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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Archaeological Investigation and Conservation in Honduras

Carmen Julia Fajardo Cardona


The Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH) is a public institution that was created by the Honduran state and endowed with a variety of responsibilities. One of these was established in Decree 01-84, the Law for the Protection of National Cultural Patrimony, which was passed by the National Congress in 1984. Within the framework of this decree, the state, as represented by the IHAH, defines policy and develops procedures designed to defend, conserve, rescue, restore, and protect public property defined as "national cultural patrimony." Research is important in this process, and my function in the IHAH is to support proposals that are presented, encourage those that are developed, and coordinate those funded by external technical and financial sources in accordance with the guidelines of interinstitutional, regional, national, and international agreements.

Archaeological Investigation: Our Experience in the IHAH

In Honduras, as in most countries of the world, cultural patrimony is discovered and restored on a continuous basis. A large part of this heritage is recovered through archaeological research, and a variety of archaeological remains are identified throughout the country on a daily basis. However, until recently, archaeological research did not include the development of methodologies for conserving these discoveries. Rather, past research was an activity that focused on the analysis of architecture in order to identify the original builders. Furthermore, deposits containing evidence of lengthy human occupation often remained exposed to deterioration under the belief that at some later, yet unspecified, time these materials would be transported to laboratories for analysis. Prehistoric remains uncovered during other professional activities likewise remained exposed to the elements. In some cases, entire archaeological sites were destroyed.

From its inception in 1975, archaeological investigation and the conservation of Honduran cultural patrimony have been the primary functions of the IHAH. However, these functions became secondary to more urgent and short-term rescue projects. One program was developed by U.S. archaeologists Gordon Willey, Robert Sharer, and William Lee to address the problem of site destruction and attempted to reconcile investigation with conservation, but it was limited to the ruins of Copan. This program, however, greatly helped the institute to reorient its work during subsequent years.

Since 1980, a number of projects have been developed by the IHAH, but most have been focused exclusively on restoration. The most well-developed program, the Copan Mosaic Project, was originally conceived as a rescue and salvage project in 1985, with William Fash (U.S.) serving as director and Rudy Larios (Guatemala) as codirector, and consisted of numerous activities, including the following:

The success of the Copan Mosaic Project stimulated individual and collective initiatives in the IHAH. A new project, the restoration of the hieroglyphic stairway at Copan, developed as a result of this process and eventually acquired more ambitious goals, ultimately growing into the Copan Acropolis Archaeological Project.

Characteristics of Archaeological Work in Honduras

The principle that guides archaeological research in Honduras is to "excavate in order to recover all possible data and, at the same time, preserve the finds so that future generations will have access to this information."

In Honduras the conservation of archaeological remains begins in the field. In projects initiated since 1982, both in the Maya area and at other recently discovered archaeological sites, an attempt has been made to reconcile the strategies of conservation with those of investigation with two goals in mind. The first is to recover the greatest quantity of information through the exacting control and careful documentation made by the researcher during fieldwork. The second goal focuses on archaeological conservation during or immediately after excavation; archaeologists and their assistants are responsible for rigorously observing the basic principles of conservation. This responsibility, called "first aid," consists of cleaning and curating artifacts and refilling at least a portion of the excavated area. In our experience, such "first aid" is vital, for it reduces the environmental impact that archaeological remains suffer when preventative measures are not considered. The consequences of inadequate protection can be observed on the monuments and sculptures at Copan, many of which are quite deteriorated due to their exposure to the climate. Although experts in conservation and restoration have accomplished an extraordinary job to avoid further deterioration, these efforts are costly in terms of time, energy, and funds, all of which are limited.

Nevertheless, the effort continues. The IHAH, the codirectors of the Copan Acropolis Project, and the Copan Association (a private organization) designed the construction of the Museum of Maya Sculpture. This museum seeks to guarantee the conservation of the Copanec Culture, including its environment, so that future generations will be able to appreciate their cultural heritage. One aspect of the museum's activities includes a systematic program to create replicas of the various stelae, monuments, and facades found at Copan. The replicas will substitute the originals at the site where they were found, while the originals will be transferred to the museum where temperature and humidity can be artificially controlled for their protection. The construction of a data bank with information regarding all the Maya sculpture that has been recovered is also planned. Government support (as expressed through the IHAH) of this project has significantly contributed to its success. This assistance included the definition of a research policy by the IHAH, as well as the management and funneling of all external financial resources through established institutional routes.

photo of museum

If I have emphasized the ruins of Copan in the greater part of this essay, it is because Copan is one of the most beautiful sites within the Maya region and it is an important national monument that bolsters the pride of the Honduran people. In 1984 UNESCO recognized the importance of these ruins and declared tha area a world heritage site. The significance of Copan is therefore not restricted to Honduras. Although similar policies guide archaeological investigations of the many other sites in Honduras, less is known of these sites. I will, therefore, continue with the experiences of Copan and discuss some of the goals met during more than 20 years of continuous work.

Now that the mapping of archaeological remains in the Copan Valley has been completed, numerous theories regarding the original population have been developed. Likewise, a set of preventative methods have been established that avoid the destruction of cultural patrimony through the encroachment of so-called "modernization." This program has led some of the participating researchers to comment about the usefulness of conservation methods that not only protect endangered resources and document their contents, but that can also be used as opportunities to be innovative and informative, and make a contribution to research activities.

I agree with this assessment. Excavation without conservation and publication only results in destruction. Currently, we Honduran archaeologists are organizing a forum of specialists that will define and discuss regulations to guide excavation and conservation. The regulations that develop out of this forum will take into account local considerations, national legislation, and international principles regarding the protection of cultural heritage.

Our policy at the IHAH is based on the belief that conservation and research should not be developed separately. However this policy alone is not sufficient. In many of our projects, especially rescue and salvage projects, laboratory analysis is not conducted. And in other cases, the laboratory work is limited only to the description and curation of the objects excavated. In only a few cases are artifacts restored and exhibited. Few archaeological investigations employ a full program of research and conservation, a situation that is not preferable. In our case, it occurs because the financial support that exists cannot meet the demands generated by so many discoveries.

In spite of the many limitations we face, we are now trying to develop coherent archaeological programs. In Honduras, the most important focus is the initial preservation of the material. We are achieving this goal by taking preventative measures in the field and ensuring that archaeological materials are maintained in the appropriate conditions for preservation. The next goal is to develop permanent workshops or laboratories that will promote two intertwined activities: research for conservation and conservation for research.

Carmen Julia Fajardo Cardona is the chief of the Department of Anthropological Investigations at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.


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