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5. The Quirky Mimetics of Cartography: re-placing Chiriquí material in archaeological perception

Figure 58

Figure 58: Cave site near the Volcá Barú in Boquete, Panamá

There is very definitely a 'quirky paradox in the mimetics of cartography' (Raffles 2002, 167), as maps structure meaning and understanding yet still cannot translate to us how past landscapes were understood. In this project, rumour and uncertainty – both ephemeral and slippery concepts to portray cartographically – were incorporated into the GIS. These elements were also significant components of the 'gold rush' that began in 1859, through which thousands of Chiriquí pre-Columbian graves were looted. Uncertainty also is present in the lack of provenance for most Chiriquí artefacts held in collections throughout the western world and the locations of the sites from which they came.

As noted at the outset of this article, the Chiriquí area was placed just outside of the region known as Tierra Firma in the colonial period. It could be plausibly argued that the lack of knowledge regarding the locations of sites that produced the artefacts now held by western museums create a perception of the area that also falls outside the boundary of material 'firmness' and contributed to the region's existence as a conceptual Terra Incognita for many archaeologists. This merits re-thinking; this article has focused upon investigation of Volcáic stones used for grave construction that remain in the study area due to perceptions of their relatively low value by 19th and 20th century looters, antiquarians and archaeologists. This and the mapping of site locations of different 'firmness' are intended to be suggestive and provocative to encourage other researchers to examine the archaeology of Chiriquí. Clearly, extrapolated site locations require considerable ground-truthing; the idea and incentive for additional researchers to do so is one of the goals of this project. I additionally suggest that intriguing data can be quarried from the Volcáic context that remains minimally disturbed by heavy looting.

Perceptions of regions within academic culture can go through wide shifts, as evidenced by the transformation within Amazonian ethnography which posed that area as 'The Least Known Continent' (Lyon 1974) and a location of perceived soil and population poverty to a boom of investigation that evidences prolonged and intense prehistoric occupation (Viveiros de Castro 1996). A similar shift is most certainly deserved in Chiriquí. Although Chiriquí was perceived as a place of great wealth and material richness in the 19th-century gold rush, if the number of sustained archaeological projects conducted in the area is used as an indicator, the perception of it throughout most of the 20th century was one of material poverty. A correction of these two extremes is merited through creative new research projects [View Comments].

Given the ubiquity of Chiriquí material throughout western museums, a great deal more work can and should be done both with decontextualised collections and in Chiriquí with the material that does remain in the archaeological context. Online museum collection information will be updated throughout the coming years, providing new artefact photos and accession data. Readers who may have access to additional site locations or collection information from unpublished reports or museum files from myriad European and US collections are welcomed and invited to provide comments or new data. It is my hope that this article will spur discussion and encourage further examination of the archaeologically understudied Chiriquí region.

In sum, Chiriquí fell at or just outside the north-western boundary of the colonial area of Tierra Firma that implied the riches and adventure of the New World in the western imagination. Chiriquí very firmly upheld these Tierra Firma associations during the 19th-century 'gold rush' to open Chiriquí graves; this looting spree was concurrent with the transition from antiquarianism to systematic archaeology and the formation of the world's major museum collections of archaeological artefacts. While the richness of pre-Columbian material culture in Chiriquí was well known in the late 19th and early 20th century, the region has yet to receive the degree of systematic archaeological attention it should. The well-publicised, heavy looting of the region and the large museum collections of decontextualised material from Chiriquí seemingly contributed to a perception of the region as one, ironically, of archaeological paucity. As we enter the 21st century, the increasing emphasis on heritage reframes the act of looting as the destructive removal of cultural heritage rather than an act that enriches the owner of the material (whether it be a private individual or an institution). Throughout the fieldwork represented by the data included with this article I focused upon lesser commodified objects and sources of data through largely fragmentary ceramics and unworked or minimally worked stones that were generally not perceived as falling within the rubric of heritage. In particular, I focused in this article on Volcáic materials – dacite slabs and basalt columns – that were only barely modified but transported long distances and infused with meaning and value in the past that was not salient for 19th or 20th-century looters. These and other overlooked forms of data remain in context despite heavy looting and are archaeologically valuable in every sense of the word.

Reader Comments

Author's Comment:
An article in the New York Times from 1905 cites the unexpected discovery of a large collection of Chiriqui artefacts purchased by Prof. O.C. Marsh over a period of 19 years (from 1860-1879) while at Yale. Marsh was accused of 'storing the collection in unopened boxes in an obscure part of the museum' (Anon 1905). At present there is a large amount of unprovenanced and uncatalogued artefacts "from both looted and systematically examined contexts" held by many major institutions and yet unstudied or understudied. I invite comments regarding the ethics of continuing to excavate new material when such vast reserves of material await study.
  • Karen Holmberg
  • 15-SEP-2010 at 16:58
As Dr. Holmberg has observed, the vast majority of Chiriqui materials have tended to come from unprovenienced graves. Such materials serve as convenient data sources for researchers interested in art-historical issues, mortuary differentiation, compositional studies, etc. They do, however, constitute an enormously biased sample of material from which to draw interpretations regarding settlement dynamics and domestic organization over time. Studies of Costa Rican Chiriqui period village organization, notably Drolet's (1984, 1988, 1992) work at Muricelago and Quilter's (Quilter 2004; Quilter and Frost 2007) at Rivas, have documented domestic expressions of social and occupational differentiation which were much more subtle and varied than were led to believe given the previous attention paid to differences in mortuary treatment.

For those archaeologists interested in prehistoric domestic organization and practice (granted, a very narrow sort), I would argue the further study of mortuary materials stored in museums will not be nearly as enlightening as developing new research designs aimed at answering these different questions. Since Chiriqui period cemeteries and residential sites continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate, one might argue that it is precisely the ethical responsibility of archaeologists to collect and share additional evidence as quickly as practical, despite the copious rows of looted material already in 'repose'.
  • Scott Palumbo
  • 24-NOV-2010 at 00:50
The translation of field experiences to articles like this one is related to a differentiated series of transformations that occur during practice. As any practitioner will know many things that take place in the field are left behind, and what is taken on from the field is invariably limited but deemed archaeological for its potential to fulfill our conventional accounts; suitable for the audience who require empirics and argumentation as a particular kind of discourse. So translation is only a matter of what we choose to leave behind and take forwards because of the (un)necessary(?) restraints of our discipline.

The translation from the field to the article involve multiple points of transformation, at which the material in the landscape are translated into archaeological objects. This transformation is both a reduction and an amplification. Think of the objects found during excavation and the way that certain aspects of their materiality are reduced, such as the object textures of pot sherds, and which aspects are amplified, such as the typology and vessel form. The same applies to the contexts that are excavated. In fact the same is true for any archaeological practice. Survey, for example, turns landscape into archaeology by documenting sites and reducing complexity in such a way that what often remains is only its single term interpretation, or its dimensions, and the way it is built. But what this does is allow complexity to be more easily digested (for right or for wrong). Thus, what remains in the landscape are the intangible connections that the site had to the landscape and the people who lived in the past. We try to put this back again but often this is like putting together a jigsaw whose pieces are mostly missing.

There are of course other ways to reveal the aspects of the field that are often left behind, and as our practices become more representational friendly through the use of more and more different kinds of media there is nothing to stop us bringing as much as we can forwards. In fact, one could argue with the promise of representation we are turning more and more towards non-representation, or more-than-representation in revealing the connections that we make as more embodied and connected archaeologists to our material.

A question remains though: to what extent will this change the way we represent and interact with our material? Providing accounts such as this paper are clearly one way, and allowing more interactivity - allowing us to intervene on what is produced - mean other questions will be revealed, other sensibilities confirmed, and importantly, other archaeologies performed.
  • Oscar Aldred
  • 24-NOV-2010 at 09:46

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