Joint Task Force Bravo of US Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) conducted another Cultural Heritage Protection Subject Matter Expert Exchange (CHP-SMEE) from 7-11 March at the UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) of Copan Ruinas (a site under Special Protection under the 1954 Hague Convention). Planning for the field component of the event was conducted by Blue Shield International in cooperation with the Honduran Institute of History and Anthropology (IHAH). Results from earlier CHP SMEEs in Honduras had shown that they supported SOUTHCOM’s overall priorities by strengthening local identity and economy in areas where the Exchanges took place, aiding counter-migration efforts, helping to tackle illicit trafficking, and demonstrating innovation in building partner capacity.
This field component was conducted under the conditions of immunity, as specified in Article 8 of the 1954 Hague Convention, and under the direction and custodianship of the IHAH. The primary audience for the Exchange was the Honduran Army’s 120th Infantry Brigade.
The proceedings began with a two-day conference in Santa Rosa where the various expert-led sessions focussed on general concepts, impact, threat, vulnerability, and risk identification as well as on tactics, techniques and procedures for conducting impact assessments, site remediation, digital data capture, analysis, and flood modelling of the Copan Ruins.
The conference was followed by three days of field assessments to demonstrate methodologies to the military participants. The field days provided impact assessment data and a vulnerability analysis to IHAH, and the WHS co-directors, on the impact of human presence and natural phenomena at selected site locations. Three sites were selected for the field exercises based on a Pre-deployment Site Survey (PDSS) conducted by Dr. Michael Delacruz of BSI and Dr. Eva Martinez of IHAH from 21-22 January 2022. The selected sites were the ‘Grupo Principal’ — within the formal limits of the Copan Ruins Archaeological Park and the boundaries of the World Heritage Site — and the nearby sites of Ostuman and Las Mesas. The participants worked in two teams, each with separate responsibilities or activities to be conducted within the site area. The military personnel were guided in how to conduct assessment operations utilising the tools, techniques and procedures previously discussed during the conference sessions. All the activities carried out during the field days were supported by a remote Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML) team (located in Martinsville, Virginia USA) to capture geolocated observations, and to provide a geospatial view of the results and initial analytical assessments.
At Grupo Principal, participants were first provided with a general introduction to the historical and archaeological area focussing on the main archaeological site, and the architectural structures, followed by a tour of the site’s museum. This was supplemented by a small observational exercise to identify erosion impacts that had affected the site along the banks of the Copan River. The primary objective of the day at Grupo Principal was to familiarise participants with the rich historical and archaeological heritage of the Copan ruins with the assistance of the site staff. Special attention was given to the description of impacts on the site, particularly from the inundations caused by hurricanes ETA and IOTA in 2021 on the southern edge of the ruins, and a brief exercise was undertaken to identify and record the impacts. Assessment activities included the introduction of the impact forms, the impact codes, and the recording procedures in the area of the Copan River on the south end of the site. The amount of data that was captured was substantial and potentially validated the flood modelling provided by CHML.
The second field day was dedicated to Ostuman, a small settlement approximately 3km west of the Grupo Principal and 1km north of the Copan River with a principal group of structures (evident as largely earthen mounds) forming a rectangle around what appeared to be a plaza-type space (Plaza Principal). The location showed significant signs of human disruption/encroachment with surface traces of obsidian, flint, and small fragments of ceramic. To the south of this principal grouping was another, smaller cluster of structures that showed signs of deliberate extractions of building material (worked stone) and artefacts. In general, both teams adhered strictly to the assessment protocols and a substantial number of observations were recorded and sent via the CalTopo application for analysis by CHML.
The final field day encompassed a more challenging assessment effort on the hilltop remains of the Maya settlement at Las Mesas, which is comparatively undocumented. Las Mesas sits atop a ridge-line oriented roughly southeast to northwest, with slopes running generally north and south, and overlooking the Copan River Valley and the modern village of Copan. Two sizeable structures, evidenced as mounds, are situated on the prominent hilltops, but have been subject to the construction and installation of radio antennae, fences, and outbuildings. Previous surveys at the site, conducted in the 1990s, delineated other structures and structural terracing to support the development of the settlement, but there has been little recent characterisation of the impacts, both human and natural, in the area. Because the data collected during the assessment was of potentially significant value to the heritage management team in Copan, the SMEE participants focused exclusively on the northwestern terrace complex and primary ridge-line areas. Emphasis was placed on the potential effects of erosion on the terracing, as well as the impact of agricultural and pastoral activity. Since the footprint of the site spans multiple private landholdings, extensive coordination with the landowners was conducted in advance of the exercise. A sizeable number of human-related impacts due to existing cultivation and pastoral activities were observed and recorded.
Utilising the categories defined in the impact codes, a preliminary profile of the impacts at each site was conducted revealing the preponderance of inundation impacts at the Grupo Principal and human impacts at Ostuman and Las Mesas. Overall, the Honduran heritage and military communities’ response to the CHP-SMEEs conducted to date has been overwhelmingly positive and the success of his event can largely be attributed to the planning support of BSI, in cooperation with the IHAH. Joint Task Force Bravo plans to continue employing cultural heritage protection as a line of engagement in their Security Cooperation efforts.
Read more about special protection on the UNESCO Website
Read more about the Maya Site of Copan World Heritage Site on the World Heritage website
Read more about the exercise on the website of Joint Task Force Bravo
See what other news outlets had to say!
Cultural Heritage Protection, Uniting Military Partners in Honduras Through Shared History – Diálogo Américas (dialogo-americas.com)
Cultural heritage protection, uniting military partners in Honduras through shared history (LinkedIn)
Read more about the civil military CPP training offered by Blue Shield International on our Training Page