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4. Heritage Values and the Value of Chiriquí Heritage

Throughout this discussion, a number of different forms of 'value' have been considered. The concept of cultural value is one that can be applied in myriad ways through focus on issues such as commodification (Appadurai 1986a), use or exchange (Marx 1954), cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984), or symbolism (Baudrillard 1981) among others. When applied to archaeological material the issue of value enters the sphere of cultural heritage, the full extent of which can be seen to include intrinsic value (individual experiences of heritage), instrumental value (associated social or economic aspects of value), and institutional value (the processes and techniques institutions use to create heritage value) (Clark 2010; Smith et al. 2010, 18). These cross-cut the varied ways in which archaeological material has been valued and perceived (see Carman 2005, 45-61).

Issues of cultural value – in multiple definitions of the term – strongly determined what objects were removed from Chiriquí contexts and what was then done with them. Gold objects were most sought and, as noted, many were melted; due to the economic value of their material, they no longer exist. Ceramics were provided a lesser but still significant value and were circulated widely to western museums and private collections through their symbolic capital in terms of representing a geographical area and high technical level of ability. Stones in Chiriquí were retrieved by looters and collected by museums only if worked into tools or carved into figurines or seats; their perceived monetary and aesthetic values fell below those of gold or ceramic objects, gauging from written descriptions of the Chiriquí looting that began in 1859 and artefacts currently held in museum collections (though see Mason 1945). Stones that were minimally worked and non-portable, such as the volcanic materials used in grave construction, were afforded notice by looters and antiquarians but not financial value. These materials remain and provide an as yet unexplored source of archaeological questions and ideas. Though grave construction stones are very heavily reused in the local area for paving stones in pathways or to form tables on which to wash dishes or perform other domestic tasks, these stones represent past value – in multiple forms – that did not fully translate into the present.

Figure 52 Figure 53 Figure 54 Figure 55

Figure 52: Dacite slabs from burials reused for washing dishes
Figure 53: Dacite slabs from burials reused as paving stones for pathways
Figure 54: Dacite slabs from burials reused as paving stones for pathways
Figure 55: Dacite slabs and basalt columns reused to line stairs

Archaeologists are clearly aware of the amount of material loss inherent in the largely organic material culture of the past, yet people in the past were themselves quite aware of this and likely felt an impetus to create objects in stone or to mark stones as a more permanent statement (Bradley 2002, 21; Gosden and Lock 1998, 11; Loendorf et al. 2006, 4-5). I suggested at the outset of this article an association between the Volcá Barú as a landscape monument and the association of riches – or value – in the colonial period and the 19th-century gold rush that resulted in the wide-scale looting of Chiriquí sites. The volcano and materials associated with it potentially held a different value in the pre-Columbian mind that is underestimated in archaeological assessments of the objects found in the heavily looted cemeteries of Chiriquí. Recent volcanological data indicate that the fairly regular pre-Columbian eruptions would have had a greater impact upon society and culture through their experiential resonance than their physical impact (Sherrod et al. 2007). Over the longer span of time, the volcano would have been perceived as a monumental marker of the landscape, though the exact encapsulation of its precise social role is difficult to determine. The volcano is not a product, good, or artefact in the sense discussed by Arjun Appadurai (1986b). It can, however, be attributed a biography in the sense of authors such as Janet Hoskins (1998). The volcano is already anthropomorphised to the point of being considered active, sleeping, or dead, and hence already is easily viewed as having a lifespan and life history. Perhaps the volcano is best seen, at least archaeologically, as a material thing that is enmeshed within the social world (per Attfield 2000, 15).

Figure 56 Figure 57

Figure 56: Ngöbe woman with the Volcá Barú in the background; Photo courtesy of Howard Hill and taken during a seminar taught by K. Holmberg
Figure 57: Municipal seal of Boquete, Panama showing the Volcá Barú in the upper left portion and pre-Columbian artefacts in the lower right; photo by K. Holmberg

In considering Chiriquí's rich material culture it is patent that the most cogent and valued form of archaeological data – context – is largely absent; the tremendous amount of past and current looting in Chiriquí may make certain research questions untenable (Cooke 1997; Cooke and Sánchez 2003, 21). The materials, however, largely still exist and now circulate as commodified, decontextualised, or recontextualised objects rather than as artefacts. These myriad collections are not static, but are altered by theft, gifting, and resale. While collected Chiriquí grave goods with a contemporary economic value stemming from their material (especially gold) or aesthetics (especially ceramics) have circulated widely on the world market, objects like dacite slabs and basalt columns were discarded in piles near the looted tombs and given little consideration.

Just as artefacts themselves have no inherent meaning but are instead receptacles and shapers of contextual meanings, the commodified state of artefact or non-artefact (or data and non-data) is related more to the valuation of certain objects over others within the discipline of archaeology (or the larger culture) than to something inherent within the data or objects in the past (Kopytoff 1986; [View Comments]). The culturally embedded issues of exchange, circulation, and value – in this sense – are not limited to the archaeological past but are also at play in the present interpretation of the past. Value can be seen as a process rather than a state (Munn 1986, 32; Strathern 1988; Thomas 1991), and a reassessment and readjustment of data and artefact in conjunction with new techniques and research structures are warranted and required to elucidate a greater understanding of past life in the Barú area.

Reader Comments

Author's Comment:
While museum collections seek to preserve archaeological objects and make information regarding them accessible, the willingness of museums to collect looted materials spurs the continued looting of cultural heritage (Brodie and Renfrew 2005). What are the best responses of archaeologists to this reality?
  • Karen Holmberg
  • 15-SEP-2010 at 16:57
Just as anthropologists try to study a dynamic culture constantly in flux, archaeologists are studying dynamic materials that move with the earth, are lost, reinterpreted, and valued in a fluid sense (Dr. Holmberg writes, "value is a process rather than a state"). And archaeology is a key locale for the intersection of value and cultural heritage.

It is this unfixedness of value that brings both conflict and complexity to the archaeological site. In Afghanistan, for example, questions over value caused the controversy over the Mes Aynak site, which archaeologists want to excavate and the Afghanistan government wants to mine for copper. These conflicting values 'cultural heritage versus economic capital' contextualize the politics of excavation and the debate over heritage.

These same conflicting values are what lead to looting, as seen with the cemeteries of the Chiriqui and with the acceptance of looted objects of heritage by countless museums. In response to this, UNESCO has created an act in its 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to guard against museum acquisition of 'unprovenanced' antiquities. While the creation of rules and laws seemed to be the best response to the condonement of looting by museums, it has proven particularly difficult to enforce. Inevitably, 'cultural heritage and human rights are entangled with relations of power' (Silverman and Ruggles 2008:17). And so archaeologists are called to respond to this power game and increase their security and privacy measures in their excavations.
  • Dominique Youkhehpaz
  • 03-MAR-2011 at 02:07
This question has multiple facets, I think.

One line of argument I feel is that if sites and artifacts are socially important than they would be preserved. This argument becomes very clear when the host culture is still in place. Looting of Hawaiian sites is now vigilantly patrolled, both by protecting the physical sites, and by taking measures to get illegally looted items returned. This is a simplistic example, because there is only one anthropological museum in Hawaii and artifacts can be traced fairly easily, but it highlights the general point; that if items are allowed to be looted by the society around them they have lost majority of their social significance.

A second line of reasoning that resonates with me is that much of the value of an artifact is lost when it is removed from its context. From this perspective preservation is place is the highest standard that we can strive for. However, as stated above, there are often direct conflicts between preservation and other social needs.

Ultimately, based on these two thoughts above, I think that the looting of artifacts is a product of social conditions, again the value process referred to by Dr. Holmberg. What can museums and archeologists do? While there is little they can do against the developmental forces of industry, I think an important first step is to recognize the gold-standard multi-faceted value of preservation in place. This offers a range of values, from scientific to educational to tourism to aesthetics. By shifting the importance from objects to socio-landscapes preservation may increase with shifting social values.
  • Noa Lincoln
  • 07-MAR-2011 at 19:46

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