South America

Breadwinning & Archaeology – It´s Part of the Game, Folks!

Maria Beierlein de Gutierrez, Yavi-Chicha ceramic, colonial ceramic and plastic container

Maria Beierlein de Gutierrez, Yavi-Chicha ceramic, colonial ceramic and plastic container

When I found out about the Day of Archaeology, my heart went out to it. I was inspired to write about this day to make the world know what all these supposedly dusty archaeologists are working on. Let me put my grain of sand to it! As an archaeologist, I am working for 10 years now in a remote region of South America: the Altiplano de Sama in South Bolivia. Home to a overwhelming regional culture called Yavi-Chicha, which has been consistent for as long as 1000 years between 500 and 1535 A.C. We don’t know much about it, and that is where all my questions about it come from. Who were these people? Why were they so self-constrained but at the same time so widely spread in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina? Apart from this archaeological work I have been writing at Language of Things on materiality, museums, archaeology and other musings. Its kind of a non-scientific channel of work.

And it was when I heard about the actual DAY of archaeology, the 11th of July, that I realized that maybe my Day of Archaeology would depict something typical of archaeological work, but that is NOT included in the least in the popular vision of “the shovel-swinging archaeologist“. It´s the fact that I won’t be doing “archaeology” in the term of “working in the field/lab”. Instead, I will be dedicating half of the day to the work that earns my and my family´s daily bread. Which has nothing whatsoever to do with archaeology. And the other half of the day I organized someone who will take care to pick up my son from school and I myself will be off: to a course on museum on “Teaching & Curating“. And by now, I can almost see the question marks in the eyes of everyone. What the hell has all this to do with archaeology? I can tell you.

Archaeology, as has been stated over and over by some awful colleagues (have a look here, if you like), is a job which is almost always underpaid. That is, if you get a job at all. Which I haven’t. At least not an archaeological one. I am working in an office, and all my archaeological work, the writing, thinking and analyzing sherds, has been reduced to my spare time. Which is not much, considering that I am alone with my son because his dad is doing an extended fieldwork session far away (which I support, by the way, so I won’t complain about this). But this means that time is reduced to the wee hours of the night. And I am not alone in this – almost every archaeologist I know has some sideline of work that has NOTHING to do with archaeology – but it pays our rent.

Over the years, this situation became more and more intolerable to my archaeological soul and I decided to go off and try another line of work, one with is more in line with archaeology. Which is where the second half of my “Day of Archaeology” comes in. Curating & teaching at a museum is in line with my fervent belief that we have to communicate archaeology and the past, as much and as best we can. So I took this course consisting of 5 modules, and am learning about curating & teaching at the museum. I am trying for a year now to get into it, but museums (as well as archaeology as a career) scarcely offer “real” jobs. And I can’t afford to apply to almost unpaid internships. And I can’t be taking courses which require me to move house for 6 months and stay away from my home for weeks on end. Someone was joking these days that archaeologists don’t have kids and its true: doing archaeology is difficult if you want to raise children at the same time.

So, this is my day of archaeology: earning the daily bread in an office. Going off by noon, I switch over to the museum to take the course in order to get back to a job related to archaeology. And in the night, after sharing s´thoughts with colleagues as concerned with museum teaching as I am, I will be reading literature on sherds and ceramic analysis. Because in the end, something wonderful has happened: I can prepare myself and our son for a trip to South America, going to analyze some hundred sherds of the formative and regional period – i.e. between 500 b.C. – 1535 a.C. I got funded for a four-week-trip and we will be doing this together. That’s the other side of archaeology: you get all the “exotic” fieldwork you ever wanted. So I will be back to where the photo above comes from: Bolivia. Seeing pots.

And this means that, again, I have to be 100 % prepared on topics like “style“, “material culture” and the meaning of things in a society that lived some 600-1000 years ago. It’s one of the most fascinating works Ive ever known and I have to admit that I will never cease to speak about its relevance to us. These sherds mean so much to the people that live right now in this region, that they founded a society that reincarnates the past to the living people. They claim to be descendants of the producers of this ceramic I am studying. They see these past people as their ancestors, as their cultural roots. If THIS is not relevance of the past to the here and now, I don’t know what could ever be relevant. It´s risky and its controversial, but it IS a real connection of today’s people to a past. A past that has been created and transformed, but a past that matters in a very direct way to many persons.

So, maybe my “Day of Archaeology” can sum up some parts of archaeology, even if I am not working currently in an archaeological job. But the non-archaeological bread winning, the desire of being currently developing skills to communicate our field of study and the practical work of studying a part of the past that is relevant to living people – maybe these three things can make clear what archaeologists do.

Let´s do it again&again&again!

Research team at Torohuayco, Sama, Bolivia, in 2007.

Research team at Torohuayco, Sama, Bolivia, in 2007.

 

High Crimes: Studying the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the Bolivian Andes

Painting of Santa Rosa

Painting of Santa Rosa stolen from the church of the Bolivian village of Jesus de Machaca and recovered on the London art market in 2011 (image via. Bolivia’s Ministry of Cultures)

Although I am a trained field archaeologist, I now work for a criminology department. I study the looting of archaeological and historic sites and the transnational trade in illicit cultural property. That is what I am doing now, in La Paz, Bolivia, 3700 feet above sea level, thanks to a Fulbright grant and a Leverhulme fellowship.

I am part of the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research’s Trafficking Culture project. My research group is approaching looting and antiquities trafficking from new angles to hopefully come up with interesting regulatory responses to this problem. Besides larger criminological and market analyses, our project is engaged in several regional case studies. That is where I fit in. I am looking into this phenomenon in Latin America and, right now, in Bolivia.

At the moment I am working on the looting of remote Conquest-era churches and the international market for stolen ecclesiastical paintings, sculpture and silver. The Andes are filled with rural churches: they were part of the evangelising mission of the Spanish Conquistadors. These churches are filled with spectacular and regionally-specific art. Most notable in Bolivia is silver work: for several hundred years the majority of the world’s silver came from Bolivia and Indigenous artists had a ready supply to make thousands of beautiful objects of devotion. Unfortunately there are collectors out there who are willing to buy stolen church art and, as supply meets demand, poor Bolivian communities are robbed of their heritage.

Stone Church at village of Laja

This church at the Bolivian village of Laja was robbed in 2012 (wikimedia commons)

Bolivia is culturally rich but economically poor. These churches are in bad states of repair and are insecure. Many cannot be alarmed, even if they are located in an area with electricity, because there is no money for such things. In most of the villages where churches are located residents live well below the poverty line so the idea of paying a full time guard is laughable. Increase police presence? Not when the nearest police outpost is 100km away over an unpaved road. Not when this country is thought to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the Americas.

But even the most important and well-protected Bolivian churches are not safe. In April the church of the Virgin of Copacabana, Bolivia’s most holy and miraculous shrine, was robbed of the silver and gold that anointed the Virgin herself. The baby Jesus in her arms was stolen as well. A priest who was at Copacabana on temporary assignment was jailed this week for involvement in the robbery. The holy pieces have not been recovered. My guess is that they were carried into Peru and then on to anonymity. That was the 6th church robbery in Bolivia in only 4 months.

17th Century Painting of the Virgin of Copacabana

A 17th century painting of the Virgin of Copacabana surrounded by silver (public domain)

I am constantly asked why these silver-filled churches were not robbed before. If they have been sitting out there, vulnerable, for 500 years why are they only being robbed now? The best answer I can give is that there was no illicit market for these items before. These churches are being robbed because terrible people want to own beautiful things.

I warn I am writing in advance because my day will include being without internet.

So what will my day be? On this day of archaeology I will take a taxi to the La Paz cemetery then squish myself into a minibus. I will head westward for about two hours until I reach the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tiwanaku.

Tiwanaku is a vast, monumental, pre-Inka site that I excavated at (when I was a diggy-archaeologist) back in 2004 and 2005. I am sad to say that in 2011 Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was robbed. It wasn’t the first time. The thieves have not been arrested and the objects stolen have not been recovered. I am going out there to talk to old friends about the robbery. I am interested to hear their perceptions about how the theft could have been prevented, their thoughts on the response of public authorities, and how they feel the robbery has affected the community. I want to hear the facts but I also want to hear wild speculation, rumours, and emotion. I think emotion is very important in this kind of work.

Tiwanaku's church

Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was built by the Spanish from stoned looted from the nearby World Heritage site. It was robbed in 2011 (photo by the author)

And, really, this is an emotional issue with grave consequences. Just last year two men were caught robbing the church in the small Bolivian village of Quila Quila. The villagers apprehended the men and, in a public display of frustration, insecurity, and fear, they lynched the alleged robbers and buried them behind the church.

A ruined church in Bolivia

A ruined and abandoned church in the Altiplano, Bolivia’s high plain (Jduranboger, CC attribution)

I don’t think most people imagine that what I do is archaeology (even the Day of Archaeology website doesn’t have a category for this post to fit into!), but I think that it is. The past is what we say it is, and we believe that the physical remains of the past are important. That they are worthy of being preserved as tools of both memory and identity. When they are ripped from their contexts and sold on the black market,  everyone loses. We are all robbed because we will never get to know the information those objects contained. “Neocolonialism” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit in Bolivia: it is a word that even people with no education know. The illicit antiquities trade is a prime example of neocolonialism. When objects are stolen from vulnerable areas of the developing world and moved into the hands of rich people in the developed world, we perpetuate an unjust imbalance. We keep people down.

This is my dream job. I am so thankful to be able to do this research.