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The Four Valleys Project: Ancient political economies of Mesoamerica

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The histories of a powerful few dominate our pool of knowledge. In north-western Honduras, a group of archaeologists from Kenyon College and California State University, Stanislaus are attempting to change this bias. The Four Valleys Project brings together decades of research on south-east Mesoamerican archaeology, making it accessible to the widest possible audience. This unprecedented online, open access archive is the result of collaborative work conducted by researchers from Honduras and other countries, the research-led field schools that were part of the project training a new generation of archaeologists.

Most people, now and in the past, have lived in the shadows of the wealthy and powerful. The histories of these powerful few dominate our pool of knowledge, which in turn is generally inaccessible to all but an academic minority. In north-western Honduras, a group of archaeologists, led by Edward Schortman, Patricia Urban (both from Kenyon College), and Ellen Bell (California State University, Stanislaus), together with Jenna Nolt (Digital Resources Librarian, Kenyon College) and Sharon Fair (Four Valleys Archives Manager) are attempting to change this status quo. With financial support from a range of sources (e.g., National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Geographic Society, Wenner Gren Foundation, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Margaret Cullinan-Wray Foundation, Kenyon College, California State University, Stanislaus) and in close collaboration with The Instituto Hondureño de Antropologia e Historia, as well as Dr Wendy Ashmore and Dr Marcello Canuto, the Four Valleys Project brings together decades of research on south-east Mesoamerican archaeology, making it freely accessible to the widest possible audience.

The Four Valleys Project is focused on the ancient political economy of the Naco, middle Ulua, lower Cacaulapa, and El Paraiso valleys. The Project is an archive that brings together field records generated during archaeological investigations conducted from 1975 to 2018. This research chronicles the areas’ long prehistories, stretching from 1250 BCE (‘before current era’, equivalent to ‘before Christ’), to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century. Critically, by studying the full range of ancient settlements from farmsteads to political capitals, the Project challenges the tendency to focus only on elites, and considers how people of all ranks exercised their agency as they contested for power, and in the process created their own histories. The team has sought to grasp how people of different social stations, living in different places and during distinct time periods, used tangible and intangible resources drawn from sundry locales to dominate others and resist subordination. In the process of cooperating with some, while opposing others, a wide array of political formations emerged, persisted, and eventually gave way to new power arrangements across these valleys.

Site 386 crew 1992.
Carved bone.

The Four Valleys archive houses paper, photographic, and digital records from archaeological investigations conducted across 180 km2, including detailed data pertaining to 941 sites, the excavations of 180 settlements, and the analysis of over 1,000,000 artefacts. These provide the basis for over 175 publications and professional presentations and 68 honours, MA, and PhD theses. The project is focused on digitising these records; uploading them to a sustainable, easily accessible platform; widely advertising their presence; and evaluating the accessibility and functionality of the resulting archive. This collection is unprecedented in its extent and comprehensiveness for Mexico and Central America, offering a unique opportunity for researchers to address questions not considered by the original investigators of political, economic, and cultural change over nearly three millennia.

“As scales of construction grew, so too did the concentration of power of an elite few.”

The rise of a complex society

Among the detailed studies available within the Four Valleys archive are those that shed light on some of south-east Mesoamerica’s earliest inhabitants. Other investigators working in different parts of the region have found evidence of human habitation extending back to 10,000 BCE. For example, materials recovered from the El Gigante Rockshelter in southern Honduras suggest that a critical step in social change – that from foraging and hunting to settled agricultural communities – occurred by at least 2000 BCE in south-east Mesoamerica. Excavations here have identified corn, which first originated in western Mexico in ~7000 BCE, as a staple of the local diet. This finding is of particular note because it shows that local communities were able to harness resources from both near and far, an ability that must have relied on their members’ participation in extensive socio-political networks.

Red-painted birds.

In terms of seats of power, 1200 to 400 BCE in south-east Mesoamerica saw the construction of huge earthen platforms, most of which were likely stages for religious observances. One of the largest, at Chalchuapa in western El Salvador, was 22m tall. While settlements were generally small and distributed over a wide area, strong social links must have existed to have facilitated the pooling of labour to construct these platforms, which formed prominent markers of group identity within the landscape. The platforms and their construction both created and sustained local social networks, which allowed for the development of power structures. The emergence of social hierarchies is also evident in some places, with different communities and households demonstrating clear distinctions in their abilities to acquire objects of value (e.g., jade, marine shells, and carved stone containers). There is also evidence that different communities developed specialist skills; for example, obsidian blades, a widely used form of cutting tool, were crafted in Chalchuapa, while jade and marine shell were worked at Puerto Escondido in northwest Honduras.

The early socio-political development of certain key sites has come to dominate the literature on south-eastern Mesoamerican prehistory; however, the breadth and depth of the Four Valleys archive reveals that these may not have been the norm. Social connections on various spatial and temporal scales were intertwined and cannot be viewed in isolation. One of the strengths of the Four Valleys Archive is that it provides a sense of the different ways that similar features, such as earthen platforms, figured in the creation and promulgation of varied social, political, and cultural structures.

Mano and metate.
Excavators 1992.

The growth of community

The early platforms of south-east Mesoamerica eventually evolved into more extensive plazas surrounded by large constructions of various sizes and generally oriented north to south. In some cases, the plazas reached dimensions of 280 x 640 m. What these areas were used for remains a matter of debate, but there is evidence for ritual ceremonies (e.g., stone carvings, temples, and ballcourts), feasts (e.g., fire pits and the remnants of food), and even high-status domestic residences (e.g., high value domestic items, which have been found atop some platforms). As scales of construction grew, so too did the concentration of power of an elite few who co-ordinated the daily and extraordinary activities of the many.

In general, settlements continued to occupy fertile land suitable for sustained cultivation (e.g., floodplains). The evidence suggests that most households, groups of co-resident kin, had the capacity to control tracts of arable land. As such, there was a disconnect between wealth and political power; economic power was spread among the populace who preserved some level of agency to act in their own interests as they fed themselves, while political power was concentrated around the plazas and in the hands of those who controlled community-wide rituals. However, during some periods of Mesoamerican history, and in some regions, population aggregation did occur. For example, at Gualjoquito in the middle Ulua drainage, rapid population growth likely reflected the ability of powerful elites to woo people from remote areas of rugged terrain. Such nucleation speaks to the ability of a few to force or encourage their supporters to forsake their homes and to submit to greater supervision from the centre.

Excavators and architecture.

One of the major findings of the multi-year field projects that contribute to the archive is the recognition that decisions made by people living as close as a day’s walk from each other often gave rise to histories that diverged markedly. For example, the populations studied were not enthralled by the large realms of the neighbouring Maya lowlands. While some practices, beliefs, and materials identified from Maya archaeology were borrowed by people residing in the four valleys, what was ‘borrowed’ and how it was used were determined by local political considerations and not dictated by outsiders. Even among the four valleys, while social connections were strong, particularly among powerful elites, the details of the respective power structures and networks varied, often considerably, reflecting local resources and sensibilities.

“The Four Valleys Project offers rich opportunities for people who might never have been to Honduras to join the collective effort to bring its forgotten cultures back into the human story.”

A project of many hands

The volume of material within the Four Valleys archive is truly impressive, and impossible to summarise in a single article, but it is wise to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. The archive is perhaps best seen as a something like a pyramid, mosque, or cathedral – the bricks of which have been contributed by many generations of individuals from various walks of life, each placed atop one another in a piecewise manner. From local communities to specialists, from undergraduates to professors, from Hondurans to international funders, this edifice is the sum of many contributions. It would not exist without their joint efforts. The archive, in turn, is but one part of the construction that comprises what we know about the lives of past people, a building to which many have and will continue to add.

Modeled incense burner.

One group that has particularly gained from the Four Valleys Project are undergraduate archaeologists, for whom the region was a field school. Many archaeological field-schools help their charges learn basic archaeological techniques without giving them the chance to make the crucial decisions that determine the course of an investigation. The Four Valleys Project was an experiment in going further. With the field semester often spanning five months, students gradually took charge of their own field research. In the process they learned how to phrase, pursue, and asses their answers to open-ended questions about the past drawing on the incomplete data archaeology often yields. Since life is frequently characterised by the need to act on partial information, archaeological research provides an effective way to practice that skill while remaining open to the fact that you will likely have to change your mind as new information becomes available.

The collective project that is the Four Valleys Project is not finished. Future generations of students and professionals are invited to make contributions to this growing edifice as they use the field records stored here to pursue their own studies, thus generating fresh insights about the human past. In so doing, these researchers will join the company of their predecessors in the collective effort to understand what it means to be human. The Project is also an experiment in posting large numbers of field records in open access online archives; making basic data available online on this scale is new in archaeology. The next stage of this work is to optimise the structure of the archives to facilitate their use in teaching and research, and to make its records as widely and freely available as possible to all who are interested.

Ceremonial cups.

Are there any plans to expand the scope of the project to other parts of Mesoamerica, or even to other archaeological regions around the world?

That would be a very productive direction in which to proceed. We have been in conversations with the directors of another archaeological project about incorporating their data in the archives. So far, however, these arrangements have not been finalised.

What happens to the excavations after the researchers leave? Have any been opened to the public? Similarly, are the excavated artefacts in museums in Honduras or in the United States?

All excavations, after they are completed, are filled in to ensure the integrity of the remains we uncover and protect people and animals from falling into the pits. Though we gave tours to school and other community groups, we and the Honduran government lack the resources to preserve these sites as tourist attractions. All recovered materials are the property of the Honduran people, part of their national patrimony, and remain in the country under the care of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropologia e Historia (IHAH). Only a few objects subject to specialised analyses can be removed for study abroad.

Note: Most of the sites we studied have been demolished or seriously damaged. This is not a criticism of the IHAH but speaks to the onslaught of such developments as large-scale mechanised farming and the building of factories run by multinational corporations. What remains of the past cultures that we investigated is largely what is preserved in the archives.



  • Anthropological Data in the Digital Age. New Possibilities – New Challenges. (2020). Editors: Crowder, J., Fortun, M., Besara, R., Poirier, L. (Eds.) Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Canuto, M., & Bell, E. (2013). Archaeological investigations in the Paradise Valley: The role of centers in the multiethnic landscape of classic period Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica, 24(1), 1-24.

Research Objectives

The Four Valleys Project is working to digitise decades of research on south-eastern Mesoamerican archaeology into an open access archive.


National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Geographic Society, Wenner Gren Foundation, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Margaret Cullinan-Wray Foundation, Kenyon College, California State University at Stanislaus.


The Instituto Hondureno de Antropologia e Historia, Dr Wendy Ashmore, Dr Marcello Canuto.


Edward Schortman graduated with a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. He has been a member of the Kenyon College Anthropology faculty from 1981−2021 and has directed, with Drs Urban, Bell, and Ashmore, archaeological research in northeast Guatemala and northwest Honduras from 1977 to the present.

Receiving her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania (1986), Dr Patricia Urban taught in Kenyon-College’s Anthropology Program (1981−2016) for most of her career. Dr Urban developed the archaeological/ethnographic field school (1983−2008) that was integrated with the research she co-directed in the Naco, lower Cacaulapa, and middle Ulua valleys.

Ellen E. Bell is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology, Geography, and Ethnic Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. She received her BA in Anthropology from Kenyon College and her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked in western Honduras for nearly 35 years.

Jenna Nolt is the Digital Initiatives Librarian at Kenyon College. She administrates Digital Kenyon ( where she collaborates with scholars to push the technical and conceptual limitations of digital scholarship.

Sharon Fair, a graduate and long-time employee of Kenyon College, directed the digitisation and uploading of the field records that constitute the Four Valleys Project. She coordinated the work of an ever shifting group of undergraduates and community members, ensuring that they mastered the tasks essential to the project’s completion.

Anthropology Department
Kenyon College
Gambier, OH 43022 USA

E: [email protected]
T: +1 740-427-2484

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