In every civilization of the ancient world, there are art works and monuments that stand out among their fellows as objects of special character. The great portrait sculptures that stand in silent rows down the center of the Great Plaza of copan created one of these special places. They constitute one of the great masterpieces of the Maya legacy. Although the artists who made them did not sign their works and leave us their names, the patron of these great works did. He was Waxaklahun-Ubah-K’awil (commonly known as 18 Rabbit), the thirteenth king of the Copan dynasty.
— Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs
The trend in Maya archaeology has been away from architectural and fine arts connoisseurship and toward broader societal analysis, with new work focusing less on the grand monuments of the ruling elite than was the case in the past. A working archaeologist in the Maya area today is more likely to be sifting dirt for fragments of fish and animal bones than reconstructing a soaring temple overgrown with vegetation. But some achievements are too great to be resisted, and the stelae at Copan are among them.
Waxaklahun (whose name actually alludes not to a rabbit but to a War Serpent) assumed the thrown of Copan on July 19, 695, when the city was at the height of its power. He soon oversaw a prodigious program of construction of public monuments. His projects included Temple 22, a remodel of the ball court, and the initiation of work on the hieroglyphic stairs of temple 26, perhaps Copan’s most famous feature (see map). And, over a period of years, he filled the Great Plaza with a major series of stelae.
The stelae are in at least a couple of different styles. It was once thought that these styles relected an evolving artistic aesthetic, but we now know, from their inscriptions, that the historical sequence of the works does not correspond to the stylistic differences. Schele and Mathews suggest instead that the stelae were the works of two different artists (or workshops), one more “innovative,” producing works more fully in the round, and the other more “conservative” (traditional), producing works emphasizing shallower front and back reliefs.
Stela B is an example of the latter style. At the time of its construction (August 22, 731) the planet Venus appeared in the constellation Virgo, which the Maya associated with Chak, the rain god. The stela depicts Waxaklahun bedecked with the diadem of Chak in his headdress, and further allusions to Chak in his elaborate regal regalia. The stela formidably expresses the king’s royal authority and his association with Copan’s patron deities (complex allusions to the Macaw Mountain Lord are prominent on the reverse side).
Five years later, around the time Waxaklahun — now an old man who had reigned more than forty years — erected his last stela (Stela D) in 736, a representative of the Maya state of Kalakmul met with K’ak’-Tiliw, the vigorous, youthful ruler of Quirigua, a vassel state to Copan. Kalamul was an emerging power and the enemy of Copan’s trade partner, Tikal. Copan, though at the extreme southern limit of the Maya region, occupied a strategic position that offered the possibility of controlling trade in jade and obsidian through the Motogua valley. About a year after this portentous meeting, K’ak’-Tiliw attacked and defeated Waxaklahun. In the fighting the mighty patron of the Copan’s Great Plaza stelae was captured.
Waxaklahun was sacrificed to the gods in the Great Plaza of Quirigua. As he attended his priestly executioner he must seen that K’ak’-Tiliw’s monuments were not so fine as his own.