History of Research

The Four Valleys Archive consists of all records resulting from archaeological investigations conducted from 1983-2022 across 180km2 (ca. 70 miles2) within five distinct drainages in northwestern and western Honduras. These basins include: the Naco valley along the Chamelecon river; the lower Cacaulapa drainage, a tributary of the Chamelecon situated 9km southwest of the Naco Valley; the middle Chamelecon valley, linking the Naco and lower Cacaulapa valleys; the middle Ulua river basin ca. 40km south of the Naco valley; and, the El Paraíso valley lying 93 km to the southwest of Naco and 27 km northeast of the lowland Maya center of Copan. The materials recorded in the course of this work span three millennia (1200BC-AD1532). The archive contains data pertaining to the configurations, sizes, and locations of more than 900 sites recorded on survey along with the results of excavations at over 180 settlements and the analysis of roughly one million artifacts.

When work first began in these basins, the primary objective was to define phases of regional and site-specific occupation, based primarily on changes in artifact styles supplemented with C-14 assays of samples associated with these materials. Explanations of the cultural, social, and political transformations noted in these sequences tended, at first, to favor such processes as local emulations of practices associated with large lowland Maya polities, some as close as the realms centered around the massive capitals of Copan in western Honduras and Quirigua, in northeastern Guatemala (both within 120 km of the studied valleys). This causal emphasis was strongly influenced by the designation of western Honduras as part of the Southeast Maya Periphery, an area composed of the adjoining portions of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This ‘periphery’ was thought to have been populated by relatively simply structured societies whose members were easily cowed and controlled by their more powerful lowland Maya neighbors.

In the course of reconstructing the culture histories that unfolded in the five valleys, a process that remains ongoing, it became obvious that the sociopolitical formations that took shape in the basins we studied were not pale reflections of lowland Maya models. Further, their histories, though related, diverged significantly from each other and from developments chronicled in the Maya lowlands and elsewhere in Southeast Mesoamerica. Gradually, our research questions shifted. We began by asking such questions as, “How and in what ways were these people influenced by lowland Maya initiatives at different points in time?” Subsequently, we wondered, “How did various factions within these societies craft senses of themselves in relation to those living at varying distances and employ these identities, along with a host of tangible and conceptual resources, in contests for preeminence at local to regional scales?” Issues of power and political economy, in other words, have become increasingly salient in our research over time. Interactions with representatives of the lowland Maya are not ignored in this process. Instead, the latter agents were among the varied individuals and groups with whom the people we study were differentially engaged, from whom they drew inspiration and goods used in the exercise of power over others and the power to define and achieve their own objectives.

The research that follows from these guiding precepts has taken several forms. In each valley, we tried to complete comprehensive ground surveys to describe the full range of surviving ancient settlements within the multiple environments that characterized the different basins. Results of those surveys are available in this archive as are the findings of excavations conducted across a sample of sites that encompass the observed array of settlement sizes, forms, and locations in each area. Digging within sites focused on investigating the continuum of building forms, sizes, and locations on the assumption that such variation might well correlate with different periods and types of structure use. We cleared as much of the investigated buildings as possible, this practice becoming more widespread as the field seasons progressed and our funding levels increased. Attempts were also made to dig at least parts of these trenches deep enough to reach culturally sterile levels though we did not always achieve that goal. Lateral clearing of edifices and their immediate environs was generally favored over digging deep probes because we grew ever more interested in inferring ancient behaviors from observed relations among artifacts, architecture, and other remains. In addition, pursuing this common strategy facilitated comparing activity and architectural patterns across areas where we worked.

Such an approach has its limits. First, we know far more about what happened on structures than away from them. We dug test pits at varying distances from surface-visible architecture but far less time was devoted to these tasks than to exposing constructions and their associated materials. Second, by agreement with the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e História (IHAH, the Honduran government agency charged with overseeing archaeological research in the country), we avoided removing well-preserved architectural features wherever possible. This did not preclude our ability to infer changes in building forms over time. It did, however, make such reconstructions challenging and, in some instances, tentative. All archaeological investigations proceed under limitations of our own and others’ creation, and the records preserved in this archive reflect those constraints as well as our research goals. We offer the last observation not as a criticism of the IHAH, with whose representatives we have enjoyed close and very productive professional relations over five decades. Rather, we simply wish to point out the obvious; that archaeological field research is based on compromises in which different values, such as the importance of preserving architecture for future study and the study of construction sequences, must be balanced against each other. What results from those and other negotiations constitutes the basis for what we can say about the past.

Our research was also conditioned by the rapid pace at which the landscapes of the valleys where we worked were being transformed by such processes as factory construction and different forms of industrial-scale agriculture and stock raising. We felt we were in a rush to collect data that would soon be lost. Sadly, as it turns out, we were right. Most of the sites we recorded in the 1970s through 1980s were destroyed or seriously damaged over the succeeding decades. Learning about the lives of those who inhabited these valleys now largely depends on mining the documents preserved within the Four Valleys Archive.

The research in the Naco, middle Chamelecón, lower Cacaulapa, El Paraiso, and middle Ulúa valleys, along with the construction of this archive, was generously supported by funds from the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Geographic Society, the Margaret Cullinan-Wray Fund of the American Anthropological Association, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Mr. James Hawkens, California State University, Stanislaus, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and Kenyon College. All of the investigations were conducted in collaboration with our valued colleagues at the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e História, project staff, and the many Hondurans with whom we lived and worked from 1975-2022. We gratefully acknowledge the support of these people and institutions without whom the research that constitutes the Four Valleys archive would not have been possible. In addition, we wish to thank the students who took part in the various iterations of our study-abroad programs, all of the young archaeologists who we were able to hire due to the generous grants we received, and the many volunteers who joined us during numerous field seasons. We are also deeply indebted to Ms. Jenna Nolt and Ms. Sharon Fair who led with great skill and patience a fine team of students and staff in the close-to-15-year effort to structure the archive and digitize and upload thousands of documents to it.

Archaeological investigations are collective efforts. We hope that you find in the archive evidence of these collaborations and data of sufficient richness and interest to conduct your own studies, thus building and improving on what we, the original researchers, have provided here.