The archaeological and ethnohistoric investigations described herein were conducted from 1983-1986 within the middle Rio Ulua drainage in the department of Santa Barbara, west-central Honduras (Figure 1). This study area was chosen because of its suitability for addressing basic project objectives which, in turn, were conditioned by the culture historical and theoretical contexts within which the work was conceived and carried out.
Our culture historical goals were strictly constrained by the amount and distribution of previous and ongoing research within west-central Honduras (see below). Published accounts of earlier archaeological and ethnohistoric investigations within the middle Ulua drainage were few in number, the most recent being a summary of salvage operations conducted at the largest known regional center of Gualjoquito (Sheptak 1983a). The area was also included within broader discussions of Honduran ethnohistory (e.g., Chamberlain 1953; Lara Pinto 1980, 1985, 1989, 1991; Sheptak 1983b). As noted below, systematic prehistoric and early historic studies in surrounding zones have only been initiated over the past several decades. This dearth of information meant that considerable research time was devoted to outlining local culture history and establishing a chronological sequence.
The middle Ulua drainage (also referred to hereafter as central Santa Barbara) was not chosen, however, because it was archaeological terra incognita. We conducted work here, in part at least, because of the region's strategic location with respect to constructing interareal culture-historical syntheses. The writing of these integrative summaries in Southeast Mesoamerica (western and central Honduras, eastern Guatemala, and El Salvador) has long been frustrated by a research mosaic in which investigated areas are juxtaposed with unknown regions. Central Santa Barbara is located in just such a research gap surrounded by recently completed or ongoing projects stretching in an arc from the Copan valley on the west (e.g., Baudez ed. 1983; Sanders ed. 1986, 1990) to the Comayagua valley on the east (e.g., Canby 1949, 1951; Dixon 1987, 1989, 1992; Joesink-Mandeville 1987) (Figure 1). The middle Ulua drainage lies at the junction of several natural communication channels linking it with all of these research foci (see below). Investigations in central Santa Barbara, therefore, could potentially help tie together diverse regional sequences through the study of material remains resulting from interactions conducted across the study zone.
What little was known of middle Ulua prehistory and history prior to 1983 also suggested that the area was occupied from the last centuries BC up through the Spanish conquest. A sequence of this length provided the framework for chronicling long-term local patterns of prehistoric sociopolitical change and tying them into the documented history of the early colonial period. Southeast Mesoamerican research in general has tended to focus on events in the Classic era (ca. AD 200-950) leaving the developmentally crucial Preclassic (1500 BC-AD 200) and Postclassic (AD 950-1500) largely unstudied. Even less is known about the colonial epoch in the Southeast (Schortman and Urban 1986). Work in central Santa Barbara promised to help remedy that situation. Such time depth also gave us an excellent perspective from which to reconstruct patterns of interregional communication and their changes through time.
More broadly, we were interested in studying long-term processes of sociopolitical change (shifts in centralization of power, socioeconomic differentiation, and social stratification [Roscoe 1993:113]) and their causes. We wanted to reconstruct, as far as possible, the strategies by which would-be elites attempted to secure privileged access to power and how these domination strategies were resisted by other population segments. Contests for political preeminence are founded on strategic manipulation of available resources by different social factions (Bourdieu 1977; Giddens 1984; Roscoe 1993; Runciman 1982; Yoffee 1985, 1991). These resources can be grossly segregated into local productive raw materials (e.g., arable land, perennial water sources) and extralocal information and imported goods. We hypothesized that the political importance of these categories varies in relation to the broader structure of variables relating to the physical environment and intersocietal interaction to which members of polities must adjust. Under some circumstances local factors assume primacy in power competitions, in others intersocietal contacts play more significant roles. Examination of this general proposition required field study in an area containing segments differentially favored with such resources as arable land and access to potential communication routes leading to neighboring societies. Central Santa Barbara provided such an opportunity. Similarly, the chance to study a regional manifestation of one of the most dramatic instances of intersocietal contact, the Spanish Conquest, attracted us to the middle Ulua drainage.
The Santa Barbara Archaeological Project (SBAP) was, therefore, designed to make contributions to: local culture history; interregional culture historical syntheses; understanding of all periods of Southeast Mesoamerican prehistory; and modeling processes of sociopolitical change. The above goals developed out of both the current state of Southeast Mesoamerican research and ongoing theoretical debates within archaeology. We turn next to a consideration of the former issue.