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Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle

Oral History Interview with Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle, undertaken by Alyce de Carteret at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on January 11, 2011. At Dumbarton Oaks, Ricardo Agurcia was a Fellow (1996–1997 and spring 2013) of Pre-Columbian Studies.

AdC: It is January 11, 2011. I am Alyce de Carteret and I have the pleasure of interviewing Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle today, here in the Guest House at Dumbarton Oaks. Dr. Agurcia is currently the Vice President of the Copán Association and the Executive Director and was formerly a Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies here at Dumbarton Oaks. Thanks for joining us today.

RAF: My pleasure.

AdC: So just to begin, how did you first come to know about Dumbarton Oaks and what were your initial impressions of the institution?

RAF: I think my first coming to know of Dumbarton Oaks had to the do with the publication series and the books and obviously while I was being trained as an anthropologist and archaeologist they were a very valuable resource. And then of course, the grants program was being circulated and went around to the various universities, and that’s how I came to know of Dumbarton Oaks and what it was doing – its fellowships program in particular. And to tell you the truth it seemed like something that should exist but I didn’t believe would exist. It’s a just wonderful institution, just a wonderful institution.

AdC: Now were there any publications in particular that you thought were really excellent?

RAF: You know I would say that about – mostly I was focusing on the series on Pre-Columbian Studies, but I think every one of the publications was just of the finest quality. Not just in terms of the binding, the paper, the quality of the publication, but the subjects that were picked and the information that was out was tremendously valuable. I mean those that were published about Central Mexico or those that were coming out about the Maya. Just excellent publications, you know?

AdC: Now something I hear about those early publications was that they actually had the transcriptions of the entire meetings at the end of them. Was that something that you had in school as well and in reading those early publications?

RAF: Well, I was – it was more the focus works on themes like warfare, human sacrifice, and things like that and then the ones that got put out but later too about Maya deities and things like that, that were more the focused monographs rather than the reports of meetings, per se.

AdC: And what was the grant program that you mentioned?

RAF: The fellowships, basically.

AdC: Oh, the fellowships. And how did you come to hear about those fellowships and then become a Fellow?

RAF: It really was because we’d been working at Copán for quite a few years with both Bill Fash and Bob Sharer and both of them actually happened to be at that time on the board of Dumbarton Oaks and they actually encouraged me because it was a stage where we’d been dong a lot of excavation, so I had a lot of raw data and information in my hands but I hadn’t sat down to write anything. So, you know, where are you going to go to have the space and the time and the luxury of the bibliographic resources that you have here? It was definitely – there is no place in Honduras like that. I mean, I would have to go to Mexico or Boston or Philadelphia or Tulane, my alma mater, to have access to comparative data and information about similar things like the ones I’d been finding. So the idea of coming to Dumbarton Oaks was precisely that, was to be able to have some time, some space to evaluate, analyze and do comparative studies of the stuff I’d been excavating at Copán – specifically, the Rosalila temple, which I had discovered in 1989. So, it was, you know, time to get some of that stuff published and the best way to do it, you have to have a place, a time to do it, and the resources and all those were here.

AdC: So what would an average day look like as a Fellow here?

RAF: Oh you know, it was such a delight. It was – it’s like being a kid in a toy store, I think. Because you’d come in – and I’m kind of – compared to my other Fellows that were here at that time, I’m kind of an early riser, so I’d be one of the first ones in. But the mornings were tremendously productive. And really it was just having a ton of books out, looking at them, comparing them, and taking notes. And then another important facet, I brought a lot of information with me from field drawings and stuff from Copán, was making Xeroxes of stuff, and compiling files of comparative data. Specifically I was looking at the epigraphy and the iconography of Rosalila. And finding the images and then starting to compare those images with stuff coming from ceramics or coming from other buildings or coming from hieroglyphic texts and going on to say well, this image is a tie to that and that and the other and then compiling – I still have them, those are my folders that I use continually ever since then to evaluate the iconography of Rosalila.

AdC: And that was a major project you were working on?

RAF: That’s exactly a major project I was working on and I was able to – by the time I was done the article that came out of that is really, I think, to this day the best publication about Rosalila that there is. It was a wonderful opportunity.

AdC: And what was the social life like back then? Did you get to know any other Fellows?

RAF: Oh my goodness, I was incredibly privileged. There are the group of Maya scholars that were here, or Mesomerican scholars that were here at the same time I was – was just unbelievable. It was Dorie Reents-Budet who was here, it was Simon Martin and the other – it was Simon, Dorie and I’ll think of his name in a second. And Jeffrey Quilter was just starting at that time. And so the tertulias, I don’t know how you say tertulias in English, the chats, the sessions, the meetings that we had –

AdC: In English it is tertulias.

RAF: Tertulias? Yeah. I mean there was a Mexican restaurant around the corner. Not only would they start here, but they would end over there with a pitcher of margaritas. And if not there, there was a Starbucks not too far. And of course, we were all coffee freaks so we would – and I still have, you know, discussions and drawings on napkins from Dumbarton Oaks – I mean, from Starbucks – that we had of our discussions because Simon, of course, was an expert on epigraphy and he could – he brought that side. Dorie was an art historian and so – and I was a dirt archaeologist. We were all from – looking at the same stuff from different aspects and I would say that the – Adam Herring was the other scholar. And Adam just was coming out of Yale working with – was one of Mary Miller’s students. So, each one of us had a different way of looking at the same thing. And I mean we threw Rosalila out on the floor, on the cutting board, chopped it up, talked about it, what does it mean? What is all this about? And really, I’m a dirt archaeologist, I’m used to talking about potshards and stratigraphy and stuff like that. I knew nothing about iconography, and here I had this incredible resource of human beings around me as well as the library – that I could just go read article after article, book after book of stuff, so it was a tremendous formation point. And so the human interaction was as valuable. Mostly for me the morning was my own time, hitting the books, making copies, organizing files of information. And then lunch, of course, the talking, the chatting would take place and oftentimes after that we would go to have coffee at Starbucks then come back and hit the books some more. So it was just a priceless experience. Really and truly. It was a life changing experience for me and my career, without a doubt.

AdC: Was there much interaction between Pre-Columbian Fellows and those in Byzantine and in Landscape Studies when you were here or was it pretty separate?

RAF: You know, there was interaction and I remember especially too there was an Israeli archaeologist that was here in the Byzantine program and we had very good and productive conversations and exchanges with him and much less with Landscape. But there were exchanges. And the conferences every Friday – I think it was we met – and somebody was giving a talk on whatever stuff they were – I imagine they still do that here and, you know, some of those were terribly boring, if I may be completely frank. But some of them were just really delightful even if they came from other fields. You know it’s an opportunity to see – I’ve seen the world from other people’s point of view.  And it’s always an enriching experience, at least from my perspective. And the other thing that was also fantastic were the concerts. Those were to die for, I mean really. So in every one of them – the food was also just incredible. It was a delightful combination of all events. I wouldn’t say that the exchanges with Landscape Architecture and with the Byzantine Studies was terribly dynamic, but it was pleasant and it was enriching in its own form and fashion.

AdC: And you were, I believe this is correct, you were the first Fellow actually to come from a Latin American country. And it seems more recently that Dumbarton Oaks has been trying to reach out to scholars of Latin America and Central America. Was that a really formative experience being the first?

RAF: Well, I didn’t know I was the first until you mentioned it – I had no idea. I had assumed that there had been quite a few other scholars from either the Andes or Mesoamerica some place. So, that would be a surprise to me. But again, in terms of my own personal experience it was priceless because again, I was raised, born in Honduras, I lived there. I went back there as soon I got out of graduate school to work but our resources there are very, very poor. If I have to do research on a subject that has to do with my work in archaeology, if I don’t have the book in my personal library I will not find it anywhere else in Honduras. So, I mean, it’s what it’s in arms reach in my own home or my office that I have these resources. So coming to a place like this where just about everything or any article you can dream of is there, it’s a treasure. Like I said, it’s like a kid in a candy shop because all the stuff was there at arm’s reach, you could just walk over there, grab it and sit down and study it. You know, it’s fabulous.

AdC: So you’re currently here for the Copán workshop, and I was wondering if you could just explain a little bit about the purpose of the workshop and what Dumbarton Oaks’ role is in that?

RAF: The Copán Acropolis Archaeological Project was one of that genre of very large, big time, heavy duty archaeological projects. It involved some of the most powerful research institutions in the United States that work with the Maya. And it went on for a good twenty years practically or something close to that because there were lots of offshoots. The fact is that what started with the Copán Acropolis Project has to do with the work I’m continuing even to this day, so even if the project itself stopped because the financial resources came to an end, the work in it that we started back then continued and so did my colleagues, each one getting their own sources of financing. But again each one of us is physically in a separate, different location, a different place, and we have in common the Acropolis of Copán. And we worked in basically four different areas which were – Will Andrews and Tulane were on the south side of the Acropolis, in the area known as El Cementerio. On the upper part of the Acropolis, I was working. In the East Court Bob Sharer was working, and in the Hieroglyphic Stairway Bill Fash was working. So each one of us had kind of a separate area all relating to the Acropolis. And each one went about digging holes and finding stuff and at this meeting – this is the third or fourth one that we have, it’s basically all of us trying to bring all those threads and loose threads together and having a complete overview of the Acropolis at Copán from its inception, from its first building and constructions all the way to the last ones that we see. And we have all shared, you know – we had a very loose structure for working, which was delightful because each one of us had a lot of independence in how we’re working and how we went about our research. We are now at that stage where we need to get a global, overall view of the Acropolis and its evolution through time and that’s exactly what we are doing right now. The common thread to all of us is Rudy Larios who is here with us. Rudy is in charge of all the restoration, conservation work. He’s the only one that can actually work with all four of us and can tie the threads from one end to the other. So the big synthesis of the architectural history of the Acropolis is basically being operated by Rudy. And each one of use contributes with our individual sections of this massive earthwork that was the Acropolis. So we are exchanging information, reviewing the sequences being presented by Rudy – well you know, this is good, this doesn’t work, got this one, take that one away, how does stuff, how do my building phases relate to Bill Fash’s and to Bob Sharer’s building phases and the stuff that took place on the south end of the Acropolis. So that’s the technical side of the stuff, it’s comparing data and sharing data to get us all on the same page and view the history of the Acropolis as a team. And then the other side of it is the publication series of our work. It’s moving ahead and standardizing the volumes, the books and who is putting what in which chapter and where it’s going to be published, so we’re coordinating the whole publication process and again, sharing and trying to do the format of what we’re writing up, how we’re going to write it up, nomenclature, illustrations and all these things so that basically even though the publications will come out of three different institutions we will try to have a common ground for all of them and the way the publications are made. So these are the two principal areas we’ll be working in all week and it’s a ton of stuff we have to see, we have to look at. We share stuff like radiocarbon dates. We’ll be sharing with David Stuart the side of the epigraphy and the monuments and tying those monuments to the global vision of the Acropolis and its stratigraphy. It’s an exciting process and it’s already – even just what we’ve done today, it’s worth the whole trip.

AdC: And how did Dumbarton Oaks come to be the center for this project?

RAF: Well, what can I say? It’s the perfect place for it. When I was here as a Fellow – it’s got the ingredients, it’s got the physical location, it’s got the resources in terms of library stuff and information and it’s just a common ground for all of us in Pre-Columbian Studies. So I really can’t think – well, the School of American Research was another possibility in Santa Fe, but in terms of think tanks and places where you can just take the time and have a beautiful setting to think, talk and discuss and come to important conclusions, there aren’t that many alternatives. And there is always that element of quality at Dumbarton Oaks. I mean, it’s a class – I don’t know what you call it, but it is a very special center and it’s just top notch.

AdC: Speaking about Copán, a couple of years ago they held an off-site symposium in Antigua Guatemala and afterwards you were able to introduce some of the scholars present to Copán and take them all to the site. How would you describe what that experience was like, having Fellows from Dumbarton Oaks at the site of Copán?

RAF: Well, the truth is that Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks tend to be very carefully selected and I know that. So, you know you’re dealing with very educated, intelligent people even if they’re – it’s an archaeologist working in Peru and the substance matter that he’s working on will be different from what we have, he still has a whole world of important experiences. So, what the arrival of this group from Dumbarton Oaks to Copán was really a wonderful opportunity to share our work and all of us were in the field at that time still, which was – it was hotcakes just coming off the griddle, we were just right there in the middle of it and sharing with colleagues and with intelligent, educated people. It was a wonderful experience, it was very productive to us and you know when I hear Joanne talking about it and how enriching it was to them and to her as a group, because it was hands-on, we went places where very few people can go. A lot of the off-limit stuff in the research areas and the tunnels of the Acropolis, even at our own research center. It was a fantastic opportunity to share but also to learn from the commentaries of the scholars that were visiting.

AdC: Did you receive any interesting feedback from the scholars that you want to use?

RAF: Yes, we did. I mean in terms of methods, techniques, and stuff that would help us in our fieldwork and ideas too, it was just good ideas. We looked at this from this angle and stuff like that. It was very enriching too.

AdC: Were you able to attend any those off-site symposia at Antigua, outside the city or Lima?

RAF: No, I haven’t been to any of those.

AdC: But you’ve attended other Dumbarton Oaks symposia?

RAF: Yeah, but here. At Dumbarton Oaks.

AdC: In... yeah, at Dumbarton Oaks?

RAF: Yes.

AdC: Were there any of those symposia that you thought were particularly successful or unsuccessful? Or what was the experience like at these symposia?

RAF: I feel this way about many symposia. Many times there is too much information and too little time and it’s hard to digest and inform it – I mean absorb it – as you are there. But they’ve always picked, I think, themes that are very important to our field and it’s usually the selection of the scholars that are involved who are, again, of the highest quality. So, they tend to be very thoughtful publications and the – I think I probably enjoy reading the publications of them more than I do being present at the presentations themselves. But I’m also kind of fidgety, I don’t like sitting in one place too long.

AdC: So there wasn’t any symposia in particular that you thought was very stimulating

RAF: No, no.

AdC: Over the years that you have been involved in Dumbarton Oaks you’ve had the opportunity to interact with two different directors for Pre-Columbian Studies, Jeffrey Quilter and Joanne Pillsbury. I was wondering if you could comment on how each one impacted the program and how their styles differed. How you could characterize each one of their impacts?

RAF: Well, since I was here when Jeff was here I obviously had – it was for a whole academic year. I was really much more exposed to Jeff and his style of work and what can I say? It was so easygoing and thought provocative because he was working mostly on Lower Central America and again brought – which was an area that I was very interested in my early years too. It led to very enriching discussions. But Joanne comes from a different field really. But I wouldn’t say, I could be wrong, since I haven’t been here while Joanne’s been director and spent a lot of time. But I think they’re both growing in the same direction. I think overall they have a sense of the importance of Dumbarton Oaks because it’s not just a place for archaeologists and you get such a mixture – even the fact that you have the Byzantinists here, the landscape architects, it’s a place where people from different fields come and share stuff, not just your own little clique, your own little group of people who are looking at the same stuff the same way. I mean, my experience – I mean, Jeff is an archaeologist so he and I tend to talk more kind of shop there that we’re used to but all the other Fellows that were here – Simon at that stage was not even yet – he was coming out of design, and Dorie was coming out of just art history, had been doing it. So was Adam. So, it has been very enriching to have different perspectives on the same subject and I am sure that is something that continues under Joanne. Looking at the people that are here today working, it just seems very similar. And so I think if you’re going to come to Dumbarton Oaks you have to be willing to talk a language that isn’t just your own shop and what you’re used to doing everyday. You have to be open to exposure to other fields and other ways of looking even at the same data and I think that can only be productive and good.

AdC: Do you think while you were here Dumbarton Oaks was able to strike that balance between both archaeology and art history but also Mesoamerica and the Andes –

RAF: Yes.

AdC: – with the Byzantine scholars as well?

RAF: Yes, definitely. I mean definitely, it was the wonderful part of the experience of being here. And even with the Israeli archaeologist there was a lot of stuff we sat down to talk about, field methods and dating techniques, a whole bunch of other things that we could sit down and talk.

AdC: Did that experience change how you practiced archaeology after Dumbarton Oaks.

RAF: Yes and I have to say that the archaeology of Copán and the Acropolis project had a different approach from traditional archaeology to begin with because we were working with art historians from the inception, from the very beginning and we were working with epigraphers from the very beginning of the Copán Acropolis Project in 1989. And that was not the normal way of doing – I mean, I worked previously on other projects in Copán that were like hardcore archaeology, you know. You only talk to archaeologists basically. And that was not the case when – our project had a very substantial, I would say, essential preoccupation about conservation, and the care of the archaeological site and the archaeological resources, which again is not typical of that. And then the sharing with art historians, with epigraphers was really a very different approach to archaeology than what was traditional in the ‘70s and early ‘80s too. So, I’d say that that was important in my coming to Dumbarton Oaks and feeling more at ease and dealing with other scholars from these other fields, especially the art history and the epigraphy.

AdC: Because you’d already been exposed to it.

RAF: Yes, it was part of our game plan. It was part of our understanding that you can really learn a lot if you listen to people from these other fields. There were a lot my colleagues at that stage that felt that all the stuff that was in the epigraphy was just lies or stuff made up from the guys that won the wars. And perhaps that a lot of it was just fantasy and our projects certainly proved that most of it is not fantasy: it’s history and it’s documented well and accurately by the Maya.

AdC: And the project you were working on was about kingship and cosmology while you were here at Dumbarton Oaks?

RAF: That was a subject, basically it was focusing on the iconography of Rosalila and its architecture and it was very interesting because with Rosalila, as in many other aspects of our project, I was trying to find hardcore data, archaeological data that would help to verify or deny the stuff that’s on the epigraphic record but also a lot of stuff that’s coming from the iconography, the scenes of human sacrifice, of personal sacrifice and the functions of the buildings, these temples. If we’re seeing in the artwork all these rituals taking place then do we find archaeological data for it? And in the case of Rosalila it was very, very clear. I found, for example, the incense burners inside the most sacred part of the building with the charcoal still inside them. We found the stingray spines that were being used in the personal sacrifices, the knives that were used in human sacrifice. And so we were finding our hardcore archaeological data that would allow the interpretations being made in art history to appear more real or substantial and it had good archaeological data to say this is what was going on at that time. So, it was good.

AdC: While you were at Dumbarton Oaks did you get a chance to interact with the Senior Fellows at all? You mentioned that Robert Sharer was on the board at the time. Did you get introduced to any of the others?

RAF: Not really, no. Not that much. It was more really the Fellows that were here and the stuff we did and with Jeff. We just did a lot of sharing a lot of discussion that just went into late night many times but not with the Senior Fellows so much.

AdC: But Robert Sharer was influential during your time here?

RAF: Oh, yeah. And as was with Bill Fash, you know. And we’d been working together for many years already so really the exchanges with them had already been pretty extensive.

AdC: So, how would you describe the role of Dumbarton Oaks in the development of Pre-Columbian Studies over the past few years? What direction would you like to see Dumbarton Oaks take in the future?

RAF: I think Dumbarton Oaks has found a fantastic formula and a great niche. I think the contributions that it makes, nobody else is making in the field. Most of us are so busy out hustling trying to find funds to do archaeological research or so busy in the academic institutions we’re teaching, having to deal with students permanently and teaching itself – the class work stuff – there’s very little time to think and to read and to write and that’s what you get at Dumbarton Oaks. In not just with the best resources you could think of in terms of information but also in a setting that is just delightful and I think stimulating too. Even just little coincidences – the gardens, I mean you go out in those gardens and sit or just walk around and they are inspiring, they’re just beautiful and I think that – and that’s Landscape Architecture – but that beauty helps to establish that atmosphere that is conducive to good thought and work and in my case it was clearly something that changed my career, changed my life, even my outlook on my profession. The second I left, the first question on my mind was how can I come back? I really don’t think I would change anything because in my own personal experience it was already fabulous. It was already outstanding. It really changed my career and my life too.

AdC: Considering how much impact it has had on your life would you hope that Dumbarton Oaks will continue reaching out to Latin America to try to involve the scholars there and try to make their resources more accessible in those areas of the world?

RAF: Definitely. I think coming to Dumbarton Oaks is a privilege to any scholar. Those from the United States tend to have more of those very valuable resources in their research institutions, their universities. In Latin America it tends to be less so. There are of course some very important research centers throughout the region, in Lima or in Mexico even Guatemala City you have some outstanding resources, but the combination of the other elements involved, the discourse with these other people from other fields, the setting in Washington D.C. – because it’s not just about the physical installations at Dumbarton Oaks that are so beautiful, but it’s also that you’re in Georgetown, that the Smithsonian is right down the road, and stuff like that. So, it’s a wonderful experience because of that entire environment, and two, the other scholars just coming through. You do have some Fellows that have been here before and while you’re here they drop by, you sit down, you chat with them. It becomes a hub of intellectual exchange, not just with the people here but with all those people that come through, visit, etcetera. And everybody who’s in Washington that’s in our field, this is the place where they would drop by and say hello and that was also very – Norman Hammond, I remember, was one of those individuals who came by while we were here and again, very productive exchanges. We could throw stuff out, talk about it, and think better that way.

AdC: Did you meet any scholars here in particular besides those who were your fellow Fellows that you have gotten to know over the years? Or is it mainly the Fellows you were here with?

RAF: With the Fellows that I was here with we established a lifelong friendship. Those are people that are just very dear to my heart, period. And with all of them, we have gone on to do additional work together, be it in Copán or elsewhere with traveling exhibits, with publications. We established some very important personal relationships with the Fellows that were here while I was here and with other colleagues. I mean, somebody like Norman Hammond, I did not know him before I came and of course since then it has – we’ve been – more dialogue, more discourse with him. You know, he comes to Copán we have to take time to show and share and talk and have a meal. So overall it was an important crossroad, I think, in terms of having other scholars, come to get to know them but the closest ties were definitely with the Fellows that were here with me.

AdC: Well, I actually think that’s all of the questions I had written down for you. So, are there any other stories or memories you’d like to share or any other bits of information you want to share about Dumbarton Oaks before we finish the interview?

RAF: All I really and truly – how can I summarize this? Dumbarton Oaks is like a treasure, it’s just incredible to think that institutions like this exist and that they can contribute, in my personal case, so much and to the field so much. And it’s all done with the highest standards possible so it’s a privilege.

AdC: Well, thank you so much. This was a very interesting conversation and I wish you luck with the rest of the Copán workshop.

RAF: You know even just today it’s up to par already. Discussions have been very good.

AdC: Oh, I’m sure.

RAF: Very good.

AdC: Well, I’m glad to hear it.

RAF: Yeah, we have more to go.

AdC: Well, thank you so much.

RAF: Thank you.