When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood examined the ruins at Copan in 1839, they were engulfed in jungle. Stephens, a lawyer, and Catherwood, an architect, were the first English-speaking travellers to explore the regions originally settled by the Maya. Today some of the most complex carvings are found on the 21 stelae, or three metre columns of stones on which the passage of time was originally believed to have been recorded. Under many of the stelae was a vault; some have been excavated. The stelae are deeply incised and carved with faces, figures and animals.
There are royal portraits with inscriptions recording deeds and the lineage of those portrayed as well as dates of birth, marriage and death. Ball courts were also revealed during excavation, and one of them has been fully restored. Much fascinating excavation work is still in progress, stacks of labelled carved stones have been placed under shelters, and the site looks like it is becoming even more interesting as new buildings are revealed. The most atmospheric buildings are those still half-buried under roots and soil. To aid the preservation of the site the nearby river has been diverted to prevent it encroaching on the site when in flood.
The impressive two-storey Museum of Maya Sculpture and sculpture park houses the recently excavated carvings. In the middle of the museum is an open-air courtyard with a full-size reproduction of the Rosalila temple, found intact buried under Temple 16 with its original paint and carvings. The museum houses the original stelae to prevent weather damage, while copies will be placed on site. More than 2000 other objects found at Copan are also in the museum which has good explanations in Spanish and English. The exit leads to the ruins via the nature trail.