured Stela M and the hieroglyphic stairway. (Peter Andersen / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Rosalila Temple served as Copan’s main religious sanctuary during the late 6th century AD, but eventually ceased functioning during the reign of Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil (known also as 18 Rabbit), the 13th ruler of Copan, in the early 8th century AD. Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil replaced Rosalila Temple with a larger monument, which has been dubbed by archaeologists as Purpura.
The Ancient Preservation of Rosalila Temple
As mentioned before, Rosalila Temple was not destroyed to make way for the new temple, as had happened to its predecessors. Instead, it was ceremoniously buried.
The rooms, moldings, and niches of the temple were carefully filled with mud and stones, after which the entire structure was encased in a thick layer of white plaster. It has been suggested that the latter was meant to symbolically embalming of the temple.
It is unclear as to why the Maya decided to bury Rosalila Temple, rather than destroy it, as was the norm. This decision is a stroke of good luck for modern archaeologists, as they were able to learn much from this well-preserved structure. For instance, the original paint on the stucco panels decorating the temple’s exterior was protected by the plaster.
Based on the preserved paint, archaeologists were able to say that Rosalila Temple was a bright red structure. The structure’s vibrant colors would have had a tremendous visual impact on the people of Copan. Even though Rosalila Temple was not the tallest structure in the city (some temples were reached a height of 65.6 feet (20 meters), this drawback would have been compensated by its highly-visible location, i.e. at the center of the Acropolis.
Elaborate Decorations Discovered Inside Rosalila Temple
It has also been claimed that Rosalila Temple was the last structure in Copan to have such elaborate stucco decorations. This is due to the fact that large quantities of firewood were required for the production of plaster from limestone. As a result of the deforestation of the surrounding area, however, this was no longer possible.
Therefore, the tradition of decorating buildings with stucco was abandoned and replaced with stone carvings. Deforestation also affected the micro-climate of the Copan Valley, reducing rainfall and making agriculture more difficult.
Representation of wall carvings at Rosalila Temple. (Maurizio Costanzo / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
As time went on, the population of Copan became malnourished, infant mortality rose sharply, and disease spread among the people. The decline of Copan is reflected in the archaeological record, where grave goods became progressively poorer, while the maintenance of ceremonial structures declined.
The decline of Copan , however, only occurred around the 9th century AD, about a century after Rosalila Temple was buried. That period saw the collapse of central authority in Copan, while the city’s population dwindled to a fraction of its former strength. The former is evident in a monument called Altar L, which was commissioned by the city’s last ruler, Ukit Took.
The Altar L monument bears strong resemblance to Altar Q, which was erected by his predecessor, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. One of the images on the altar shows Ukit Took facing his predecessor. Both of them are seated on their name hieroglyphs and hold the batons of office.
Unlike Altar Q, however, Ukit Took’s monument was never completed. Apart from this enthronement scene, the monuments three other sides are bare (with signs that work was just beginning on one of them). Although the population of Copan was greatly reduced, the city continued to be inhabited for several more centuries. Copan is believed to have only been completely abandoned around 1200 AD.
Returning to Rosalila Temple, its stucco panels stand out not only for their bright red color, but also for their elaborate decorations. One of the most noticeable of these is a face on the temple’s third story. This giant face is said to represent Witz, a mountain monster in Maya mythology.
This is supposed to symbolize the role of Rosalila Temple as a ceremonial mountain. According to Maya belief, mountains were sacred places, as they were the places where the rain god stored water. In addition, caves within these mountains were thought to be gateways to the underworld, thus connecting the realm of the living to that of the dead.
Apart from the mountain monster, the pair of identical faces flanking the temple’s entrance are another important decoration on the stucco panels. Archaeologists have pointed out that the eyes of these figures have curving lines in them. This means that the figures may be associated with the sun god.
One of the faces at the entrance of Rosalila Temple. (Artix Kreiger 2 / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
In addition, each of the figure wears a headdress with red, yellow, and green plumage, which is said to represent the quetzal and macaw. Based on these elements, it has been argued that the pair of images are supposed to represent K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, whose name translates to mean ‘Sun-Eyed Resplendent Quetzal Macaw’.
K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ is one of the most important figures in Copan, as he is recorded as the founder of the city. Rosalila Temple is not the only monument that commemorates this important figure and various other structures in Copan make reference to him. As a matter of fact, archaeologists have discovered a skeleton buried in the earliest phase of Temple 16, and it is speculated that this is probably the remains of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ himself.
Therefore, the subsequent temples over his tomb could be said to have been built in honor of his memory. As mentioned earlier, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat also commissioned a monument called Altar Q. On the monument, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaatand and his 15 predecessors are depicted. From the monument, archaeologists learned that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ assumed control of the “ snake-footed k’awiil sceptre” on the 5th of September 426 AD, thereby attaining his kingly status.
Altar Q at the Rosalila Temple. (Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Artifacts of Rosalila Temple
As the temple’s interior was filled before the entire structure was encased in plaster, the contents of Rosalila Temple have also been preserved. This has allowed archaeologists to gain some idea of the religious ceremonies that were performed in the temple. As an example, the inner walls of temple are covered with soot, which would have been caused by the burning of incense and torches.
Evidence for the use of incense is also seen in the discovery of seven ceramic incense burners, which had charcoal still inside them. Two of these burners were also found to have been placed on sculpted, stone jaguar pedestals. The presence of flint knives suggest that sacrifices were conducted in the temple, while stingray spines were interpreted as perforators for blood-letting rituals.
Other objects found inside Rosalila Temple include “nine elaborate eccentric flints (ceremonial scepters) wrapped in the remnants of a deep blue bag or cloth, carved jade jewelry, conch shells, …, shark vertebrae, jaguar claws, and remains of flower petals and pine needles”.
Rosalila Temple is undoubtedly one of the most amazing discoveries at the Maya site of Copan. Thanks to its ceremonial burial by the Maya, it has survived till the present day, and is one of the best-preserved structures at the site. The temple’s excellent state of preservation has enabled archaeologists to learn a great deal about the religious practices of the Maya who lived in Copan during that period.
Since the construction of Temple 16, Rosalila Temple has been concealed within another structure. This has been maintained even today, so as to protect the temple from deterioration.
Nevertheless, thanks to Rosalila Temple’s state of preservation, archaeologist have been able to build a life-size reconstruction of the ancient temple. This replica is located at the Copan site museum and allows visitors to see for themselves how Rosalila Temple looked like during its heyday.
Top image: The life-size replica of Rosalila Temple at the Copan site museum. Source: Talk2winik / Public Domain .
By Wu Mingren
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