History of Research

The Four Valleys Archive consists of all paper, photographic, and digital records resulting from archaeological investigations conducted from 1983-2013 across 180km2 (ca. 70 miles2) within four 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 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 941 sites recorded on survey along with the results of excavations at 180 settlements and the analysis of over one million artifacts.

When work first began in these basins the primary objective was to define phases of occupation, based primarily on changes in artifact styles supplemented with C-14 assays of samples associated with these materials. Explanations of 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 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 these local culture histories, a process that remains ongoing, it became obvious that the four valleys we studied were not pale reflections of lowland Maya cultural patterns and sociopolitical forms. Further, their histories, though related, diverged significantly from each other and those developments chronicled in the Maya lowlands. Gradually, research questions shifted, therefore, from those such as, “How and in what ways were these people influenced by lowland Maya initiatives at different points in time?”, to, “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 other 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 over time. Interactions with representatives of the lowland Maya are not ignored in this process. Instead, the latter agents are among the varied individuals and groups with which 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 efforts were made to conduct comprehensive ground surveys designed to locate the full range of 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 settlements that encompass the observed array of site 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 over time 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 those activity and architectural patterns across areas where we worked. Such an approach also has its limits. First, we know far more about what happened on structures than away from them. We did dig 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 Hondureno de Antropologia e Historia (the Honduran government agency charged with overseeing archaeological research in the country), we avoided removing well-preserved architectural features wherever possible. Though this did not preclude our ability to infer changes in building forms over time it did make such reconstructions difficult 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.