Cuba > Mexico #worldinterview #18

Cuba > Mexico

Interviewee: Eduardo Escalante

What is Mexico’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?

The responsibility for the research, protection, conservation, dissemination and management of the archaeological heritage is given by federal law to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), created in 1939. The INAH has a permanent programme for the recording and registration of archaeological sites in the country, being helped by the regional INAH offices on every state (one representation of INAH in every state). Each INAH office is responsible for the national activities of the Institute on the regional level, bearing more attention to the archaeological sites officially opened to the public. Among these sites opened to the public, World Heritage Sites are among the most visited and the ones with more attention. Since 1985 when Mexico rectified the World Heritage Convention, the responsibilities as a State Party are among the responsibilities of INAH for the conservation and management of World Heritage Sites, especially archaeological sites and historic centres.  According the Mexican legislation, every rectified convention is considered part of the federal framework policy.

It is important to notice that within INAH there is a specialized department for World Heritage. This department is the responsible for the nomination and monitoring processes. It is the representation of INAH with the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO. This department works alongside CONANP (National Commission for Protected Natural Areas), which is responsible for the Natural World Heritage sites.

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

Recently, INAH has been developing Community Museums on communities with high cultural heritage values. It is important for INAH since its creation to work alongside the minority groups in order to protect cultural heritage and archaeological sites. Every research project on the countryside bears in mind the involvement of communities in order to build a community project.

What is the role of Mexican indigenous communities in the process of institutional decisions regarding tourism on archaeological heritage?

The direct participation of indigenous communities within archaeological sites in Mexico has to be with the ownership of the land. Several archaeological sites opened to the public still are on community owned land, for what indigenous communities can have a direct positive impact for the visitation working together with government policies regarding tourism. Although this aspect of the management of archaeological sites in Mexico still is a delicate issue, being more evident around World Heritage sites.

How does Mexico deal with the planning and development of cities and country areas, considering the occurrence of potential of archaeological sites?

INAH is composed by several departments, such as the Rescue Archaeology Department (commercial archaeology, savage archaeology). This department is the responsible of the follow up processes on development projects. By law, every development project has to have the INAH verification and approval for the construction. If there is archaeological evidence, is the organisation or company of the development project the one responsible for providing the necessary resources in order to execute a proper rescue archaeological project. This rescue archaeology process goes along with the permanent programme of record and registration of archaeological heritage, for what a Geographical Information Database is integrated in order to have a clear idea of the existence of archaeological evidence in the Mexican territory.

About Eduardo:

BA in Archaeology, Autonomous University of Yucatan; MA in Managing of Archaeological Sites, UCL; Head of the Technical Unit for the Management of Archaeological Sites, Sites Operation Department, National Coordination of Archaeology, National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH)

Questions from Odlanyer Hernández de Lara in Cuba.

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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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Excavating an Archaeologist’s Desk

In honor of the Day of Archaeology, in which we endeavor to display the “wide variety of work our profession undertakes day-to-day across the globe” (Day of Archaeology 2012 [archaeologists cite things]), I’m throwing this together as an archaeologist who embraces three different roles within the profession, has worked across 10 states and 3 foreign countries (Mexico, Cuba, and the British Virgin Islands), and still hasn’t finished graduate school (much to the chagrin of many, including myself).
To convey this complex existence, I’m choosing an archaeological metaphor and excavating my desk. My workspace is, to no surprise, a reflection of the many things that occupy my time, pique my interest, and, I hope, lead to some insight into the pasts of the common people of history, a group that counts my ancestors, German and Welsh immigrants, among its numbers. I have imposed a classification system on the contents of my desk, by which I will unpack the contents and, in turn, my life as an archaeologist working in the SAU Research Station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
Indiana Jones once told a student (while running from the KGB) “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library.” While I fully endorse this sentiment, you must realize that a lot of archaeological research involves bookwork. We read a lot about the work of our forebears as a way to help orient our own research, building on and modifying that which came before, and to avoid scientific dead-ends. The books on my desk include those oriented towards:
Dissertation: I am a doctoral candidate at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, the cradle of historical archaeology in the United States. I am trying to knock out a dissertation that will be the final step in my formalized education. This requires both books on epistemological issues relevant to the way I do research, such as Tim Murray’s Time and Archaeology or Anders Andrén’s Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. Combining the clarity of thinking derived from such sources with the results of fieldwork are then combined with the insight derived from other books, such as D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America and Kenneth Lewis’s The American Frontier to produce a document that will add to the historiography of southwest Arkansas and the American West… and earn me a diploma (please please please).
Teaching: I just finished teaching two classes at Southern Arkansas University, one a survey of world archaeology and the other a criminal justice research methods class. The detritus from preparing the lectures, including Catherine Hakim’s Research Design and Henn et al’s A Critical Introduction to Social Research still haven’t left my desk. They’re actually checked out from the University of Arkansas (5 hours away), so the next time I get called up to the coordinating office in Fayetteville, I’ll drop them off.
Methods: We demonstrate our competence as archaeologists in the field, showing each other and the cosmos that we can dig properly (carefully and fast), map precisely, and document our findings appropriately. I’ve got Hester et al’s Field Methods in Archaeology on my book rack for reference, and the bookshelves surrounding my desk are full of books on aerial remote sensing and LiDAR research.
Conference preparation:  One of the high points of any archaeologist’s professional year is a conference. For me, that usually means the Society for Historical Archaeology meetings, though in my current position the Arkansas Archeological Society conference is important as well. I’d like to go to the Fields of Conflict conference this year, but Budapest is a bit out of the range of my wallet (my truck needs work…). This week, I’ve been pulling together a session for the SHA with colleagues and classmates at William & Mary, and I’ve been using the abstract books from past conferences and De Cunzo and Jameson’s Unlocking the Past to write abstracts and encourage the session to take form.
Fieldwork Papers
As mentioned above, proper note taking is an integral part of archaeology. Documentation of context is key. It separates us from looters, provides a basis for scientific work, and is a backstop for ideas and information that might otherwise get missed. If ideas were baseballs, an archaeological dig is like being a catcher behind home plate, facing a battalion of pitching machines. Even if you’re Johnny Bench, you can only hold so many of those baseballs at once. Paperwork is like having a canvas bag to put those ideaballs (I’m liking this metaphor less and less) in so you don’t lose them. On my desk may be found
–        A green 3-ring binder from Area B of the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Training Dig, directed by my boss/friend/mentor Jamie Brandon. See his post here on the dig itself. The stack of papers inside is probably 2 inches thick. All of that came from two weeks in the field. It’s a lot of stuff to sift through, but every sweat-stained word is archaeological gold.
–        Field books. I see three, though there may be more buried in there somewhere. These nifty little books, usually with yellow covers, have waxed pages, making them resilient in rainy or sweaty conditions, and are the place where we jot our notes about the project we’re working on. My field book from the Society Dig contains the shot log for our surveyor’s total station, so we have a redundant copy of all that information. I also have my field book for site visits done on behalf of the Survey. The notes I take in the field can then be transposed into either a site form, which I submit by way of report to the Survey, or included in subsequent publications on that research. Writing notes, particularly under hot or busy conditions, is one of the disciplines that archaeologists must learn. As with so many other things, when it comes to notes, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. In some positions, such as federal jobs, field books are part of the paperwork associated with a project and subject to subpoena and other legal strictures, so don’t draw too many cartoons about gophers in them.
The final big section of research-related equipment can be classed as technology.  Technological advancements in computing, remote sensing (Johnson 2005), data sharing (Kansa 2012), and numerous other fronts in the past twenty years is revolutionizing archaeology. The very fact of this blog post, the internet, and personal computing is evidence of this. Hallmarks of this advancement are, of course, found on my desk.
–        Computer: Shocking, I know. Nowadays, computers are everywhere and used in most pursuits, but mine is special, consarnit! First, it’s a laptop on a dock, which is necessary given the high mobility of many archaeologists. Since you can’t bring sites to you, we have to go to the sites, often for extended periods of time. We just finished two weeks at Historic Washington State Park, and in the last year, I’ve spent weeks at Toltec Mounds, Wallace’s Ferry, and Prairie Grove, all in Arkansas, as well as making numerous trips to the Coordinating Office in Fayetteville. My Army job was just like that, as was my time with the NPS, just that in the federal gigs, the projects are usually spread over greater areas. Laptops are essential in taking our computing power along with. Crucial to that computing power is the software held on the machine, particularly, in my case…
–        Geographic information system (GIS) software. I do a lot of work with spatial documentation and analysis, so I need mapping software. Being able to document the location of sites and areas within sites is an important part of the documentation process.
–          Scanner: I scan lots of things, primarily to make back-ups (hard to lose all copies of a document) and to share them with colleagues. Information sharing is a big part of the research process, as those who share your interests and expertise are not likely under the same roof as you. This is partly why conferences are so important. Information exchange stimulates, as Poirot liked to call them, “the little grey cells” and advance the discipline. Scanners help make that possible.
–        Telephone: Again, rather mundane, but an important part of my job. The Arkansas Archeological Survey does a lot of public outreach work for people of all walks of life from across the state. My station covers 11 counties in southwest Arkansas, and I get calls to come out and look at sites or assist colleagues at museums and parks in the area with public outreach work (come to the Red River Heritage Symposium at Historic Washington State Park on the 28th of July). Much of that begins with a phone call.
As this all should indicate, I spend a LOT of time working, well more than 40 hours a week. As a result, I spend a lot of time in the office or in the field, and my desk contents reflect that.
–        Coffee mug and empty Coke/Diet Coke cans: I am a caffeine addict, plain and simple. I often get little more than 5 hours of sleep a night, and with as stacked of a to-do list as I have, it’s rather unavoidable. I can’t keep up with a friend, who runs on five cappuccinos a day, but there are times when I wonder how awesome that feels. I’m guessing “pretty.”
–        Mulerider Baseball cup: Our host institution and my erstwhile employer, Southern Arkansas University has a great baseball team, and the Muleriders just won the GAC Championship… again. Great job, guys! One of the ways I avoid having the pressures of all of these jobs and responsibilities burn me out is by having a mental outlet. For me, that’s baseball and hockey. We don’t get much of the latter down here. However, the baseball stadium is right across the parking lot from the office (really, I can see it from my desk), and those evening games are a nice break from the grind.
–        Yellow duct tape: Why yellow, you might ask? Because every station in the Survey system was allocated a color to mark their equipment with so that we could tell whose stuff is whose when we collaborate on projects. Our station’s color is yellow, Henderson State’s is orange, Toltec’s is blue, etc. etc. etc. Marking things as ours helps avoid confusion and trowel fights.
–        Field hat: I saved this for last because it’s one of my favorite things. For archaeologists, the attachments we form with crucial bits of equipment can be very strong. Many people still have their first trowels, and carefully guard them (think of a mitt for a baseball player). They’re things, but they’re things intimately tied up in the art of our discipline, and that makes them special. For me, there are three things that fall into this category. My trowel is the first, and I keep it distinct from all other trowels by wrapping the handle in hockey stick tape. The second is my Brunton pocket transit (think a compass on steroids with neon flames shooting down its hood), which is not only a very useful bit of equipment, it was also my father’s when he was doing his dissertation, and that carries great meaning to me. Finally, there is my field hat, a mid-crown cattleman with a 4” brim from Sunbody Hats in Houston, Texas. No matter how hot it gets, it’s always a little cooler under this thing, and it was a wedding gift from Jimmy Pryor, the owner of Sunbody and a childhood friend. It’s a link to home and my wife all at once, and it cheers me up when I’ve been out on a project for a couple of weeks and starting to get a little barn sour.
Now, having looked at these piles for a few hours while writing this, it may be time to do some cleaning…
Andrén, Anders
1997     Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. New York: Plenum Press
Day of Archaeology
2012    About the Project. Electronic resource (, accessed 29 June 2012).
De Cunzo, Lu Ann and John H. Jameson, Jr.
2005     Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Hakim, Catherine
2000     Research Design: Successful Designs for Social and Economic Research. New York: Routledge.
Henn, Matt, Mark Weinstein, and Nick Foard
2006     A Critical Introduction to Social Research. Los Angeles: Sage.
Hester, Thomas R., Harry J. Shafer, and Kenneth L. Feder
2009     Field Methods in Archaeology. 7th edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Lewis, Kenneth
1984     The American Frontier: An Archaeological Study of Settlement Pattern and Process. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Meinig, D.W.
1988     The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Murray, Tim, editor
1999     Time and Archaeology. New York: Routledge.