Preservation and Prevention: Natural Disasters

By Kristin Landau

Copan Ruinas, Honduras 


Here in Central America we’re at the tail end of the dry season. The April 30 zenith sun passage is approaching (when the sun passes directly overhead and casts no shadow at noon) and it’s difficult not to squint outside even while donning a pair of dark sunglasses. The beautiful greenery that characterizes Honduras for most of the year now appears burnt and crispy. The air is thick with dust and some days the mountains are hidden by haze. Until the wet season approaches – around the third week of May – it will only become hotter, dustier and drier. 


It is also that time of year when local farmers burn residual, dead crops to prepare their fields for planting in mid-May, a practice in performed in the Copan Valley since ancient times and at least for the last 1500 years. The field across from the lab where I work has been set afire the last few days, and entire mountainsides in western Honduras are black with ash. As dusk falls one can see bright orange fires burning high up in the mountains. There are two stelae (pl., tall standing, inscribed stone monuments) in the Valley placed by the 12th Ruler of Copan, in AD 652. Standing roughly east-west of each other, creating a line oriented nine degrees north, and spanning the expanse of Copan’s Principal Group of ruins, these stelae are said to mark or glorify the start date for field burning: standing at Stela 10, one can witness the sun setting  directly behind Stela 12. This ‘alignment’ occurs on April 12 and September 1, the former date indicating the start of this burning period.  

Morley's map of Stela 10-12

Morley's map of Stelae 10-12. Morley, 1946.

Leaving aside this ritual cycle codified in stone and other such romanticized interpretations of antiquity however, we are left with the practical implication of dry, dusty and intensely sunny conditions: fires. In the US and other more developed countries, fire prevention and educational propaganda are basic; I remember learning how to dial 911 before I was old enough to answer telephone calls at home. Firefighting is respected employment or revered volunteerism. As far as I know, town lines are drawn and school districts delineated according to the nearest fire department. Fire prevention is law and town planning and zoning are governed by it.


In Honduras and other poor countries, this is a very, very far off (and sometimes irrelevant) ideal. When one’s infant is dying of dehydration and there is no water supply to the urban downtown a few times every week, fire prevention does not rank high, and poor planning and nonexistent infrastructure makes it impossible. Walking to a café earlier today for my morning coffee and work session, I noticed black smoke in the air and people running down the hill. A wood workshop had just caught on fire and the fire had started to spread to two stores adjacent, a house overlooking the workshop, and another residence nearby.


There are no firefighters in Copan, there are no fire hydrants, and I’ve never seen even a garden hose. A few surrounding businesses did have fire extinguishers (likely bought in San Pedro, a city three hours to the northeast) and these were quickly donated. I have been in this workshop before and it is covered in sawdust. There are a few woodworking machines with chairs and workstations covered by corrugated metal roofs; the floor is a bed of sawdust and there are larger piles here and there. The two storefronts and neighboring houses are also made of wood; branches of a tall tree located in the workshop connected the wooden roof beams and walls of the houses.  

View of the fire: Straight ahead is the workshop, to the left is one the storefronts.

View of the fire: Straight ahead is the workshop, to the left is one the storefronts.

When I arrived, families who owned the two storefronts were running all of their products (mostly plastics, displayed on wooden shelving) across to the other side of the street. The huge buckets that they sold were used to collect water. Town residents and perhaps friends of people affected ran up the hill with an empty bucket, filled it at someone’s home, ran back down to the fire, threw the water on, and repeated. If the town hadn’t any water this morning, I imagine the entire block could have burned to the ground. As the tall tree went up in flames and the adjacent house began to catch, other people ran up to the second story and sprayed the roof with fire extinguishing chemicals and punched out burning roof tiles. At this point I could feel the heat from the fire and the direct sunlight, two mototaxis blocked the road to prevent traffic, and around 100 people had gathered. A single (female) police officer was at the scene and helped about as much as I did (i.e., not at all).

Plasticware from the stores.

Plasticware from the stores.

After about 20 minutes of throwing buckets of water on the fire and using the extinguishers, and I imagine after all the sawdust burnt, the fire calmed down: the corner roof of the house had burnt, the storefronts were untouched and completely evacuated of all items, and the workshop was still smoldering yet dripping wet. As with all such disasters and big events in Copan, it was the community and teamwork that had put the fire out and saved the day – and lives. Despite the accelerated rate of urbanization in downtown Copan due in large part to the tens of thousands of foreign tourists who visit every year, this small, slow town always manages to hold its own. The same sense of community and sameness the US and New York City felt after 9/11, I think Copan residents feel on a smaller scale and more regular basis. Within every disaster here, emerges and strengthens something beautiful.

The sole police officer.

The sole police officer.

This is not the only recent fire however and a historic structure in the city of Comayagua suffered a much worse fate. See this article here. Comayagua is a colonial city and national monument – once the capital of Honduras – located in the central western part of the country. The building affected was constructed over nearly 200 years (1545-1737), and included the Episcopal Palace of Comayagua, the only museum of colonial art, a church, a chapel, and a library of ecclesiastical literature. It was used at one time as a high school and then was converted to the first university in Honduras, and until recently housed over 400 years of Honduran history (in comparison, the US as a country has only 233 years of history). After the fire, only the exterior walls still exist. The local fire department was not equipped to handle this, and if it were not for firefighters from nearby Siguatepeque, La Paz, Tegucigalpa and the US military base in Palmerola, the fire would have certainly spread. The bishop of Comayagua as well as the priests and monks who used to live in the building have lost everything, and are out of house and home. Although according to the article 90% of the materials and museum artifacts were rescued, the director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History tells a more nuanced story.


Although stationed in Comayagua due to the fire, he was able to come to Copan for a recent conference on 3D Archaeology. Standing at the podium in front of the 70 or so conference attendees, speaking slowly and fighting tears, he told us that almost all of the 16th century archives – nearly 85% – stored in the Museo had been destroyed. Many of the objects and pieces on display had been taken out, but no one thought of the archives, he said. There are no duplicates of these archives, no copies, no other records, and no inventory of them. They include documents from the Spanish conquest, the first presidency of Honduras, and marriage and baptism certificates of modern citizens. The history and cultural patrimony of Honduras and Central America have been lost and world heritage sacrificed.


In addition to this incredible loss, there are other on-going concerns. The historic structure itself is lost and obviously no longer open to tourism. Not only is there no money or plans to reconstruct the building, the city of Comayagua will feel a loss in tourism revenue. Many of the rescued objects were, according to the article, moved to the “custody of neighbors”; although a registry of the missing pieces has been made, I question who these neighbors are and if the objects are safe or will “se pierden” (lose themselves). Events like these also make me think about the protection of history and who is responsible. It was determined that a short circuit in the chapel caused the fire, and due to wind and dry conditions it spread to the rest of the building. Should there have been copies of this archive? Yes. Were there personnel, a photocopier, and the money and foresight to do this? No. Since the archives document world history and the colonial period especially, should UNESCO and/or the Spanish have been involved in their protection? Probably.


What is most unfortunate about this tragedy is that this happens all over the world (in other poor countries and war zones) and I just can’t imagine such a structural change in historic preservation on an international scale occurring any time soon.


Photographs courtesy of Kristin Landau.