Colombia > Cuba #worldinterview #17

Colombia > Cuba

Interviewee: Odlanyer Hernández de Lara

Historical and urban archaeology can be seen on every street in Cuba and arguably every city in the country, it can be said, for example, all Old Havana is an architectural archaeology site. What is Cuba’s strategy to look after and cope with a large number of archaeological sites and respond to the demands of international protocols regarding the conservation of world heritage sites?

There is no Cuban national strategy for Archaeology. Since authorities do not look at each historical building as an archaeological site, it seems like it is not necessary to establish protocols to monitor or prevent archaeological impacts. This is one of the difficulties of the preservation of the Cuban archaeological heritage. Cuba does not manage historical heritage like other countries (i.e. United States, Argentina) who establish a temporality (50 or 100-year-old) to consider a site or building as historical. Cuban Heritage is established by declaration; if the site has not been declared as a historical site/building, then there is no official recognition. However, all provinces have a Heritage Office, which defines historical districts, although it does not necessarily involve a protection system, they monitorarchitectural structures. But there are certain local strategies from institutions and research groups that provide some insight to cope with the archaeological sites. The cities declared as World Heritage sites have archaeological research groups with local strategies. Old Havana is the best example. The Oficina del Historiador de La Habana (Havana Historian Office) has an Archaeological Section (Gabinete de Arqueología) with several research groups to work just in Old Havana, although they run parallel projects outside Old Havana. Since all construction work done in Old Havana has to be run by the companies that belong to the same institution, and there exists an urban plan for the city’s restoration and preservation, every single building needs to be investigated by an archaeologist before development. However, this strategy focuses on the architectonical restoration, and archaeology is seen as a complement. Gabinete de Arqueología has a preventive program that also focuses on those critical archaeological sites that need priority, and some research projects follow this strategy. In some (several) restored buildings, the archaeological investigations led to important features or evidence exhibited as part of the new uses of the spaces, many times related to the historical use of the building.

A similar, but not similarly supported strategy exists in cities like Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Holguin, and Cienfuegos. Research groups and institutions work together to provide a better understanding of our past. However, these politics work only for World Heritage sites, with a few exceptions. A very different perspective is used in other cities, where the possibilities are not the same, with scarce to no resources to protect the archaeological heritage. Even worse, some places have no inventory of what they have, which makes it even more complicated to protect it. Even when there are two laws to protect heritage in general, the implementation is not as we expect, many times because of the lack of resources to do it. A new law is in the works that will address and try to resolve some of these problems.

However, maybe one of the biggest problems we have regarding these issues is the lack of educational formation. Since there are no specific university programs for archaeology or anthropology, the results are evident in practice. Some researchers have had the opportunity to do postgraduate studies outside Cuba, but this is not enough because the learning process is not continuous, and the new generations have no orientation, incentive or interest. This view may seem pessimistic, but there are a few people trying to change the actual situation with local strategies, and trying to extend positive results to other cities, reinforced through courses, coursework, and teamwork. Some results have been accomplished, but there is still much work to do.

What are the main challenges of archaeological practice in Cuba today and which ones, considering the unique political and cultural history of the Cuban Revolution?

The main challenges of archaeology in Cuba for the next decades can be separated in, at least, three points: 1) university career development, 2) theoretical diversification, and 3) dealing with the preservation of the archaeological heritage.

Probably the main challenge of Cuban archaeology is the lack of a university education and career development, aforementioned. Even when Science, in general, received a strong support after the Cuban Revolution with the creation of several institutions and economic support to run research projects and publications, it was not possible to generate a university program in archaeology or anthropology. The consequences can be seen in the results and contributions of archaeological research, suggesting is not a priority to the society. Archaeological institutions do not play a significant role on the political agenda.

Moreover, the lack of a university education and specialization has a significant impact on the theoretical background. Since the Cuban government decided in 1961 to follow a Marxist approach, there is no discussion about the theoretical background in archaeology. Even worst, that provided the basis to a general ignorance of what was happening in the rest of the World, or sometimes full rejection because it came from a Capitalist country or model. Without discussion, Cuban archaeology was attached to an orthodox Marxism, but in practice, archaeology was more similar to a Culture-Historical approach, following the 1950’s influence. In the last years, some lights are changing the panorama, but there are still some proposals for a unique theoretical vision. That is why an opening for a diverse theoretical agenda is needed. Gradually, although it is not explicit, some changes have taken place.

Interconnected are the new changes in the political scenario, where potential construction developments can worsen the current status of archaeological heritage. Today, the main archeological institutions do not have enough support to provide an effective protection of the known archaeological heritage. Since there are no strategies to involve archaeologists in environmental impact studies, the archaeological heritage is in a critical status. Several archaeological sites have been impacted by development related with the tourism industry, sometimes irreversibly. If we do not prepare for a potentially worse scenario, the impact will be devastating. Nevertheless, even when this situation changes, we will return to the first problem: there are not enough archaeologist to cope with the actual development in the tourism industry, so what can we do if the situation changes with a potentially bigger investment in infrastructure? That’s where the university career gets in action, not just creating more professional archaeologist, but establishing a professional status for archaeology with a strong theoretical background that provides the needed tools to deal with the new scenarios. In 2010, 65 archaeologists were on the National List of Professional Archaeologist. This year the List had a decrease to 59 archaeologists. Since several of those archaeologists do not run archaeological projects, the situation worsens.

Does the public have a different appreciation of the importance pre-Columbian and colonial archaeological sites?

This question has different answers, mostly depending on the locations. Some areas, like Holguin province, has a strong pre-Columbian sense of awareness, with a general society identification with the pre-Columbian heritage. There, the colonial archaeological sites are not as recognized as the pre-Columbian sites. However, Old Havana can be seen as the opposite, where colonial heritage presence is so strong, and archaeological investigations are a focus on that heritage. However, I could risk the generalization that pre-Columbian archaeological heritage is more recognizable than colonial archaeological heritage, but this should be proven statistically, with a representative sample, that presently does not exist. For example, on museum collection, curators inventory pre-Columbian archaeological evidence within the archaeological collection, whereas, historical archaeological evidence is housed within historical collections, along with documents and other objects. It can be said that there is a predominant lack of interest for more ephemeral, local archaeological sites, with interest focused only on monumental and sensational sites discovered elsewhere. That is a view that can be found in the newspapers, with more presence of outside archaeological events than local news. Almost ten years ago, a project began to revoke and alleviate this situation, and positively promote Cuban and Caribbean archaeology. The Website Cuba Arqueológica ( has changed the way Cuban archaeology was and is seen, providing free access to inaccessible publications, and current developments in all field of archaeology in Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean.

How does Cuba build capacity for minority groups to get involved in archaeology and museums?

There are several strategies to involve society, in general, both in archaeology and museum research-preservation. I do not refer to minority groups because Cuba does not have an established policy to discriminate social groups, and that does not happen in practice. As I mentioned before, the strategies come from research groups and institutions in a local perspective. Cuba has at least one museum per municipios (county or municipalities), and every museum develops several activities that involve schools, inviting them to participate in activities or creating activities for them. Also, the museum goes to the schools to talk about different topics related to the museum collections, local histories, and beyond. Those activities are also open to the public, especially for neighbors. One strategy is what is called Círculos de Interés (Interests Groups), that provide specific areas of knowledge to students, led by professionals. That is not just for Museums, but for different institutions. Archaeology has been one of these interest groups. Those Interest groups are proposed to the school, for an appropriate age range, and the students are invited to participate. Those interested, join a team that starts working on practical classes, site visits, etc. Interest Groups also work as a future career motivation, where students know what is done in a specific profession. Some institutions also open their doors for school visits, to learn the professions from the professionals. Of course, there are also summer courses, and summer activities like Rutas y Andares (Routes and Walks), offered by the Havana Historian Office: a tour lead by a professional to discover sites with exhibits or where they have worked. Those tours have been a real success, where people get involved with their local heritage. Archaeology is part of those tours, with an archaeologist guiding visits to archaeological sites, sometimes with work in progress, archaeological exhibits in restored historical buildings, and several histories resulting from the archaeological investigations. Those tours have been done in other cities, with a similar success.

About Odlanyer:

I’m creator and Editor for bothCuba ArqueológicaJournaland Web Site (, which is a long term project to diffuse the archaeological knowledge from Cuba and the Caribbean.I’m currently working in South Florida archaeology, with a CRM company, and at the same time, running some projects in Cuba. One of my projects is related with the Spanish-Cuban-American War (1898), in the scenario of the first battle. A second project is related with the colonial fortress Castillo de San Severino, including archaeological excavations, but also working to get better the museum exhibits and engaging the community in the cultural heritage preservation (,

Questions from Jimena Lobo Guerrero Arenas in Colombia.

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Canada > Colombia #worldinterview #16

Canada > Colombia

Interviewee: Jimena Lobo Guerrero Arenas

Has the designation of UNESCO World Heritage sites affected the recent development of Colombian archaeology?

This designation has served to make archaeological sites visible, to give them an official status and in the majority of cases, it has had a positive impact on them. In Colombia, two archaeological sites have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites: San Agustín and Tierradentro. They also hold the category of archaeological parks and are under the protection and administration of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, ICANH. Thanks to Unesco’s designation they have received more attention from the state, which has meant a greater number of public funds for protection, outreach and research programs. In addition, there are specific archaeological management plans for each of these sites, that is, norms and regulations of what can be done and in what way.

On the other hand, many archaeological sites lie under urban centers that have also been declared Unesco World Heritage sites. Unfortunately, they have not received the attention and treatment they deserve. The historic center of Cartagena de Indias, for example, is itself an archaeological site. In this city, projects on conservation and restoration of building heritage have largely ignored the importance of the archaeological work.

Does the public have a different appreciation of the importance of pre-Colombian and colonial era archaeological sites?

To some extent archaeology in Colombia is synonymus with pre-Columbian while colonial archaeological sites are not clearly recognized. Archaeology in Colombia has traditionally concentrated its efforts on pre-Columbian sites, therefore, the importance given to historical archaeological sites is little when compared to pre-Columbian. On the other hand, legislation is stronger when it comes to pre-Columbian findings. Colonial era archaeological sites are under recognized, even if they fall within UNESCO World Heritage sites.

How do archaeologists work with indigenous and minority groups/communities when examining sensitive sites/material culture?

Human groups (whether indigenous or minority groups/communities) that inhabit archaeological sites or their areas of influence often tend to participate in archaeological projects as volunteers.In many cases, locals assist and engage in the excavation phase.According to legislation, archaeologists have to include as part of their research project a heritage management plan. Such plan must include an outreach program involving the participation of the local community. Archaeologists must raise awareness and provide information to the local community about the archaeological site, its importance, and how to protect it. Sometimes archaeologists offer training sessions to locals on issues related to protection of archaeological sites.

How does Colombia build capacity for minority groups to get involved in archaeology and museums?

Little efforts are being made on this regard. As mentioned in the previous response, archaeologists usually get locals to participate in archaeological projects. But, there is a lack of institutional programs to build capacity for minority groups to get involved in archaeology and museums. However, there are initiatives such as the Ministry of Culture, which, through the Directorate of Heritage, created the Cultural Heritage Watchers Program as a voluntary participation strategy seeking to integrate the communities interested in Cultural Heritage. Cultural Heritage Watchers are sometimes involved in archaeological projects and look after archaeological sites.

In addition, there are isolated cases of minority groups doing archaeology. I refer to the case of the Guambiano indigenous group, south of Colombia. A couple of decades ago, this group decided to do archaeology and use the results as useful tools for recognition and vindication of their identity and the territory they inhabit. Efforts are isolated but they do exist. I think there is a clear consciousness in archaeologists to make communities aware of the importance of archaeological sites but at the same time, there is a scarce or null governmental purpose of redirecting efforts towards this end.

About Jimena:

I am a Historical Archaeologist. My research interests focus on the study of material culture from late pre-Columbian and early colonial periods, particularly in Colombia (South America). I draw on theories from material culture studies and the archaeology of colonialism to explore, analyze and interpret the interaction amongst indigenous people, Africans and Europeansand the multiple cultural responses to contact encounters expressed through material culture. I have a particular interest in metals. I have experience working in Museums and enjoy exploring the different ways people can engage in the interpretation and preservation of cultural heritage. Currently, I’m working on an archaeological project, which aims at examining an exceptional collection of artifactual and biological data recently recovered in the Jesuit church of San Ignacio, a jewel of Spanish colonial art set in the historical district of Bogotá, Colombia. I received my PhD in Archaeology and Anthropology from University of Bristol (UK). I hold a MA in History from University of Los Andes (Colombia) and a BA in Anthropology and a BA in History from the same university.

Questions from William Moss in Canada.

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Un día de campo (Colombia)


Manuel Lozano Varela (Universidad de Externado)

Análisis de subsistencia y selección de recursos en Punta de Pájaro, un posible yacimiento del Formativo temprano: Ciénaga de Guájaro, Atlántico

Faltan 10 minutos para las 6:00 am, despierto en una hamaca y pienso al igual que días 1anteriores que soy privilegiado al poder estar viviendo un sueño y aún más que este sea mi futuro, ya que es la profesión que escogí. No soy médico, ni arquitecto, ni piloto de Fórmula Uno, ni futbolista del Liverpool de Inglaterra, soy Arqueólogo y aunque el 90% de las personas que he tratado en mi vida no supieran que significaba ser arqueólogo de mi boca lograron enterarse que soy feliz, que viajo todos los días sin tener máquina del tiempo a lugares que habitó el hombre en diversas temporalidades.

Retornando a la primera línea de este escrito y la hamaca, me encuentro a más o menos 1000 km de Bogotá, la capital de Colombia, y un tanto más de mi hogar. Llevo 20 días viviendo en una población de pescadores (Aguada de Pablo – Departamento del Atlántico, Colombia) e intento arrancarle algunas verdades a un suelo lleno de arena y cantos rodados, sobre todo quiero saber qué animales hacían parte de las dieta de grupos humanos hace más o menos 5000 años, saber sobre preferencias de consumo y los hábitats que estaban siendo visitados para capturar las presas. Hasta el momento intuyo que eran hábitats de Ciénaga, Bosques de Galería, zonas de Sabana con un clima semi húmedo y una temperatura promedio de 35°C, que hacia el mediodía se eleva a los 40°C.


6:15, después de algunas meditaciones y la habitual pereza de las mañanas me dirijo hacia mi ducha, que se compone de dos cubetas llenas de agua y una taza, tengo todo el patio para bañarme y creo que nunca me había sentido tan libre. Después del primer refrescante baño del día me visto, recojo mi equipo y me dirijo a desayunar. Me doy el lujo de desayunar con pescado que no lleva más de un par de horas fuera del agua y su sabor es inigualable, en ningún restaurante de donde vivo he probado mejor pescado. Con la primer comida del día en mi estómago y saliendo de la casa de la familia de Dayro, quien es mi maño derecha y un nativo del pueblo con amplia experiencia en diferentes proyectos arqueológicos en la zona, comienza en verdad la jornada de trabajo. Estamos a más o menos 20 min, lo que serían kilómetro y medio del sitio arqueológico Punta de Pájaro, razón por  la cual estoy tan feliz y tan lejos de casa. No caminamos solos, nos acompañan Luis Fernando, Mauricio, Fabián y Nayith, un grupo de amigos bastante peculiar y el cual me adoptó muy amistosamente a mi llegada. Además de ser buena compañía son excelentes buscando huesos en el cernidor y por ello son las nuevas contrataciones de mi primer equipo de trabajo en campo. No pude haber obtenido mejores amigos y compañeros para un largo día.


La mañana transcurre entre vallenatos, risas, fragmentos de cerámica, algunas lascas y abundantes restos de fauna, entre la que identifico de manera preliminar, gran cantidad de peces, dos especies de tortuga, roedores y posiblemente venados. A escasos metros se ve pasar también la jornada de trabajo de los pescadores de la zona, se mueven al ritmo del viento con sus velas hinchadas y con algún botín expresado en unos cuantos kilos de buen pescado. Al verlos navegar hábilmente y poner sus trampas imagino que las personas que habitaron el lugar que excavo seguramente no tenían un día muy diferente, y que los peces al ser un recurso constante serian bastante importantes. Aun con todos los cambios en el entorno, la pérdida del bosque y la contaminación actual,  la vista, la brisa y el alimento debieron ser las condiciones más afables para vivir y para el favorable desarrollo de las relaciones sociales.

Seis horas han transcurrido desde mi despertar, entre algunas divagaciones, observaciones y buena música caribeña, el estómago comienza a rugir como un león. 20 días almorzando exactamente al medio día crean hábito o lo crean. Se hace el break del almuerzo el cual se encuentra caliente ya que Diógenes, el hermano de Dayro, o algunas veces Rafa, integrante del grupo de amigos, lo ha traído en moto hace pocos minutos. Se empiezan a ver algunas nubes en el horizonte amenazando con hacer del final de la tarde una experiencia bastante húmeda, y aunque en días anteriores descansábamos más de una hora en el almuerzo, ahora con el tiempo respirando sobre mi nuca no son más de 20 minutos. Los muchachos no hacen caso de las nubes y siguen mi ritmo ya que se  ha creado más que un vínculo laboral, uno personal, y me ayudan a poder cumplir mi meta.

No me quedan más de 10 días de trabajo, al bajar centímetro tras centímetro el material comienza a escasear, aparecen algunas cuentas de collar que hacen del día más productivo y más particular para los muchachos.

Ellos muchas veces no entendían que el tesoro para mí en esa excavación estaba representado por cada hueso sin importar el tamaño, y no en algún metal precioso. Ante cada hallazgo de un fragmento cerámico con la representación de un animal, un fragmento considerable de caparazón de tortuga o una mandíbula de roedor me deleito escuchando las explicaciones de mi equipo de trabajo, y siento que a pesar de no estar generando miles de empleos o presentando el proyecto ante multitudes, creo conciencia, llego de cierta manera a las personas y las empapo del deseo de buscar una explicación de la eterna relación del hombre con la naturaleza.


Exploring Petra’s Diversity

This year’s Day of Archaeology falls during the first half of the field season of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP). Managed by the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, BUPAP is a multi-disciplinary research project that hopes to understand the development of Petra and its surrounding landscapes diachronically, both through regional survey and excavation at individual sites.

The Petra Area and Wadi Silaysil Survey in action (Photo by Linda Gosner).

Portrayals of Petra have historically focused on the monumental city- images of the Siq, the royal tombs, the Treasury, and the Great Temple imbedded into popular culture through the likes of Indiana Jones and countless other representations. BUPAP looks to build upon this past research and public interest, to contextualize our understanding of Petra’s diversity, and to ask new questions of the city and its surroundings including periods and places that have generally received little academic attention. Our fieldwork is split into four interrelated projects: the Petra Upper Market Area (PUMA) involves excavation, geophysical survey, and architectural studies in the city center; the Petra Area and Wadi Silaysil Survey (PAWS) is an intensive and systematic regional survey focused on the area north of the city; the Bayda Islamic Village (BIV) features excavation and mapping of an Islamic settlement; and the Petra Routes Project (PRP) investigates local and regional communication and travel. These are four diverse and exciting projects which we hope will bring some new ideas to the study of the city.

Our excavation team hard at work.

The diversity of both the site and the project is also represented in our project team. We’re lucky to work with an international group of established scholars, graduate students, and professional architects from the US, Jordan, Malta, Canada, Italy, Germany, Colombia, and Macedonia. We also rely on strong ties to the local community to understand the site in both its ancient and modern context. Besides the obvious academic benefits of such a broad range of contributors, our international team also makes for a lively and enjoyable workday and dig house.

Since Friday is our day off, we don’t have much to report from site today- you can check out posts by our team members Andy Dufton or Allison Mickel to learn more about what our team gets up to during the break. You can also check in at our Facebook page if you’re interested in learning more about the project, or keeping up with our latest finds and updates.