People who lived in Honduras before the Spanish conquest made things at home. This was certainly true of the residents of the Ulúa River Valley where I have done research for many years. Farmers left home every morning to work in their fields. Traders traveled down rivers and across mountains.
Families made excursions to ballgames and other festivals hosted by their neighbors.
But when it came time to weave, pot, pound bark into paper, or shape stone, craftswomen and men gathered their materials, got out their tools, and set to work in their living spaces.
These living spaces varied in size and shape but combined buildings and outside areas.
Cerro Palenque is a large settlement built on a hilltop and associated ridges that sit above the Ulúa River. It was occupied from the 7th to the 11th centuries A.D. There is an impressive monumental center with a ballcourt. People lived in houses built of stone, wood, and clay. These houses were built on raised foundation platforms around central patios.
I excavated in one household compound very close to the monumental center of the city for several seasons.
During the first season of excavations, in 1998, my co-workers and I dug lines of shovel test pits around all the visible buildings and across the open space of the central patio. These were small holes, dug quickly but not carelessly, designed to give us some sense of the different kinds of deposits we might expect.
Near the southern mound the soil was bright red and burned looking. I chose the area as one to investigate more thoroughly with larger scale excavations. This is how we found not one, but three small kilns. One was in front of the large mound and two were on its west side.
Each kiln had a dome of clay built over a wood frame. The base was circular with a stone and gravel floor.
The best preserved one had a square fire box underneath it with pipes to distribute the heat. Nearby we found a trench used to collect trash, including some of the molds used by the potters.
We also found the things made in these molds: bowls, other kinds of tableware, and figurines made from a fine grained clay. The quantity produced was not great, certainly not by modern expectations based on industrial production. It was the diversity of figures and vessels produced that made me think.
What were these items used for?
The vessels were mostly small bowls and many of the figurines were whistles. The clay itself, used for more public or fancy kinds of objects, as well as what was made with it, led me to conclude that these kilns were being used to fire items to be used in rituals and celebrations held at home. In fact, I think that making the figurines may have been part of these rituals.
Crafting at Cerro Palenque was something embedded in the stream these people’s lives. Working outside would also have placed the crafter in the middle of things. Cooking, hauling water, minding children, gossiping, mending equipment, planning the next big family event – these were the kinds of activities that would have taken place as a matter of course. Better light and more room to spread out were practical advantages. But I think it was the sociable side of the location that was also attractive and is important to our understanding of how people structure the making of things as they do.