Honduras lies in the middle of the Americas, located between Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua and with a pacific and Caribbean coast. Honduras has been home to several Mesoamerican civilizations prior to European contact and has a rich archaeological history including Mayan sites such as Copán and more distinct local civilizations as those found in the Ulúa Valley, Playa de los Muertos and Yarumela. As Mesoamerican artifacts have gained popularity in the worldwide markets, Honduras has fallen victim to massive losses of cultural heritage as many sites have been looted and destroyed. This essay will seek to explain the unique situation in Honduras which allows for the large scale looting and pillaging of its archaeological sites, as well as compare the two distinct approaches taken towards preserving Copán and the Ulúa valley respectively. I will also seek to explore the impact these lootings have on Honduras, its people and their sense of identity.
Looting of cultural artifacts is not simply a historical or an archaeological problem. More often than not, archaeological looting from source countries is indicative of other issues at play. Certain conditions allow for the flourishing of illicit markets, as can be seen in the drugs trade, illegal arms trade and human trafficking. Chief among these causes are usually poverty, lack of employment, inadequate security, corruption and lack of public concern. In this section I will show how Honduras satisfies nearly all of these criteria.
Honduras is the poorest country in Central America, with the lowest GDP per capita. Honduras ranks #134 on the World Banks list of countries by purchasing power parity. About 40% of the Honduran workforce is employed in the agricultural and services sectors respectively, with the remaining 20% working in the industrial sector. The main agricultural export of Honduras has historically been the banana, a fruit which has shaped the political development of the country in the past century as well as citrus, corn, palm and beef. On the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, as well as in the region surrounding Lake Yojoa, the fishing industry provides local populations with opportunities for work. Those working within the services sector are made up primarily of maids, nannies and other household services however since the 1990’s the banking sector in Honduras has expanded considerably creating new jobs. In more recent years Honduras has seen new jobs in call centers as other Latin American companies seek to take advantage of the low minimum wages in the country. Honduras’ industrial workers mostly work within the maquiladora sector producing clothing and textiles or in sugar or coffee processing plants.
Although Honduras has a minimum wage, it is quite low and varies depending on the sector of employment of the worker. The minimum wage for someone working in a financial institution is 255 Lempiras ($15 CAD) a day, while someone in manufacturing earns 228 Lempiras ($13 CAD). At the bottom of the wage scale are agricultural workers who despite having some of the most demanding jobs in the country earn only 179 Lempiras a day ($10 CAD) or 5,385 Lempiras a month ($315 CAD). In the Copán region and the Ulúa Valley the majority of people are employed in the agricultural sector, putting them at the bottom of the economic scale of one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. The degree of poverty in the region coupled with the proximity to archaeological material creates opportunities for what is termed ‘subsistence digging’. According to Donna Yates from traffickingculture.org “The term ‘subsistence digger’ is used to refer to an individual who engages in the illicit excavation of archaeological sites for saleable cultural objects due to extreme poverty. It is derived from the idea of subsistence farming and implies that the person in the activity has few other economic opportunities. They are looting for survival, not profit.”
The security situation in Honduras in some ways outweighs economic concerns. Honduras sits at a strategic crossroads in the international drug smuggling route, and is the main transit route for cocaine trafficking. Shipments of illegal drugs are usually flown from Colombia and Venezuela to Honduras. The trafficking of drugs relies on criminal enterprises that are able to operate without much interference from the police. Although there is no evidence suggesting that cooperation between Honduran street gangs and those engaged in the trade of illicit antiques exists, the fact that massive amounts of illegal materials are able to be shipped in and out of the country is significant. Clearly knowledge about circumnavigating border posts and evading detection is rather widespread, and the abilities as well as the commitment of the Honduran authorities to combat smuggling can be called into question.
As a result of the proliferation of gangs and gang warfare in Honduras, it is ranked first worldwide by international homicide rate according the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Honduras has a murder rate of 90.4 per 100,000 annually; nearly double that of Venezuela which is next on the list and 4.2 times higher than in Mexico.Furthermore, according to a study conducted by the Alianza Paz y Justicia(Peace and Justice Alliance) only 1% of homicide cases in San Pedro Sula, Comayagua and Tegucigalpa result in conviction. Police only open investigations into 8% of urban murders and only send 7% to trial. Of these 7% of murder investigations which proceed to trial, in 60% of these cases the body is not collected from the scene of the crime. Criminals are able to operate with a high degree of impunity and many murders which are not gang related are often swept under the rug and made to look like gang related crimes.
According to Transparency International, Honduras scored 29 out of a possible 100 on the Corruption Perception Index 2014 where a score of 0 indicates a highly corrupt government and 100 a very clean government. According to this index, Honduras is among the 50 most corrupt nations in the world and the 5th most corrupt country in the Americas. Corruption permeates all levels of Honduran society, and this would undoubtedly has an impact on the states’ abilities in preserving archaeological material. In addition to this, the non-corrupt majority is understaffed and underfunded, seriously undercutting their ability to perform their jobs effectively.
Due to these conditions, Honduras has experienced significant difficulties policing and controlling their cultural heritage. Honduras is rich with sites containing valuable cultural artifacts however limited resources have prevented them from effectively protecting these sites from looting. Although the Government of Honduras does often institute policies with the sincere objective of combating archaeological looting, these limitations seriously undercut these efforts. Beginning in the early 20th century, laws were put in place in order to protect archaeological sites while permitting their scientific and educational documentation and exploration. Later on, in 1952, the Instituto Hondureno de Antropologia e Historia was created with the aim of uncovering, preserving and protecting Honduran cultural heritage. In order to understand the various challenges the government of Honduras has experienced throughout the ages and to understand the responses and approaches adopted by those seeking to protect Honduras’ cultural heritage.
The Ulúa Valley is very fertile and rich with plant and animal life. Human settlement can be traced to 1500 BC until Colonial times, with most people initially living around Puerto Escondido. Settlements were initially small however as these societies progressed, they built larger structures and monuments, possibly reflecting their social development. Prior to European contact the inhabitants were mostly cocoa farmers. Cocoa was central to Mesoamerican economies at the time and the Mayans highly prized it as an item of trade. In addition to cocoa production, the inhabitants also supplemented their living with marine resources from the river and the ocean. The inhabitants of the Ulúa valley were not themselves Mayan, however they had easy access to the Maya and their markets through the Caribbean to Yucatan and even the gulf coast of Mexico. The people of Ulúa were involved in trade and political contact and compromise with their neighbors, typical of many societies throughout Mesoamerica.
Settlements in Ulúa flourished between 500 and 850 AD as the population grew and prospered. Many communities existed throughout the valley sharing cultural, linguistic and economic ties however these communities were not united politically. Between the 9th and 12 centuries in Ulúa, the Palenque began to dominate the valley and curbed the power and influence of the earlier inhabitants. After the Palenque takeover in the region, not much pottery, sculptures or structures were built in the region.
Settlement in Copán began in the pre-classic period however it was not until the classic period that Copán became an important regional power. Prior to the settlement of the Maya, the Copán River valley was farmed by its inhabitants and the first known stone architecture was built in the Copán area in the 9th century BC. A new dynasty in Copán began in the 5th century A.D., with elite settlers originating from Tikal moving into the region. Copán became one of the most powerful city-states in the Southern Maya region. As a dominant regional power, the Maya at Copán were able to commission buildings of large structures as well as monuments, many of which can still be seen today. At its peak, Copán is estimated to have had a population of at least 20,000 spread over an area of 250 square miles.
In colonial times, looting of the various towns, cities and villages was commonplace throughout Mesoamerica. The Spanish conquistadores were eager to find sources of gold, silver, jade and other precious metals and stones. Looting and pillaging was an easy and cheap means of obtaining small amounts of precious metals and required little labour or supervision. The conquistadores did take some objects home as curiosities however the main objective when looting was almost always the precious minerals and rocks themselves, and much less so the actual artifact. Given that the Spanish had arrived after the decline of the Mayan civilization and many sites were uninhabited for quite some time and reclaimed by the jungle, a significant number of classical sites survived into the 20th century.
The 1900’s saw a dramatic spike in interest in archaeology, and throughout this century adventurer-archaeologists uncovered ‘lost’ cities in the jungles of Mexico and Central America. From the beginning of the century, interest in the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations was very high. Tales of gruesome human sacrifices deep within the jungles of Central America occupied the imaginations of many North Americans and Europeans, and with it a desire to learn about the cities of the Maya. Mayan history was romanticized, speculated upon and discussed by many, even those outside of academic circles. The Pyramids were objects of fascination and began to appear throughout pop culture. This interest fueled archaeological expeditions.
The history of archaeological looting in Copán begins a few decades before the advent of international interest in Mayan archaeological artifacts. John Lloyd Stephens had trekked to Copán to study the ruins of the so-called south eastern Mayan periphery. In 1839, Stephens bought the entire site of Copán in 1839 for $50 (Roughly $1,500 today); however the government of Honduras later overturned this purchase, passing the first piece of legislation aimed at preserving the region. Stephens’s discoveries gained the attention of the American public, and in 1891 John Owens of the United Sates led another expedition on behalf of the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology at Harvard (PMAE). The PMAE expedition secured exclusive excavation rights not only at Copán but also to all the ruins of the country, with an understanding that any findings would be equally divided between the museum and the government of Honduras. In the very first year of the expedition, concerns were already raised about looting at the site.
Throughout the following decades, American expeditions at Copán continued however the pace of archaeological work depended on the political situation at the time. The Honduran-American political relationship was rocky during certain administrations, leading to permits no longer being renewed, restricted access to archaeological sites and barriers to export of archaeological materials on various occasions. In the 1920s, archaeological excavation in Copán took place under the patronage of the Carnegie Institution, limiting the access and ability to study the ruins that had previously been enjoyed by the PMAE. When access to Copán was restricted, archaeologists who weren't associated with the Carnegie Institution turned to excavations in the Ulúa Valley in the north of the country.
As soon as archaeological and academic focus shifted from Copán, the international antiques market followed this trend. As people became more aware of the value of objects being unearthed in the valley, many locals began to see opportunities for themselves and their communities. To many Hondurans, they saw the graves of their ancestors being dug up and whisked away by foreigners who were well dressed, well equipped and well-funded. Much of the manual labor fueling the digs was provided by indigenous and mestizo campesinos who were living in poverty under the heels of the American-owned Cuyamel Fruit Company, Standard Fruit Company and United Fruit Company. By 1914, local markets for excavated materials had emerged. A letter written by L. Valentine, who operated as a sort of middleman between the U.S. and Honduras, to archaeologist G.B. Gordon shows that the Americans felt as though their exclusive access to the archaeological material was being threatened:
“I regret to say that the rumor was spread in the Ulúa region that the antiquities found in the river possess a tremendous marketable value. Consequently, my agent encountered difficulties in eliminating numerous interested parties from acquiring the latest findings. The publication in local newspapers of a translation of your report on Copán has contributed to create unwarranted competition. “
The people living in Honduras, who had been economically exploited and whose labor was advancing the American fruit economy as well as the historical and archaeological academies became aware of the findings of the archaeologists as well as the financial value of the objects being unearthed and some made the rational economic choice to engage in the trade of archaeological material. Farmers of the region had knowledge of the geography which surpassed that of the archaeologists and those who had participated in archaeological digs were able to apply this knowledge for excavations of their own. Farmers who on occasion came across artifacts in their fields were now had the tools and incentive to seek out artifacts and sell them to local dealers.
Important political developments shaped the patterns of archaeological excavation, and American interests took over almost completely. In 1910, a coup overthrew the Honduran administration in favor of an administration which better suited American business interests. The coup’s main objective was to ensure the construction of railroad lines which would be under the complete control of the United States. This coup was backed by several key U.S. businessmen, particularly those involved in the banana industry and who were interested in obtaining rail passages from the agricultural production centers in mainland Honduras to the coasts, where they could be shipped to America for consumption. The advent of refrigerated shipping allowed for fruit companies to ship massive amounts of produce without spoilage, a particularly important development for bananas which would otherwise not survive the passage at sea. Americans began to develop a fondness for the affordable and sweet fruit, and the banana business became a multi-billion dollar industry, powerful enough to dictate American foreign policy as well as entire governmental administrations in Honduras.
One of the most influential backers of the coup was Samuel Zemurray, who was at the time president of Cuyamel Fruit and would later become president of the United Fruit Company. Zemurray’s daughter, Doris Stone, became one of the most prominent archaeologists in the region. Zemurray had considerable sway with authorities and was able to obtain access to archaeological sites which would have otherwise been unobtainable.Archaeology in Honduras was now guided by American businessmen, who gave favorable access to those with whom they had personal connections.
The United Fruit Company in many ways redefined the following period of Archaeology in the Ulúa valley. United Fruit provided opportunities for archaeologists, many of whom were pioneers in the field. The United Fruit Company were the de-facto rulers of much of Honduras, and also controlled the logistical matters which were necessary for the advancement of archaeology in the region. Excavations were conducted on or near United Fruit farms which also served as living quarters for the excavation teams. Tools and equipment for the excavation of the archaeological sites were shipped via the Great White Fleet, a shipping company backed by the United Fruit Company. The United Fruit Company also held considerable amounts of sway within the Honduran Government, allowing them to export objects without too much trouble from the authorities.
Those Americans working for the United Fruit Company, also known as Banana Cowboys, began to become important participants in the trade In the antiques trade in the Ulúa region, as evidenced by the following quote from archaeologist Wilson Popone:
“The problems of the field archaeologist are tending to become less simple year by year as the Ulúa Valley is being opened up for farming of bananas and the mozos and peons who live on the farms and along the river are already aware of the intrinsic value of the prehistoric relics they encounter. Women as well as men make it a pastime to wander up and down the banks, probing with their sharp pointed machetes wherever fragments protrude from the bank. Objects found are sold to passersby, to souvenir collectors, or to “Banana Cowboys” on the lookout for mementos to send to the folks at home.”
It was not only the campesinos who would illicitly excavate archaeological material in Northern Honduras at the time. Banana Cowboys too began to excavate materials themselves, as many who worked dredging canals came across archaeological material during their work. This kind of activity is documented in a newspaper article from 1932:
“J. I. Kennedy, formerly a resident of Savannah, but more recently with the United Fruit Company at Tela, Honduras, was in Hotel Savannah yesterday with pieces of pottery and stone work which he believes are rare specimens. Mr. Kennedy was operating a drag line in Honduras and forty feet from the river at Tela, and nine or ten feet below the earth’s surface, found the piece of stone work which shows considerable age. He was interested in finding out what sort of tools could have been used to [work] the stone and to inscribe the figures on the outside of the “cup-like” vessel . . . The piece of pottery was found with red coloring predominating, but the boy of general work about the camp, thinking to please Mr. Kennedy by clearing the pottery, first tried lye on it, then sandpaper, and the result was that while he scoured it successfully, he also scoured quite a bit of the coloring off of it. This disappointed both Mr. Kennedy and the boy when the latter found out what his enthusiasm had led him to do. Mr. Kennedy, a guest of Hotel Savannah while here, left last night for the North with his prized possessions and hopes to [learn] up there just what his discoveries amount to.”
This increased level of archaeological looting and informal digging reflected the growing popularity of Mesoamerican antiquities on the international market. Mayan artifacts were beginning to sell for prices much higher than in previous times, leading to many to seek to profit from this. Of all Central American civilizations, Mayan artifacts gained the highest amount of money on the international market leading to many discoveries in the Ulúa valley to be incorrectly labelled as ‘Mayan’ in order to fetch the most possible money. This trend continued well into the 1950’s, by which time Honduras was becoming more aware of the magnitude of their losses in cultural heritage and sought to stem the flow of antiques from the Copán and Ulúa valleys to the United States and Europe.
In 1952, under Decree 245, the government of Honduras created the National Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH) in order to gain more control over their natural cultural heritage. In 1966, Honduras issued an emergency degree in an attempt to stop the looting of her archaeological sites as a response to a spike in illicit diggings at the time. In the 1950’s and 1960’s looting was a popular activity for the affluent and the diplomatic core of Tegucigalpa and the sites of Travesia and Tenampua were extensively looted during this period.
By the 1970s, the authority of the IHAH was expanded in a response to the increasing level of looting in the country and the alarming trend of the destruction of archaeological sites. At this time, the Honduran Government began working in earnest with the government of the United States of America, and began implementing programs throughout the country, most notably the Proyecto Arqueologico Sula (PAS). PAS aimed to document archaeological sites in Honduras and to conduct salvage operations at damaged sites. The Government of Honduras also passed national patrimony laws in 1984 which reiterated the fact that all archaeological material found in Honduras is the property of the Government of Honduras and its excavation is unlawful. The Government of Honduras sought to follow the lead of the Greek and Italian authorities who took similar actions in order to protect their national heritage. The PAS program expanded its scope and horizon to other archaeological sites within the country and international researchers began to work more closely with the Honduran authorities. At this point in time, there was no longer significant involvement on the part of the various American companies such as United Fruit in the search for and excavation of archaeological material. Although looting continued to be a significant problem for the Honduran authorities, the Government of Honduras was at least successful in implementing laws and regulations which took these American companies out of the mix. The impact of the 1970 UNESCO convention on archaeological heritage cannot be ignored however UNESCO lacked the legal authority and teeth for widespread implementation of the ruling.
In the decades that followed, the Government of Honduras also engaged in Memorandums of Understanding with the various governments in Central America as well as the United States. The goal of these memorandums was to establish the framework for looted archaeological material to be returned to Honduras after it had been illegally removed from the country. Honduras lacked the legal authority to compel the return of stolen archaeological material once it had left the country however the Memorandums of Understanding made it so that the signatory governments would seek to return antiques they knew to be looted.
Despite these measures, the looting in Honduras continued. In 1997National Geographic published an article with a number of large coloured photographs of a tomb at Copán. A year later, the tomb was looted in what many people suspected to be a “looting to order”. Although the looters arrived to a site which for the most part had most archaeological material removed, this was the most high profile and humiliating instance of pillage in the history of Honduras, leaving the IHAH with a black eye. Officials accused a local guard who maintained his innocence however the humiliation suffered by this individual drove him to commit suicide. Coincidentally, prior to the looting of Copán the government of Honduras had passed new legislation: Decree 200-97 in 1997. This decree was the strongest law aimed at protecting national cultural heritage in the country. Decree 200-97 made Honduras the first country in Central America to restrict ownership of cultural heritage from private citizens and prohibited the sale of antiquities within its borders. People who had antiquities collections at the time of the passing of the decree were granted a lifetime grace period, whereupon their death all archaeological materials must be transferred to the government. Although the decree is retroactive and states that collections may not be transferred or inherited, it is limited by the fact that the Government depends on the cooperation of its citizens in its enforcement. As the Government of Honduras does not have a database which keeps track of who owns what archaeological material, they are strongly reliant upon civic cooperation which as we all know has its limits.
Throughout the 20th Century, the Honduran people and government were charged with the task of nation building and identity creating in this young country. After much self-questioning and grappling with identity, the emerging narrative was that Honduras was a distinctly mestizo society. The architecture, administration, and religion of Honduras were all strongly influenced by Europe whereas the more daily aspects of Honduran life were distinctly indigenous. Honduran history was romanticized and portrayed as a somewhat uncomfortable mix of conquistador and indio. Different peoples who made up the past of Honduras began to take on symbolic roles in the national historical narrative. The conquistadores, often personified as Hernán Cortés of Francisco de Montejo , were seen to represent the civilization and progress brought to the region.The department of Cortés which runs through the Ulúa Valley is named after the conquistador.
The Lenca, Honduras’ largest indigenous group, were characterized by the betrayal of Lempira. Lempira was a Lenca cacique who was the leader of resistance against the Spanish conquistadores led by Montejo. According to the account taught in Honduran schools, Lempira was lured by the Spanish under the pretense of negotiating peace. When Lempira arrived, a hidden Spanish soldier shot Lempira with an arquebus, killing him. When his soldiers realized Lempira had died they laid down their arms. The history of Lenca and Lempira is used to represent the betrayal that Honduras has so often suffered throughout her history and continues to experience today. Hondurans are reminded daily of this story, as the currency of Honduras was renamed ‘Lempira’ in his honor and his portrait is featured on the 1 Lempira note.
Finally, the history of the Maya is represented by the ruins at Copán. To the Honduras, Copán represents a mythical period in their history when they were the ruling force and central power in the region. The Maya represented the glorious past of the people of Honduras, much in the same way Rome is in Italian history. This legacy was a source of pride for the people of Honduras despite the fact that only a small segment (an estimated 4,200 people) of the Honduran population could claim Mayan heritage. Despite this, Honduran national identity has appropriated the history of the Maya and Mayan art and culture has been adopted by a large segment of the population. For decades the most luxurious hotel in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, was the Hotel Maya which features very prominent Mayan hieroglyphs up its facade. A multitude of businesses name themselves after the Maya including the Escuela Maya, as well as other bars, restaurants and even corner stores. Hondurans living in Tegucigalpa can experience the architectural wonders of the Maya in a variety of ways. Honduras’ Museo Nacional de la Identidad (Museum of National Identity) features a 3D Copán exhibit where visitors can experience Copán through virtual flight and exploration of the site and Parque La Concordia in Central Tegucigalpa is a park which features replicas of the most famous structures and sculptures from Copán.
Although most Hondurans know the story of Lempira and consider it to be an important part of their heritage, the Mayan influences are featured most prominently throughout Honduran society. As the world became more interested in the Mayan civilization, Hondurans began to identify more and more with this culture and civilization. The protection of Mayan archaeological sites, specifically Copán was paramount. The limited funds received by the IHAH were put towards protecting the site with general success with the exception of the 1999 looting. Protecting Copán was a much easier task than protecting the Ulúa valley, and given Copán’s importance in the national identity of Honduras it was given precedence over the Ulúa valley.
The archaeological sites at Copán are much better protected than the sites in the Ulúa valley, and as such there have been fewer incidents of looting over time. Copán is the most important archaeological destination for tourists in the entire country, and Honduran authorities have sought to create a Copán brand. Branding of Copán was not only an effort in order to attract tourists, but also in identity creating and nation building. As such, Copán occupies a central position in the Honduran consciousness and is featured prominently by the board of tourism. The Copán site enjoys UNESCO world heritage site, and protection of the site has been financed by a World Bank loan. The archaeological site at Copán enjoys more effective protection compared to Ulúa, as there are armed guards on the premises. Given its importance to Honduran identity and tourism, the government of Honduras has made it a priority to protect Copán over the Ulúa valley.
The Copán site is quite large and covers an extensive amount of area. The majority of structures in Copán are located in the area known as the “Main Group.” The Main group is the nucleus of the Copán sites and is the area most visited by the museum. The Main group features the Great Plaza, the Acropolis, the Ball Court, the Altar Q, and the Hieroglyphic Staircase. The Ruins are located in the town of Copán Ruinas, in the Copán department. Copán is situated on the border with Guatemala, the country most often associated with Mayan history and archaeology. Although Copán has been looted and items from Copán periodically appear on the international antiques market, the Honduran authorities have done a reasonably good job at preserving the site. In 1985 the IHAH began the Copán Mosaic Project with the intentions of salvaging and rescuing items from the site. However as the project developed they took on the task of documenting and cataloging sculpture fragments from building facades found on the surface of Copán’s principal group, reconstructing structures from fragments collected throughout time, analyzing and interpreting stone structures as well as conserving and storing finds to guarantee long-term conservation.
Prior to the 1940’s in Ulúa, the biggest threat to archaeological sites was not looters but large scale farms which systematically destroyed some archaeological sites in order to build sugarcane and banana plantations. It was not until the years between 1979 and 1988 that the government and people of Honduras became fully aware of the scale and the extent of the looting and destruction of archaeological sites in the valley. With the inception of the Proyecto Arqueologico Sula (PAS), the IHAH sought to use aerial photographs in order to accomplish an archaeological survey. The aim was to identify, define and number archaeological sites in the region. and classifying them. By the end of the Survey, the IHAH through their PAS The PAS developed a system of identifying archaeological material originating from Ulúa initiative discovered that 60% of the 507 archaeological sites showed clear signs of pillage and 15% of sites were completely destroyed. The majority of the sites which were still intact were only in good condition because they were not above ground.
Throughout the 19th century, there has been a growing interest internationally in Central American objects, specifically Mayan antiquities. Sculptures containing hieroglyphic inscriptions are the most popular and sought out, with Jade items coming in at a close second. Although Ulúa valley items typically don’t make as much money on the market, however they are still often sold as “Mayan” objects in order to sell for the typically higher prices that Mayan items earn compared to other Mesoamerican artifacts. Between 1971 and 1999, 107 items sold at Sothebys had originated from the Ulúa valley, with only Jaina Island in Mexico (451 items) Peten in Guatemala (120 items) and the Lower Maya Zones in Mexico (177 items). Despite the lower prices items from the Ulúa valley earn, the region is still nonetheless an important source of “Mayan” objects despite the fact that the Maya did not settle in the Ulúa Valley.
Looting has been a serious problem in the Ulúa valley for the better part of this century. The growing interest in Mesoamerican objects worldwide led to the creation of local illicit antiques markets in the region. Objects unearthed in Ulúa are sought out and purchased by antiques traders, who then forward it to nearby San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ largest city which has easy shipping connections to New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta and Miami.
Looting in Honduras is done mostly by campesinos, or peasants living in the areas surrounding archaeological sites. This is true throughout almost all of Central America, especially at Mayan sites or sites which can sell objects as “Mayan” artefacts. Campesinos near archaeological sites prod and investigate large “house mounds” for traces of ancient pole and thatch structures. The campesinos use pieces of construction cable, calledramienta, to prod through the earth in order to feel for archaeological material. If the campesinos find evidence of archaeological material, they begin digging and excavating in search for artifacts.
The majority of indigenous individuals who participate in the antiques trade do not view looting as a negative thing. To many, archaeological artifacts are seen as regalos del patron, or gifts from the ancestors. Although many archaeologists have very strong opinions about who has the right to excavate material these ideals are often challenged in the Central American context. Campesinos are extremely marginalized in Honduras and earn very little. Many campesino families do not have the ability to save much money and as such are extremely vulnerable when unexpected expenses occur. Honduras does not have socialized medicine nor do they have social security and an unexpected illness can cost a family between $5-15 a treatment, which is sometimes not affordable for many campesinos. Given these conditions it is not surprising that many do sell the artifacts they unearth in order to support themselves. Although the campesinos unearthing the objects typically only receive a fraction of the total amount the item sells for on the international market (between $1-20) it is enough to make a difference in their day to day life. In the agricultural off-season, it is not at all uncommon for campesinos to work more hours searching for archaeological material.
The campesinos who unearth archaeological material do not always set out to do so, many of them enter the business by accident. The way in which the campesinos use ramientas to search for artifacts is very similar to the way in which the indigenous people plant seeds. Campesinos planting their crops on occasion would come across archaeological material and excavate it purely out of interest. Tombs and structures are also on occasion revealed when trees fall and the roots rip off the topsoil covering them. Stories also exist about campesinos falling through the roof of underground structures while tending to their fields. In these cases of accidental archaeological discovery, word of mouth amongst the campesinos would typically spread until it reached an antiques dealer who would make an offer for the item. After successfully selling an artifact, these campesinos might be encouraged to deliberately search for items. The overwhelming majority of campesinos digging for archaeological material are indigenous while the majority of the antique dealers and middlemen are mestizo, indicating that the antiques trade in Central America has a significant cultural dynamic.
Given these circumstances, the Honduran people face an uphill battle. Although the government of Honduras has sincerely tried to stop illicit excavation, they are severely limited by the factors discussed in this essay. The government and archaeologists of Honduras have sought to protect Copán, the Ulúa valley as well as the other archaeological sites in the country and have achieved limited success. Weak institutions, a lack of funding and an impoverished rural population severely undermine any attempts at preserving their cultural heritage. Hondurans are very proud of their indigenous roots and the loss of ancient artifacts negatively affects the abilities of the people to connect with their past. Furthermore, the loss of these precious materials is thought to have a negative impact on the tourism industry, a significant portion of which is centered around archaeological tourism. Given Honduras’ limited funding and manpower for the protection of archaeological sites and the importance of Copán in Honduran national identity, priority is given to the protection of this site. Dealers of illicit antiques stand to gain the most from looting in Copán and Ulúa as priceless artifacts are routinely purchased for tens of dollars from campesinos and forwarded to larger markets in the United States and Europe where they sell for thousands of dollars. The fact that many of those participating in the excavation process are living in poverty complicates any efforts to resolve the issue of illicit digging. In order to slow the rate of illicit excavations and export of Honduran cultural artifacts more attention must be paid to the living conditions of those living in its environs and the international community must provide support for governments who lack the financial and logistical ability to effectively police their cultural artifacts.
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