Finding This Lost City in Honduras Was the Easy Part


This op-ed piece by Tom Lutz appeared in The New York Times.

RIGHT now, in the jungle some 50 miles inland from the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, sits an astounding cache of ancient artifacts, until this month most likely unseen by human eyes for somewhere between 600 and 1,000 years. I traveled there three weeks ago with a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnobotanists, filmmakers and Honduran soldiers, who were following up on lidar images — a laser-based aerial surveillance technology — that suggested the presence of ruins.

We discovered far more than that. In what appeared to be a ceremonial site at the base of a pyramid, there were stone implements, bowls and furniture, relics of a largely understudied pre-Columbian culture, called simply “the people who lived in the Mosquitia.” The artifacts betrayed expert craftsmanship. Bowls were decorated with curved handles in the shape of serpents and birds. A stone face — a jaguar? — protruded from the dirt. It may have been decoration on a larger, still-buried object.

We don’t know, because we didn’t touch anything.

Our group had built the kind of bonds that come from slogging around in the mud together for days, and then sharing a once-in-a-lifetime event, the discovery of a lost city. We all agreed about our good fortune. But we disagreed about what should happen next.

Some, including the filmmakers Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson, thought we should take a portion of the exposed objects back to Tegucigalpa for safekeeping by I.H.A.H., Honduras’s anthropology and history institute. The chances that the site would be looted before it could be properly excavated were extremely high. How long did we have? A matter of weeks, said one anthropologist; three days, a security guy guessed.

Archaeological looting is epidemic, and not just in Honduras. A recent survey of archaeologists published in the American Journal of Archaeology found that 80 percent worldwide have personal experience with lootingbeing offered items for sale, for instance, or realizing items were missing from a site.

The archaeologists, nonetheless, unanimously opposed moving anything. As a Colorado State University professor, Chris Fisher, said, the scientific value of the artifacts comes from their context, which we can establish through conscientious excavation, and which would be fatally compromised if they were improperly removed.

But they have been mapped now, the other group pointed out; we have filmed them, and if we don’t pull them out, the first person who comes looking will grab them, and then you have no context and no object. Taking these few visible objects will also make it harder for looters to find the rest of the cache.

Professor Fisher was unconvinced. When we say context, he explained, we mean much more than location. Proper testing can measure when sunlight last hit the earth below an object, can find residues in the soil, can help us date the object, come closer to understanding its use, its significance. Museums already display hundreds of bowls like the ones here, he said. A couple more would make no difference.

But losing everything to looters? How can that be preferable?

Protecting the site cannot be our job, one archaeologist regretfully replied. We will not be here. It is the Hondurans’ responsibility, their patrimony, not ours.

And that is how we left it as we abandoned the site to its fate. This week, after National Geographic broke the story, the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, ordered the armed forces to protect the site. They have arrived, but we don’t know yet if everything was found intact. The Mosquitia is an enormous jungle and Honduras a poor country — the armed forces have had only marginal success curtailing illegal clear-cutting and drug smuggling, so their effectiveness here remains to be seen. And how long will they stay? I.H.A.H. does not have the financial resources to deploy a team of archaeologists to excavate the site.

Funding for such projects everywhere is growing more difficult. A dig like this does not translate into a career. You have a big career by asking the big questions — questions about sustainability, about the rise and fall of civilizations — for which you need deep data. Archaeologists are more likely to fight over the chance to go through another archaeologist’s back dirt at a well-known site than take on the job of building a database from scratch. So this site could remain orphaned for a long time.

In the 19th century, archaeologists could simply buy a promising site, and European scientific societies could provide stewardship, for a hundred years and more. But that was in the bad old imperialist days, before adequate patrimony laws were instituted, ensuring that local governments controlled rights to anything found on their sovereign soil. One unintended result is what we see in Honduras today, where the resources for preserving that patrimony all too often do not exist.

Thanks to the publicity around the expedition and the Honduran president’s decision, this site appears to be safe for now. But we who were lucky enough to be the first scientific team to walk that ground in so many centuries hope that a more permanent solution can be arranged. Otherwise, many of this long-lost city’s secrets will be truly and irredeemably lost.

For the original report go to

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