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.
-- Youâ€™ve been dedicated to archeology for
no less than 25 years. How did your relationship with that
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 weâ€™ve got indigenous peoples
living all around us. Their cultural heritage, archaeological
and cultural, is very present, very alive. Thatâ€™s why
in American schools anthropology is always a part of archaeology,
something that isnâ€™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. Thatâ€™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, itâ€™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 itâ€™s a waste of time. Copán means a
lot on many different levels beyond the intellectual. Thereâ€™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 thereâ€™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.
-- Youâ€™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 weâ€™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? Thatâ€™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, weâ€™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.
Weâ€™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. Iâ€™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. Thatâ€™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. Weâ€™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. Theyâ€™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 mustnâ€™t
forget that we must begin reaching the people at a young age,
and weâ€™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. Weâ€™re also working on incorporating
nature and the environment. The little thatâ€™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.
Weâ€™ve been involved in a reforestation program for the
last five years and weâ€™re also very involved in contemporary
indigenous communities in the Copán Valley, to prepare
them for the tourism development process and to control the
valleyâ€™s environmental resources. We realize that once
again weâ€™re moving at breakneck speed to destroy our
natural resources, and if we donâ€™t make great efforts
to begin to take this seriously, weâ€™re going to end
up destroying ourselves as well.
-- Thatâ€™s why youâ€™re working together
with the Honduran Environmental Institute and the Ministry
of Tourism, because on one hand youâ€™re trying to attract
more tourism, but on the other hand youâ€™re trying to
keep things in balance so no harm is done and so you donâ€™t
repeat the errors of Mallorca, where during the “boom”
we built where we shouldnâ€™t have built.
Yes, weâ€™re working in all those areas. Iâ€™m
a consultant for the Ministry of Culture and also the Ministry
of Tourism. Theyâ€™ve encouraged me to be a cultural ambassador
for the country through my discoveries and conferences, like
weâ€™ve been doing here at the Sophia Foundation these
past few days. Iâ€™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 Iâ€™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 Iâ€™ve
visited throughout the Mayan World, I see how little damage
weâ€™ve done, how much better our infrastructure is, how
much better the planning of trails has been… So Iâ€™m
very pleased. On the scientific side I believe weâ€™ve
done a very good job. Weâ€™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 weâ€™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
-- Before we say goodbye, tell us what you think
Itâ€™s a very beautiful place. Weâ€™ve been
here for several days now and itâ€™s a relatively small
island, but itâ€™s got a tremendous diversity of beauty:
spectacular scenery, a nice climate, and even nicer people.
Itâ€™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
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