Honduran Archaeology in Space

The map that appears on the front page of this blog represents the areas of the country that saw systematic settlement pattern research between 1970 and 2009. Settlement pattern research proceeds by first defining a region that is proposed to have been an integrated area of related economic, political, and social ties. Survey was carried out using multiple methods, some covering 100% of the area (including review of stereo air photos, or remote sensing) and others limited to a sample of the area such as pedestrian survey of blocks, regions, or transects, often partly determined by the 100% methods. Surface collections of material whose dates can be determined– most often, pottery– might be supplemented by test excavations. More extensive excavations on sites selected to answer specific research questions would follow.

The map shows that such modern research has been more common in western Honduras, but that were important regional projects in the Rio Aguan and Jamastran valleys, and in the Mosquitia. The map doesn’t try to show every archaeological project that has been carried out in the history of Honduras, and doesn’t even try to show site-specific research taking place in these more recent decades. As blog posts accumulate on this site, they will be linked to descriptions of regions of archaeological exploration here. These begin with wide stretches of geography then proceed to named valleys and basins, and when a site-specific project is all that has taken place, will add the site level and explain why the site was a focus of research.

Western Honduras

This is the area that has had the most archaeological exploration since the first work at Copan in the early 19th century. Starting with an original focus on the Copan site, in 1917 and again in the 1930s surveys were undertaken by archaeologists on foot and on horseback, and later by road, identifying major sites along the Chamelecon drainage that stretches from the area of influence of Copan to the lower Ulua Valley.

In the 1970s, archaeologists followed up earlier work centered on the site of contact-period Naco in the Naco Valley on the Chamelecon River, using settlement pattern approaches to locate all sites with surface visible architecture, including the early site of Santo Domingo, La Sierra, contemporary with Copan, and Naco and Brisas de Naco, occupied when the Spanish colonizers first visited Honduras. Some of the same archaeologists then broadened their efforts to include other river drainages in the modern Department of Santa Barbara that bordered the Chamelecon Valley, including work at Gualjoquito and El Coyote. These efforts also included systematic research on colonial settlements in the Department of Santa Barbara along the middle Ulua River and its tributary, the Rio Jicatuyo.

Meanwhile, systematic settlement pattern research in the Copan valley identified even isolated building remains, and nearby sites like Rio Amarillo began to be studied in depth. Another project, with a base in the town of La Entrada, documented settlement patterns in an area between Copan and the Naco valley where sites shared with Copan the use of Maya writing on monuments. Archaeological research  including site focused study of the site of La Unión in the Cucuyagua Valley, and ongoing work in the same area using a regional settlement pattern approach, has extended archaeology of western Honduras further south, in the modern Department of Ocotepeque.

In general, in the period between 500-1000 AD, sites in western Honduras have similar ceramics, with polychrome pottery related to the Copador style of Honduras, although each settlement region is slightly different. This is the only region in Honduras where some sites yielded monuments in Classic Maya style, with inscriptions in Maya writing. Today, descendants of the Maya Chortí and Honduran Lenca live in this area.

Northwest Honduras

Northwest Honduras refers to the area centered on the city of San Pedro Sula, on the lower Ulua River, which divides the modern Departments of Cortés and Yoro. With its links to the development of multinational banana companies starting in the late nineteenth century, San Pedro Sula early became a center for visiting archaeologists, most seeking to collect objects for museums through purchase and their own site-centered excavations. By the 1890s, the site called Travesía already was a focus of repeated visits. The term “playa de los muertos“, originally literally meaning river beaches where the bones of the dead washed out of burials, along with whole pots, was used for a number of different places before becoming tied to one specific area on the Ulua river, as the site Playa de los Muertos investigated in the 1920s and 1930s.

While projects in the 1930s reported multiple sites throughout the lower Ulua valley (sometimes called the Sula Plains), and on Lake Yojoa, just to the south in the first major mountains, it was not until the 1970s that systematic site surveys were undertaken in this region, identifying over 500 sites in the 2400 sq km of the lower Ulua Valley alone. A settlement pattern project in the basin of Lake Yojoa systematically documented settlements there in the 1980s to 1990s.

In northwest Honduras, modern site specific research was undertaken at Travesia in the early 1940s and again in the 1970s and 1980s; at Los Naranjos in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and 1970s; at Cerro Palenque in the 1920s (unpublished, and notes lost) and again in the 1980s and 1990s; and at Currusté in the 1970s and again in the 2000s. Archaeological sites occupied into the colonial period were explored at Ticamaya (2000s) and San Fernando de Omoa (1970s and 2008-2009). Very early village life was a focus of investigation of Puerto Escondido and Los Naranjos in the 1990s and 2000s.

Northwest Honduran sites generally make and use Ulua Polychrome ceramics between 500 and 1000 AD as the main everyday and special purpose food serving vessels. Regional variations can be identified after about 650 AD.  This use of Ulua Polychrome pottery is shared with the neighboring Central Honduran region of Comayagua.

Central Honduras

Central Honduras can loosely be defined, archaeologically, as the area south and east of Northwest Honduras, centrally the Department of Comayagua. For much of the history of archaeology, the Comayagua valley has been the main area explored. Central Honduras can include other areas on tributaries of the Comayagua River, which extend east into the highlands of Honduras. Along with archaeologically little known areas in the Departments of Lempira, Intibucá, and La Paz, southwest of Comayagua, form the heartland of the contemporary Honduran Lenca people.

Comayagua was the center of the colonial capital of Honduras, and is on the main road from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula. So most visitors to Honduras in the 19th century passed through Comayagua. One of these visitors, Ephraim Squier, reported on sites, including Tenampua, a hilltop center with a ballcourt.

Tenampua was mapped and test excavations done in the 1920s. Yarumela, a site with monumental architecture, became a focus starting in the 1930s by researchers who saw it either as a sign of Maya presence, or (rightly) as a very early village occupation. Modern archaeology was resumed at Yarumela in the 1980s, and settlement survey of the Comayagua valley was carried out in the same decade.

Other areas north along the Comayagua drainage were explored in modern archaeological projects of the 1970s to 1990s. The largest was survey of the watershed of the Cajon hydroelectric dam, which flooded part of the Humuya (the middle Comayagua) and the Sulaco river valleys. Settlement pattern-based research was also carried out along the Rio Cuyumapa,  in the Oloman and Cataguana valleys of the Department of Yoro. This part of Yoro was occupied historically by the Tol or Torrupan people, whose precise distribution south is uncertain, and whose descendants live throughout north Central Honduras today.

The material patterns in the three areas loosely included in Central Honduras are diverse. In Comayagua and the Cuyumapa drainage, many sites included ballcourts. None are reported for the Sulaco valley. Pottery and figurines in early sites in the Cuyumapa drainage, and some in the Sulaco drainage, resemble sites in the lower Ulua valley of Northwest Honduras. The early pottery of Yarumela, in the Comayagua valley, is different, and it does not have the same kinds of figurines.

During the period from 500-1000 AD, people living in the Comayagua valley used Ulua Polychromes. Late in that period they created an innovative substyle of Ulua Polychrome, the Tenampua Polychrome, out of which developed Las Vegas Polychrome, named for a site that has had only limited archaeological research but that research suggests was the main competitor for Tenampua.

The Sulaco drainage, in contrast, produced sites where people used, and apparently made, unique Sulaco Polychrome (and Bichrome) pottery. In the Cuyumapa drainage in Yoro, just to the north of the Sulaco valley, the main local painted pottery looks more closely related to Chichicaste Polychrome, first defined in Olancho, in eastern Honduras.

Eastern Honduras

The least studied area of Honduras is also the largest area: extending from the eastern edge of the Comayagua drainage, and ending only with the artificial break provided by the modern border with Nicaragua, it includes the Departments of Islas de la Bahía, Atlántida, Colón, and Gracias a Díos on the northeast coast, and inland Olancho and El Paraiso, as well as part of Yoro. These departments encompass the Mosquitia, the vast riverine lowlands that include the Río Plátano Biosphere Preserve. Along the coast, the region is still inhabited by Pech who archaeologists believe are the descendants of the builders of many of the archaeological sites here. Other indigenous people also occupy eastern Honduras, including the Miskito and Tahwaka, and ancestors of these and other indigenous groups likely built and lived in settlements in this region before European colonization uprooted them and decimated their populations.

Eastern Honduras was archaeologically known quite early. Reports on sites there from the first half of the twentieth century showed that there were local traditions of stone monuments, carved figural metates (stone benches, used as seats of power in an area beginning in Honduras and extending as far south as Panama) in the form of felines and crocodilians, and monumental carved stone vases.

Modern archaeology began with site survey and testing in the 1930s in the Bay Islands and adjacent mainland, a zone stretching from the Aguan River valley east. In the 1970s, renewed work in this region included site-specific studies of sites located by this earlier survey research. Starting in the 1990s, regional settlement pattern projects in areas like the Culmí valley and broader site survey of the Mosquitia extended knowledge of site distributions, and produced evidence of the easternmost distribution of ballcourts in the country.

In the 1990s, local residents reported finding human skeletal remains along with carved stone vases in the Talgua and Jamasquire Caves inland in Olancho. A regional project in the Telica Valley of Olancho began in 2007, using a settlement pattern approach beginning with remapping previously reported sites. Even further inland, a regional settlement pattern study of the Jamastran Valley was completed in the Department of El Paraiso.

Material patterns over such a wide region can be expected to be diverse. Initially, widely scattered archaeological projects emphasized broad similarities to assist dating. This allowed the definition of an earlier horizon (Selin) with distinctive polychrome pottery styles, and a later (Cocal) horizon, in which pottery was mainly incised, based primarily on sites in the Bay Islands and along the northeast coast. More recently, the Chichicaste Polychrome group was defined for Olancho, suggesting a more localized set of social relations existed there between 600-1000 AD that contrasts with the Selin Phase of the northeast coast. While these ceramics form the majority of those used at sites in the region, imported Ulua Polychromes are found in small numbers throughout northeast and southeast Honduras.

Southern Honduras

Southern Honduras– the modern Departments of Lempira, Intibucá, La Paz, Valle and Choluteca– actually is much less well-known archaeologically than the vast stretches of eastern Honduras that have seen many modern research projects. In the 1960s, systematic research was undertaken in Choluteca on the Gulf of Fonseca. With this exception, the border with El Salvador remains an opportunity for future archaeologists to explore.

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