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November 5/ 2003
- Press Releases

An interview with Ricardo Agurcia by the Sophia Foundation from Spain

• Archaeologist, Co-Director of the Copán Archaeological Project and Discoverer of the Rosalila Temple

Ricardo Agurcia is one of the most prestigious archaeologists to study the Mayan culture, after many years of experience and research at the formidable ruins of Copán, where he discovered the famous Rosalila Temple. During his stay in Mallorca as a guest lecturer for a series of conferences and seminars organized by the Sophia Foundation as part of its Mayan Culture Series, he shares here some of his greatest achievements, projects and aspirations regarding the love of his life: Copán.

-- You’ve been dedicated to archeology for no less than 25 years. How did your relationship with that science begin?
I graduated with a degree in anthropology, which is a much larger field in the Americas than in Europe. There, anthropology is by tradition more closely linked to living indigenous cultures because we’ve got indigenous peoples living all around us. Their cultural heritage, archaeological and cultural, is very present, very alive. That’s why in American schools anthropology is always a part of archaeology, something that isn’t necessarily the case in the old world where they are two separate disciplines. We see our archaeological remains as a part of cultures whose descendants are still with us today as part of our world. That’s why we must also study contemporary indigenous cultures. Social anthropology is closely tied to my archaeological projects. My studies focused on general anthropology, very specific cases of physical anthropology, studying man as a physical being, it’s worth repeating, aside from biology, the evolution of man, etc. And from there I became interested in archaeology and field work… I like it very much; I like the lifestyle of rural areas, areas that are very exposed to the environment.

-- Archaeology is very important because it provides us with missing links, giving us proof and providing us with the information we need to rediscover our past. But in Honduras, for example, how much importance is given to this kind of work, and what does the formidable Copán enclave mean to the country?
That depends on who you ask, no? There are those who see it as something that is very important and others who think it’s a waste of time. Copán means a lot on many different levels beyond the intellectual. There’s no doubt that Copán is one of the main archaeological zones of the Mayan World, in terms of the research we do, the amount of data and information that we extract from the site, and the possibilities for interpreting it all. Copán has been analyzed in an almost medical way. For example, the x-rays that we have made of the ruins, no one else in the Mayan World has. The same goes for the number of years, the number of hours, the amount of effort and the volumes of results reflected in enormous data bases. From a different point of view there’s also the national identity: Copán is the symbol of a great civilization in a country that is today a part of the third world. In Copán we see a symbol of rising to new heights, a symbol of extraordinary value in terms of civilization, science, development, writing, economics, everything we can imagine. It is also a source of socio-economic development. Copán is the main tourist destination in Honduras. It welcomes more than 130,000 visitors a year and this generates an economy of an enormous scale. The entire village of Copán today basically lives and survives because of the ruins. So for the country it is even an enormous source of economic revenue.

-- You’ve mentioned that in American archaeology an important factor is the living vestiges of disappeared peoples. With such an archaeological stage and living remains with ancient traditions, how do you combine the two and make the hypothesis or conclusion that the ritual being performed today is related to what the ruins tell us about the past?
In archaeology we are trained to be highly rigorous in our methods. To make interpretations of this kind we must follow a series of parameters to place the vestiges in question into the proper context, whether they are current or ancient vestiges. What we’re looking at in terms of living cultures are behavior patterns that might lead to a certain type of archaeological trace. There are many different ways to produce the same results when it comes to archaeological remains. We can come to a possible conclusion about the archaeological context thanks to the behavior of these people. For example, seeing the flowers they use at the Santo Tomas Temple, we wonder if the same were used by the Maya. How do we prove it and verify data in the field? That’s where we got the idea to compare pollen samples with those found in the rooms of the Rosalila Temple. The idea is to follow lines of evidence that are verifiable and to make hypotheses from there and convert them into theses.

-- Of the these that have been made thus far, how many have remained and how many have had to be rectified?
Some have been cancelled based on new information. As science advances, new technologies emerge that we can use to obtain information that is much more detailed, more precise than what was available to researchers earlier. And the same will continue to happen in the future. The good thing about my job is that I can say it all, document it all, keep visual and written evidence or photographs, even videos. This will allow future researchers to reevaluate my hypotheses and my data with greater ease.

-- Where do you present these hypotheses?
In publications, at conferences, research centers where forums are held, where we present information for debate. The most formal way is through publications, where other colleagues can review the information and debate it, criticize it… or destroy it.

-- What does the Copán Association do?
The Copán Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to researching, protecting and educating people about the cultural and natural heritage of Honduras. So the Association works in many different fields. In terms of research it has provided enormous support for projects that I and many of my colleagues have carried out at Copán. In terms of conservation, very large projects have been carried out to conserve Mayan monuments, although primarily at Copán. In terms of education, we’ve established links with different publications and held very successful conferences. Even building the Copan Sculpture Museum is part of the education program aimed at spreading knowledge about our ancient civilizations. We’ve also done consultancies, many of them internationally, for groups like UNESCO and specialized organizations like the Sophia Foundation, which has dedicated this series to Copan. I’ve worked a lot with the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., the Mayan Studies Center and the University of Pennsylvania, among others of equal relevance. The idea is to be able to share enjoyable experiences while carrying out this job and these have been very, very sensational and of enormous impact. That’s why many other centers are interested in who we are and how we do things in Copán, to duplicate them or learn from them. We’ve also got a program to train Hondurans, which is very important… one of the most important things for us because it teaches Hondurans about their own cultural heritage. They’re the roots of the tree, no? And the tree that has no roots is the first to fall in a strong wind, as they say. This has also been a motivation to design and build the museum for school children that we have in Copán, because we mustn’t forget that we must begin reaching the people at a young age, and we’re doing this through the schools. The program will soon be expanded to include a series of publications for teachers to place within their reach in a very simple, uncomplicated way the latest information about archeological projects at Copán. We’re also working on incorporating nature and the environment. The little that’s left of the Copan Valley forest is what surrounds the archaeological zone. This is a very important message. Part of our mission is to look at the whole environment of the site and its surroundings. We’ve been involved in a reforestation program for the last five years and we’re also very involved in contemporary indigenous communities in the Copán Valley, to prepare them for the tourism development process and to control the valley’s environmental resources. We realize that once again we’re moving at breakneck speed to destroy our natural resources, and if we don’t make great efforts to begin to take this seriously, we’re going to end up destroying ourselves as well.

-- That’s why you’re working together with the Honduran Environmental Institute and the Ministry of Tourism, because on one hand you’re trying to attract more tourism, but on the other hand you’re trying to keep things in balance so no harm is done and so you don’t repeat the errors of Mallorca, where during the “boom” we built where we shouldn’t have built.
Yes, we’re working in all those areas. I’m a consultant for the Ministry of Culture and also the Ministry of Tourism. They’ve encouraged me to be a cultural ambassador for the country through my discoveries and conferences, like we’ve been doing here at the Sophia Foundation these past few days. I’m in constant contact with the Minister of Tourism to talk about cultural and tourism matters. For example, tourist visits to Copán, how do we manage them? What is an acceptable capacity? How do we develop tourism there? Because we know that tourism is destructive, but if its well-managed we can minimize the impact, or as they say in the U.S., “soften visitor footprints” so less harm is done. This requires planning, organization, putting up signs, human guides that give assistance and direction… For example, the debate that is currently underway over whether cultural events should be held at the ruins, things like classical music concerts and opera. These efforts require the cooperation of many different parties and interests in order to create a definitive policy on the use of the archaeological site. In terms of culture, the main interest of the Ministry of Culture is to protect the heritage of our country and to inform people about it internationally.

-- With all this in mind, how do you see the future, not only for Copán, but also for the Mayan culture in general, as more and more interest emerges?
I believe that Copán has been a great experience, looking at it from the long term, over the 25 years that I’ve been working there. Copán has been an enormous success. I think Honduras has known how to do a good job within the archaeological zone. Compared to so many other sites I’ve visited throughout the Mayan World, I see how little damage we’ve done, how much better our infrastructure is, how much better the planning of trails has been… So I’m very pleased. On the scientific side I believe we’ve done a very good job. We’ve also has very good advisers. All of this makes me feel that things are working. This government in particular has shown an extraordinary interest in protecting and developing this resource, to such an extent that we’re now working on a project for four other archaeological sites. The President himself made his interest in the site clear by holding his first official act there. His inauguration was in Copán and for us that was an excellent starting point.

-- Before we say goodbye, tell us what you think of Mallorca.
It’s a very beautiful place. We’ve been here for several days now and it’s a relatively small island, but it’s got a tremendous diversity of beauty: spectacular scenery, a nice climate, and even nicer people. It’s been a very special experience for me.

-- Any final thoughts? Any message for Europe as representative of this Mayan World that is opening itself to us?
Come and see us (smiling). Copán, like Mallorca, has its own special flavor.

El Mundo de Sophia, D.L. PM-2099-98
Magazine Published by the Sophia Foundation in cooperation with the Sophia Studies Center for the promotion of thought and art by ancient cultures. Address: Jaime Ferrer, 3 - 07012, Palma de Mallorca, Baleares, Spain. Tel: 971-72-1555


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