Tourism and the Archaeology of State – Facing Challenges: the Case of Copan, Honduras



by | Dec 25, 2002

For many nation-states, the achievements of their illustrious ancestors are the source of immense pride, and a focus for national identity.

For tourists who visit these archeological monuments, the etiquette should be to see and to learn, without damaging the site or disrupting the local community. To those of us working in these areas, the task is to explore and to educate within the context of the research needs and protocols of the host country, and contribute to—but not interfere with—projects of creating or reifying national identity.

The relationship between archeology and national identity goes way back. For example, the unearthing of several statues from the Aztec capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in the 1790’s inspired those fomenting the cause of independence from Spain. In the first half of the 20th century, Mexico began to explore and restore the ruins of the pre-Hispanic civilizations throughout its national territory. Subsequently, in the late 1930s, President Lázaro Cárdenas created the Ministry of Tourism, with an eye to sharing the many natural and cultural wonders of his country with his own citizens and the rest of the world. Archaeological sites were then, and remain today, near the top of the list of tourist attractions. In Mexico and many other countries that followed its lead, this commitment has had the consequence—whether intended, or not—of creating a strong incentive to investigate and restore archaeological sites for both national and international public consumption.

The phenomenon has come to be known as “the Archaeology of State,” and is practiced in dozens of countries around the globe. No one would question the value of fomenting the study and public visitation of important historical and archaeological sites, or the idea that the study of a nation’s past can help inform its decisions about its present and future. The controversies arise when excessive tourist visitation puts the cultural patrimony itself at risk. To preserve their Paleolithic paintings, the caves of Lascaux and Altamira had to be closed to the public. Ownership and appropriate development are other critical issues related to tourism and the Archaeology of State. Do the ruins belong only to the direct descendants of the people who built them, or to the nation-state in whose territory they reside? Should economic development in the form of new hotels, restaurants, and other services be open to everyone, or only to citizens of the host country? Should employees of tourist-related industries be drawn from anywhere at all, or should local residents get the first crack at jobs in new ventures? Is the influx of vast numbers of foreign visitors—with all the cultural norms and innovations that they bring—necessarily a good thing, or only a necessary evil, or an unnecessary evil that local communities should have the option of vetoing?

These and many other questions are being actively debated in the country of Honduras, home to one of the most spectacular and informative archaeological sites in the Americas. The Classic Maya ruins of Copán are renowned for the exquisite quality and sheer abundance of their stone sculptures and hieroglyphic inscriptions. A series of archaeological projects have explored these tantalizing ruins for more than two centuries, including a series of expeditions by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University in the 1890’s. In the 1930’s, the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C. signed a collaborative agreement with the Government of Honduras to “repair” the major monuments at the site to protect them and make them more attractive to tourists in the process. In 1975,Gordon Willey, the first Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, was asked by the Honduran Institute of Archaeology and History to design a long-term project of documentation, research, and preservation for the Copán Valley—the blueprint for much of the work in Copán ever since. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Honduran government has sponsored or supported a running series of projects in the Copán Valley, as well as in the civic-ceremonial center of the ancient city. The projects seek both to conserve the cultural patrimony for future generations and to attract foreign tourists.

As a result, the number of tourists visiting the site have swelled from about 10,000 a year in the late 1970s to well over 100,000 people for the past four years. Happily, owing to the fact that conservation efforts in Copán both preceded and shaped the economic development projects (new roads, electricity, water systems, park services, etc.), the result is widely considered a great success in touristic and preservation circles. However, the first site management plan, produced in 1982, stated that the carrying capacity of the principal group of ruins was 70,000 people a year. As these words are being written, a new site management plan is being drawn up that will suggest ways to alleviate the pressure being placed upon the park by too many footsteps in all the same places. The existence of other tourist attractions to the ancient city is helpful, most notably the elite residential area to the east of the civic-ceremonial center and the new sculpture Museum, located at the entrance of the archaeological park. But there is no substitute for the lovely heart of the ancient city, with its graceful architecture and masterworks of stone sculpture. Over-population of the ancient city was one of the prime reasons for its demise, and all concerned would hate to see a variant of the same phenomenon result in irreparable damage to the site today.

Many residents of Copán Ruinas, a modern town of 6,000 that is growing daily, did not entirely embrace the idea of changing the character of their community in pursuit of the tourist dollar. Some have been vocal about not wanting foreigners disrupting their society, playing major roles in the excavation of their ruins, or intruding upon their economy.

The livelihood of Copán Ruinas had traditionally been agricultural, specializing in the cash cropping of tobacco and coffee, cattle, but mainly devoted to the age-old trinity of maize, beans, and squash that had sustained the Classic Maya for millennia in the idyllic mountain valley where the town and the ruins are located. Others were quick to realize the economic potential of visitors, and began building new hotels and restaurants. For many years, these tourist facilities would only fill to capacity during the holidays, most notably Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Christmas, when most of the visitors were either from Honduras or neighboring countries. But with time, Maya archaeology became a hot topic in North American academe, and more broadly and importantly, North, South, and Central American culture. That interest was sparked by a series of notable archaeological discoveries in the Copán Valley and the Principal Group that were widely disseminated in a broad array of public and academic media. By the early 1990’s, it was no longer a question of whether one thought tourism should play a major role in Copán; it was, what are you doing to take advantage of it?

When my wife Barbara and I began working in Copán in 1977, I as a graduate student of Gordon Willey’s, she as the Project Artist, there were only four hotels in town. As of this writing, there are now 28, including one four-star hotel, and a Best Western. Two decades ago, there were only four restaurants in town; now there are over a dozen. Likewise, there has been a proliferation of new service industries, everything from “Rent-a-Horse” and bird-watching tours, to souvenir shops, hot-spring spas, Spanish language schools, and yes, cyber-cafes. The younger members of the community have been inspired by what they have learned in their secondary and higher education in the larger cities of Honduras and abroad, and have been quite successful in globalization and the opportunities that it presented. Some opened computer schools, others cyber-cafes, language schools have successful web pages to attract clients. The man who had been the ham radio operator in Copán Ruinas when Barbara and I began working there soon shifted to satellite communications, and now runs a successful television cable service (“Copán Cable”). Younger, more educated people in town take pride in riding the wave of new technology, rather than watching as others (from the big cities, and other countries) do so.

In the mid-90s, the town prospered as never before. Work was abundant, the hard currency from tourist visitation circulated throughout the economy, as those who best profited from tourism built new houses for themselves and their families, bodegas, and new businesses. The masons that we trained on the archaeological project to help in the consolidation and restoration of architectural monuments found far more remunerative work in town in construction projects. Virtually every family in town benefited directly or indirectly from this economic boon, some in truly dramatic fashion.

Then along came Hurricane Mitch, on All Saint’s day of 1998, and the world changed for Honduras. The devastation to the country’s people, their economy, and even the infrastructure, were beyond description. Happily the international community—particularly Mexico—was very quick and generous in its response, and the people of Honduras rose to the occasion. In Copán Ruinas, people still talk about how much the community was brought together by the challenges of both bridges leading into town being washed away by the river and main stream next to the town. Still, the images of the damage, and all the explicit reports in the press, meant that potential tourists from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia were not about to put Honduras on their itinerary, and tourism plummeted.

Fortunately, the hurricane spared the ruins, with the exception of a few small buildings on two spots along the riverbank. However, the dramatic drop in visitation affected both the town of Copán Ruinas, and the country as a whole. Rental car agencies, tour operators, restaurants and hotels in the cities with international airports suffered. In Copán Ruinas, the effects to the economy were profound. Many people who had taken out big loans to build businesses had to default, and the ripple effect was felt far and wide. The Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History likewise felt the effects of the drop in visitation to the ruins, since ticket sales at the Archaeological Park of Copán accounts for a significant part of the Institute’s budget. . Many projects and programs across the country had to be stopped or cut back as a result, including several in Copán itself.

The owners of the best hotels in town made a plea to the Institute director , who in turn called me to ask if we could help them in getting the word out that the roads and services had all been successfully restored and that Copán was as beautiful and inviting as ever. My response was that I would look into getting a film crew to Copán, since a number of new finds had recently been made, and I knew perfectly well that the town and the ruins were indeed in fine shape once more. The process was a long one, as I recall nearly two years passed between initial contact, three different “shoots” at the ruins, editing and discussions of what to include and how to focus the documentary, and the final product. In the meantime, tourism had picked up of its own accord! Many of our colleagues are quite skeptical whether such programs are in the best interest of the living Maya peoples of Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, particularly when so many of them demonstrate an extreme western bias that occasionally borders on being downright racist. A major conference will soon be held on this very topic, in which the archaeologists and art historians who emphasized the role of warfare and human sacrifice in ancient Maya history and religion will be taken to task for creating an image and a set of stereotypes that are detrimental to the cause of cultural and economic autonomy for the living Maya.

In the case of Copán, a new Site Management Plan is being completed that aims to balance the needs of conservation, education, and tourist visitation, taking into account the needs and demands of the various constituencies with a vested interest in the ruins. These include the town, central government, indigenous groups, and researchers. The place of Copán within the country and national identity of Honduras is a central guiding force in the document and the activities that it envisions for the coming decade. The idea is to improve the quality of the visitor’s experience, by better conserving the site and providing more information in better signage and other media than is presently the case. Long considered a quintessentially “Maya” city, the kingdom of Copán was home to many non-Maya speakers in antiquity, who had strong commercial and family ties with their homelands in central Honduras as well as peoples in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize. It is hoped that Copán will shine not merely for its Maya art, architecture, and hieroglyphic texts, but for its relationships with non-Maya peoples in the rest of ancient Honduras, in ancient, colonial, and modern times. It remains to be seen whether the Chorti (Maya) indigenous group will be able to lay claim to part of the proceeds from the ticket sales in Copán, or the town of Copán Ruinas, which has made a similar request to the central government of Honduras. In the meantime, the Park Management Plan is calling for a greater commitment of those resources to the work in Copán from the Institute of Anthropology and History. The Institute has found itself in the position of needing to support other important historical, archaeological, and conservation projects in other parts of the country from the revenues obtained from Copán.

So, the road is not always an easy one, there are fits and starts, and plenty of shades of gray. In our case, our long-term commitment to Copán, the town and its people, and the country of Honduras keep us engaged even as our intellectual interests have begun to shift elsewhere. Our three sons grew up in Copán Ruinas, and are tri-lingual, bi-cultural, and will forever be closely connected with the town of Copán and its people. Barbara and I will always feel a sense of deep gratitude and debt that our sons were able to experience and understand another culture in such a profound and meaningful way. We do our best to enable other young people to drink deeply of the waters of Copán Ruinas, through the fieldwork we taught there in the summers of 1995-2001. The saying goes that once you have drunk the water of Copán, you will always come back. But those that we trained there were instructed early and often in the art and the obligation of respect, to the country, the townsfolk and those who reside in the more indigenous hamlets scattered in the countryside, and to the archaeological remains and their creators.

As a teacher, one always aspires for one’s students to achieve much more than their mentor. In the case of Mesoamerican archaeology, we hope that through their profound sense of ethical obligation for the conservation of the human, biological, and cultural resources of Central America and Mexico, our students will be able to achieve even more as educators and researchers than we have. While our archaeological projects have been focused on the conservation of Copán’s sculptural and architectural monuments, much remains to be done to create stronger and better relationships between all those who share those ideals, the Institute of Anthropology, the townspeople of Copán, archaeologists and anthropologists of various nationalities, and yes, those who come to visit the site, by the tens of thousands each year. While we certainly do not and will not live in a perfect world, that should not prevent us from trying to make it better, especially in a place as lively and lovely as the tropical paradise of Copán.

Winter 2002Volume I, Number 2

William Fash is Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology, and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University. He and his closest colleague (and spouse) Barbara Fash have participated in or conducted research and conservation projects for the past 25 years in the Ruins of Copán, Honduras, Central America. They have recently joined a new research endeavor at the site of Teotihuacan, Estado de Mexico, Mexico, at the invitation of Linda Manzanilla (UNAM) and Leonardo López Luján (INAH), where among other things they hope to explore the relationships of Teotihuacan to Copan and other Classic Maya kingdoms. For the first time, he is offering a field course “not to Copán” but to Teotihuacan this summer.

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