Skip to comments.Puerto Rico Archaeological Find Mired In Politics
Posted on 07/01/2008 8:34:31 PM PDT by blam
Puerto Rico archeological find mired in politics
Posted on Tue, Jul. 01
By FRANCES ROBLES
U.S. archaeologist Nathan Mountjoy sits next to stones etched with ancient petroglyphs and graves that reveal unusual burial methods in Ponce, Puerto Rico. The archaeological find, one of the best-preserved pre-Columbian sites found in the Caribbean, form a large plaza measuring some 130 feet by 160 feet that could have been used for ball games or ceremonial rites, officials said.
SAN JUAN -- The lady carved on the ancient rock is squatting, with frog-like legs sticking out to each side. Her decapitated head is dangling to the right.
That's how she had been, perfectly preserved, for up to 800 years, until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came upon her last year while building a $375 million dam to control flooding in southern Puerto Rico.
She was buried again last week with the hope that some day specialists will study her and Puerto Rican children will visit and learn about the lives of the Taino Indians who created her. But archaeologists and government officals first had to settle a raging debate about who should have control over her and other artifacts sent to Georgia for analysis.
The ancient petroglyph of the woman was found on a five-acre site in Jácana, a spot along the Portugues River in the city of Ponce, on Puerto Rico's southern coast. Among the largest and most significant ever unearthed in the Caribbean, archaeologists said, the site includes plazas used for ceremony or sport, a burial ground, residences and a midden mound -- a pile of ritual trash.
The finding sheds new light on the lifestyle and activities of a people extinct for nearly 500 years.
Experts say the site -- parts of it unearthed from six feet of soil -- had been used at least twice, the first time by pre-Taino peoples as far back as 600 AD, then again by the Tainos sometime between 1200 and 1500 AD.
''It was thrilling, a once-in-a-lifetime thing,'' said David McCullough, an Army Corps archaeologist. ``Just amazing.''
But like all things on this politically charged island, the discovery got caught up in a sovereignty debate: If an archaeological site rich in historic and cultural value is discovered in a federal construction site in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, who should be in charge of it?
After months of finger-pointing and accusations of officially sanctioned plundering, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers poured $2 million into preserving the site. Plans to put a rock dump over it were changed, and the unearthed discovery was reburied with the aspiration that archaeologists will eventually return to dedicate the 10 or 20 years needed to thoroughly study the finding.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers promises the collection sent to Georgia will be returned to Puerto Rico. Some 75 boxes of skeletons, ceramics, small petroglyphs and rocks were sent via Federal Express in two double-boxed shipments for analysis.
''The site is a significant contribution to our understanding of what Indians were doing,'' McCullough said. ``The thing that makes it unique is that the petroglyphs are so finely done. We originally were supposed to be there six weeks. It wound up taking four months.''
McCullough said the corps had an inkling that the site was there since the mid 1980s but had never done much testing. They started digging in earnest last year while building a dam and lake to protect the region from floods, and realized the site had significant value.
The corps found a ball court with four walls lined by tall stones, where they believe the Tainos either danced or played games. Three were covered in petroglyphs, among the best experts had ever seen. Some of the figures were carved upside down, which none of the archaeologists had ever seen before. Discoveries included a jade-colored amulet and the remains of a guinea pig, likely the feast of a tribal chief.
''The size of the ball court is bigger than just about anything else in the Caribbean,'' McCullough said.
Archaeologists believe as many as 400 people are buried there.
But in its quest to build the dam and use the location as a dumping ground for rocks, critics say the corps quickly hired a private archaeological firm to mitigate -- a hurried process of saving what can be conserved so a project can go forward. The company sent 125 cubic feet of artifacts in two shipments to its facility in Georgia for analysis, a move allegedly made without consulting Puerto Rican authorities, which locals felt violated the law.
But the question became: Whose law applied? U.S. law says such artifacts found by the corps must be warehoused in a federally approved curating facility. No such place exists in Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rican law says historical artifacts belong to the people of Puerto Rico.
''In Puerto Rico, everything that has to do with our past is sentimental, and Puerto Ricans take it to heart,'' said Marisol Rodríguez, an archaeologist at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. ``There's a feeling that you're taking something that's mine. It's about our national identity, regardless of the island's political status.''
Rodríguez is pleased that the site has been preserved but acknowledges she was furious at how it was originally excavated with heavy machinery.
''I was so angry. I was indignant,'' she said. ``I could not believe that a place of such importance was being treated with such disrespect.''
New South Associates, the firm hired to do the digging, says it excavated about 5 percent of the site for study.
''It was in the newspaper that we raped and pillaged the site, because it all got caught up in local politics,'' said archaeologist Chris Espenshade, New South's lead investigator on the project. ``We are required to take the artifacts to a federally approved curating facility. That played into the idea that we were stealing Puerto Rican cultural patrimony away and never bringing it back. There's no question these things should be available for Puerto Rican scholars without them having to travel to go see it.
``It's a bad situation.''
What's left of the site will remain beside a five-year dam construction project, which will continue as planned. It may be vulnerable to floods, archaeologists acknowledged, but they note that it lasted that way underground for hundreds of years.
''It's not the best way to preserve it, but it's better than the alternative: to destroy it,'' Espenshade said. ``The Corps could have destroyed it, but they took the highly unusual step to preserve it.''
Puerto Rican authorities say they are committed to opening a facility needed to properly store and exhibit the artifacts.
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture is scouting locations and trying to secure the approximately $570,000 a year needed to operate such a warehouse. Officials hope it will open as early as mid-2009, but some experts still worry.
''Nobody could believe that in the 21st century, a federal agency would hire a private agency to dig up a site and take things,'' said Miguel Rodríguez, an archaeologist who sat on Puerto Rico's government archaeological council for a total of eight years.
He quit in January following a heart attack, which he blamed on stress over the Jácana site.
''Those are the things that happened in the 18th and 19th century, not now,'' Rodríguez said. ``Nobody dares go to Mexico, do an excavation and just take the stuff. That's officially sanctioned looting.''
While officials debate where they will find the funds for a museum, storage facility and lab, the Department of Natural Resources has hired 24-hour security to watch over the archaeological site, just to be sure no artifacts wind up for sale on the Internet.
''With the artifacts in Georgia,'' Department of Natural Resources Secretary Javier Vélez said, ``at least they are not on eBay.''
<”If an archaeological site rich in historic and cultural value is discovered in a federal construction site in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, who should be in charge of it?”>
The Puerto Ricans. It’s their island, after all.
Thanks Blam. I'm too lazy to post links to the topic we had about the finds themselves.
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Bloody Savages. I'd like to see a pic of the carvings.
“a pile of ritual trash”
At last - an official sounding name for my garage!
a pile of ritual trash
At last - an official sounding name for my garage!
LOL !! I can show a nenewed respect for mine too.
a nenewed respect
should be re newed respect.
If someone can explain to me how to post photos, I will. I just got back from the Jacana site and have photos that no one else does of the pectoglyphs and what we did there.
The PR government is the problem with the whole thing. Between them, the press in PR stirring up lies about what was really going on, and having to hire a 24/7 security force to watch over the police(who was in turn watching over the security force to make sure neither looted the site in the middle of the night), we’re just happy to be home. Gees, do I have stories to tell...lol. I have firsthand knowledge about what was really the issues in PR, so, please don’t think that New South, or any of us Americans are screwing up any potential archeological sites in PR. No, it’s nothing like Mexico. No, no one has stolen artifacts from the people there. Wanna scream about artifacts being stolen? Try bashing the Universities in Europe that have dug in PR for several decades, then after the artifacts have been taken to Europe and they’re done looking at them, sell them on their own University websites to try to raise money for their own archeological exploits...lol. Or, scream about the lead archeologists in PR having EXTENSIVE personal collections from these sites. If the government, and other entities, in PR are complaining about US borrowing the stuff we found on Corp land, the only reason left would be because we actually ARE doing archeology and they can’t pick and choose what they want to put in their own personal showcases. I know archeologists down there that have looked for supposedly curated artifact collections in museums from the last 30 years, and can’t find even one single piece of broken pottery from entire sites, when the artifact logs say they are in the possession of them. Certain entities down there even throw away ALL of the artifacts in the trash in order not to have to look over them. Throwing artifacts away there is evidently a pretty common practice. So is making a mountain out of a molehill. In PR, overdrama, smallman’s syndrome, lying, cheating, stealing, manipulating, and misinformation rule over the common people with an iron fist. Most all of the politicians and cops are corrupt and you can’t arrest any of them, because they’ll just get replaced by someone that’s the same way (so, what’s the point?) The common people know all of this to be true and we had many conversations about that fact with them while we were there. They just feel like there is no point in even trying to change things. It’s not like here. The regular people of PR are family-oriented, funny-as-hell, easygoing, great cooks;), and are the type of folk that give you hugs and shed a tear when you leave. You don’t get to hear from them, unless you are there for a month or two. I wasn’t allowed to post on here about Jacana until we were done with the site because of the severe dramas that exist in the heirarchy there, but thank God I’m home now, gees.
I have over 30 photos in my myspace, but I’m a little nervous about giving my URL away. I WILL, however, post several on this thread if someone will explain to me how to do such a thing.
No, that’s a very bad idea.
Why is it a bad idea? We don’t want foreigners coming here and digging up our ancestors, stealing items out of their graves, now do we?
WE won’t do that. Other foreigner have, and always will, as long as y’all keep letting them. And, from everything I saw, foreigners aren’t necessarily the problem. Puerto Ricans will get the artifacts back from America, but who knows where they will be in 30 years after they come home. Ever wondered why no burials have ever been found in the other sites around the island, or, why no postmold patterns have ever been found at any other sites except the one we were at? The best hope Jacana has is for it to be turned into a national park like Tibes. The surveyors (puerto rican) at Jacana slipped up and told us they are going to cut down every tree at the site so that the trees don’t stick out of the water when the lake is built. The Corp doesn’t just do whatever it wants to in spite of what people may believe. DNR and other governmental agencies on the island do whatever they want. Don’t point fingers at the Americans or you’re just falling into the propaganda the press in PR tries to make you believe. TRUST ME when I say that the archeologists from America have Puerto Ricans best interests at heart. Puerto Ricans and Europeans don’t have PR in mind and never will, in my opinion. I love Puerto Rico, it’s archeology, it’s people, and it’s food. I hate the tourism, the politics, and the chaos that is created there by corruption.
How to post imgs and a whole lot more info there.
<”...Dont point fingers at the Americans...youre... falling into the propaganda...TRUST ME...archeologists from America have Puerto Ricans best interests at heart...”>
This isn’t about my trusting you or believing propaganda. The ethics of archaeological excavating as espoused by international agreements backs me up on this; to steal another people’s national archaeological treasures is just plain wrong. We may negotiate an arrangement by which we borrow them for a short period of time for exhibition purposes after they are processed and evaluated here in the U.S., but the items belong to the country of origin. It is only right.
Ethics in archaeology has dramatically changed from a century and a half ago. When the British removed marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, they assured themselves they did it for mankind. And it was fortuitous. The old temple, virtually intact into the 19th century, was used to house gunpowder during a conflict between Greece and Turkey. A lucky shot blew it into the sad ruined state we see today. The Elgin marbles are now housed in the British Museum and the Greek government wants them back. How will it be resolved? I don’t have a clue.
I’m an Art Historian by education and training. The ethics of archaeological endeavors no longer are in the Indiana Jones, drag-it-home-and-sell-it-to-a-museum, mindframe. Other nations may not have our resources or expertise, but they can learn.
The artifacts are on loan for study in Georgia(which took multiple agencies to clear), from what I understand. But, anyone else, from any other country doesn’t have to deal with the permits that are required. I do agree that PR needs to have the artifacts and not the US, but PR just needs the facilities to handle that instead of the dumpsters that they eventually put their history in. If tourism isn’t involved, most archeologists there couldn’t care less what happens to them there. It’s real sad. Pisses me off everything I learned there. European Universities pillage PR and no one seems to care, even though it’s common knowledge. Yet, mention someone from America borrowing artifacts, and everyone there gets possessive about the fact it belongs to the people of PR. Huge double standards regarding the US. Look up the Universities in Holland(i think). They publically sell PR artifacts on the web. They make no bones about where they came from either, or, how they got them. It just infuriates me. BTW - You DO understand that I fully agree with you, right?
Well, I wasn’t sure you agreed with me - you were so passionate about your point of view! But I’m glad we agree.
About other countries and how they treat antiquities: when I lived in Spain a local farmer was plowing a field when his tractor partially broke through the ground and exposed an Etruscan tomb (Provincia de Cadiz). He marked the spot so he wouldn’t lose his tractor, then kept plowing. He notified authorities later but it might take years, even decades for the Spanish government to get around to sending out an archaeological survey team. I know this story because his neice cleaned my apartment.
Some nations have a history so crowded with human history, they are literally overwhelmed by the sheer challenge of examining and cataloguing all of it. I am beginning to suspect the same with the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.
The average archaeologists down there are fantastic and care about the history of PR. The ‘politician’ archaeologists that make all the calls are pissy, territorial, self-absorbed, maniacal, 14 year old boys in their behavior. The head arch. for one of the PR governmental agencies was picking up pottery and sticking it in his pocket, standing right next to the PR governor while several news crews were interviewing them about the site. This happened right before I got there, but it was quite the buzz when I arrived. Evidently, the only ones that noticed and then mentioned that he couldn't do that was the people that I worked with. That's not just a small mistake. That kind of blatant action comes from years, if not decades, of doing that. What bumfuzzled me most was the press, though. The PR governmental entities (which there were around three that had to sign off on any kind of plan before we were allowed to do anything) told our company that we had a select time to finish the project, so dig with whatever, as fast as we could, including using heavy equipment, to determine if there was anything there. So, we did as we were told, but troweled and brushed any areas with extreme care that were cultural. The press blew the whole thing way out of proportion for their own agenda, and ran with the opportunity to turn the public against Americans. Anyone with true experience with a bobcat or backhoe knows the different densities of earth that you run across, and so you know when not to cut into a cultural layer. You can FEEL the difference, trust me. This site was full of concrete slabs from houses, cars and trucks shoved off into the woods over the last 100 years, jungle that you couldn't crawl through, giant trees, random large metal objects that 4 grown men couldn't lift, 1000’s of bottles and cans, refrigerators, washers and dryers, and boulders deposited from large landslides or floods, and various other unnamed modern trash. There was no way to look for anything at all without using some form of heavy equipment. We left it looking like a golf course. We put huge piles of sandy soil on top of the most important areas, such as the one in the photo above, in order to protect those areas from future looting by making it incredibly dangerous for someone to just dig a little hole to steal something. We even spent a week reseeding the entire site with native grasses of that elevation to both fight erosion, and blend the site properly into its surroundings. What we did to cover it was so thought out, that we actually were able to coin the process a phase IV, which is the first one in archaeological history. We even wrapped the entire site (excavations, back dirt piles, and anything else across that 9 acres) with a material called geotex to ensure that the strata would never move, and to mark the exact location of the ground level where we stopped. The excavations have several layers of it in order to keep the ground from shifting. Geotex allows water to pass through it, but stabilizes it from sinking or eroding. The site is wrapped like a Christmas present now, and in effect, it is that. There's so much dirt on top of it now, it'll take heavy equipment just to remove it all, if in fact it is EVER dug back up. Personally, I doubt it'll ever see the light of day again, and this may well be the last time you ever hear about it.
Thanks for the pic. Interesting comments regarding the politics that come into play.
Notice: The images in this post don't truly give these stones the justice they deserve, as some of the stones have shaving marks left behind from 800 years ago and small scratches made after the more noticeable petroglyphs were created. These stones were worked and flipped upside down several times over the ages by the native tribes of that area.
Frogman petroglyph (notice the use of the rock sticking out for his penis...lol. kinda cool..
Pillar stones in north wall of ball court. They tend to be around 4 to 5 feet tall. Pillar stones haven't been seen in over 60 years, but were mentioned initially by early archaeologists to the region.
Who REALLY created the smiley face image? Wasn't the Americans, and I have proof..
Ehhh... who knows what this is. Nice though. Notice the other faces down the face of the pillar stone?
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