My already existing summer research plans precluded my accepting the invitation. I toyed with writing the remarks I would have made in the requested "pequeña ponencia" (brief talk) as a blog post here. But there were, frankly, more important things to do.
Now, as Adrienne Pine notes at Quotha, Virgilio Paredes, in charge of IHAH, has written a letter to El Heraldo, thanking them for their contribution to his project of publicizing "Ciudad Blanca", reproduced by that paper in a self-congratulatory ad about their coverage of the supposed discovery.
And that inspires me to follow through on the invitation I received, albeit a couple of weeks later than proposed, in this virtual forum.
What does the present head of IHAH mean when he writes about "los vestigios arqueologicos de la zona de la Mosquitia hondureña, de una civilizacion que puede haber sido la denominada Ciudad Blanca" [the archaeological vestiges in the Honduran Mosquitia, of a civilization that could have been that called Ciudad Blanca"]?
For an archaeologist, that sentence is painful to read. We are long past the time when we spoke in terms of "civilizations"; for us, the question of the archaeology of the Mosquitia is that of cultures represented, histories to be told, and social relations to be understood. Civilizations, unfortunately, can still be "discovered" and "explored"; social relations, histories, and cultural traditions need to be investigated and understood.
The LiDAR imagery produced undoubtedly shows evidence of past inhabitation of the Mosquitia. That is neither surprising nor particularly news. All of Honduras produces evidence of human occupation prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century. The relatively low population of the Mosquitia today is an outcome of colonization and its aftermath. Knowing the reality of past habitation in the region requires us to ask what historical, political, and economic processes have disadvantaged the population in recent centuries.
Like much of the pre-hispanic past of Honduras, knowledge of the original distribution of towns and villages in the Mosquitia has been slow in developing, primarily due to over-valuation, both in Honduras and outside it, of the Classic Maya "civilization". This over-valuation of a Maya past became a shared obsession in North America and Honduras in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For North Americans, the Maya offered a civilization as "advanced" as the ancient Greeks-- a way to establish an advanced past in the Americas independent of that of the Classical world. For Central American elites, the Maya could provide antecedents for new nations, antecedents that were cultivated, desirable, and above all, up to the standards of global cultural centers.
The shared obsession with a purely Maya past led to a history of archaeological investigation that focused on the extreme western edge of the country; that normally asked-- and still too often asks-- the question "how were these other societies or cultures related to the Classic Maya?"; and that marginalizes the histories of the majority of the Honduran territory while generalizing the cultural tradition of the extreme margin of the country.
Against this background of "mayanization", attention to the archaeology of eastern Honduras should be welcome. But instead of building knowledge, the recent dramatic publicity about a supposed "discovery" of "Ciudad Blanca" takes refuge in tales of mystery with no basis in historical fact. As we have previously discussed, the legend of Ciudad Blanca is a modern fabrication, extending to false claims about the content of sixteenth-century Spanish documents.
Actual archaeological work conducted in the Mosquitia was ignored in the original publicity and continues to be ignored by the head of the IHAH. That research is of interest itself, because what it showed was an unexpected number of large sites occupied at the same time as Copan, and in some cases later. Some of these sites included architectural features recognizable as ballcourts, the kind of spaces where people from as far north as Arizona through Mexico and Guatemala played games using rubber balls. Not just significant as a sign of cultural identification with the zone to the north, but also socially significant as evidence of a practice through which different, independent towns participated in inter-site political, religious, and social relations, ballcourts had, until the early 1990s, been thought to be limited to the western edge of Honduras.
Yet the archaeology of the Mosquitia also showed abundant evidence of relations further south, to the societies of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. In some ways this was unsurprising: people in Nicaragua and Costa Rica valued the beautiful marble vases carved in the Ulua valley, and emulated the painted pottery of the Ulua tradition in their own locally made ceramic vases. But the modern history of archaeological research in Honduras had, since at least the 1930s, emphasized a break between western Honduras, connected with the Maya and other societies west and north, and the peoples of southern Central America.
What the archaeology undertaken in the 1990s (with little institutional backing or financial support) in the Mosquitia-- and in the department of Yoro, and more recently, in Olancho and the Jamastran valley-- demonstrated was that the old model of two blocs separated by a "frontier" was untenable. Instead, Honduran sites further east than the so-called "frontier" expanded our understanding of the geographical scope of travel, exchange, and knowledge, showing that before colonization by the Spanish, all of Mexico and Central America constituted an active chain of interconnected societies, ultimately linked north to the pueblos of the US Southwest and south into the mountains of Colombia, and perhaps beyond.
These were cosmopolitan peoples. Renewed investigation of the Mosquitia has the promise to remind us of this, and enforce real attention to the mechanisms through which this chain of societies were connected over their long histories.
Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that the present campaign by the IHAH will yield reliable knowledge, even if an expedition is mounted to the sites located through LiDAR imaging. Knowledge is not the same thing as discovery. Knowledge comes from building on what went before; the relentless promotion of the new data as unprecedented stands in the way of trying to honestly compare these sites to those known from the region, and across Honduras. The desire to link these real places to a modern myth, with its highly marketable narrative of lost cities of gold, has already distorted the process of archaeological research. How, in this time of high politicization of archaeology in Honduras, could any government-sponsored expedition dispute the claim that this is the discovery of a lost "civilization", Ciudad Blanca, and instead acknowledge that these sites are like those already known from previous research in the Mosquitia?
The greatest promise of following up on the new LiDAR imagery might be the potential to renew archaeological research outside the Copan zone. The greatest challenge presented is a fact cited by the manager of the Institute in his letter to El Heraldo. Paredes writes:
The government of the Republic presided over by Porfirio Lobo Sosa is working to fortify the economic development of the country through the Cultural Patrimony as a resource that should be used in a responsible and sustainable form, therefore, we do not doubt that the enhancement of such an important site will come to drive the economic development of the country without taking away from the natural and cultural riches that are encountered in the zone of the Mosquitia.
What is wrong here?
The mission of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History is not to exploit sites of cultural and historical importance for economic development. That would be a reasonable statement of the mission of the Institute of Tourism. This passage shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the mission of IHAH. And that lack of understanding of the mission of the Institute, on the part of the person appointed to direct it, is the greatest challenge for any archaeology in Honduras today.
The law governing the Institute of Anthropology and History, established in 1968 and revised in 2008, says that its purpose is
the defense, exploration, conservation, restauration, repair, recovery and growth, and scientific investigation of the archaeological, anthropological, historic and artistic treasures of the nation, as well as places of tradition and natural beauty.
Nothing there, or in the articles that follow, about economic development. Indeed, article 26 explicitly enjoins against approving exploration for any reason other than "scientific investigation":
Projects that could discover archaeological monuments, like the exploration of those already discovered, shall have the exclusive goal of scientific investigation, therefore, the Institute cannot concede permission to persons who are pursuing other ends.
Under the law, sites are supposed to be of interest for one of two reasons: due to their relation to the "social and political history" of the country; and for their "exceptional artistic or architectural value that they characterize as an exemplar of national culture". Again, no mention of economic exploitation.
Also relevant to this discussion of the challenges to an "archaeology of Ciudad Blanca" is the Law for the protection of the Cultural Patrimony. Passed in 1997, it sets out at the beginning the value of the cultural patrimony:
Cultural properties constitute one of the foundations of the culture of the people and acquire their true value when their origin, history, and context are known with precision and are disseminated for the knowledge of the population.
The cultural patrimony law repeatedly cites the role of the Institute of Anthropology and History in the protection of the cultural patrimony-- not in its exploitation for economic ends.
In theory, there is no contradiction between sponsoring research-- the job of the Institute of Anthropology-- and contributing informed understanding to the development of historic and archaeological sites for visitation that is at one and the same time of economic benefit and a means to educate the public about the Honduran past.
In practice, when economic development trumps scientific investigation and dissemination of historical knowledge, as clearly is the case in the unfounded promotion of sites in the Mosquitia as the mythical Ciudad Blanca, the interests of the Honduran people in real knowledge about the past are submerged under the desperate pursuit of money.