Placing Immateriality: Situating the Material of Highland Chiriquí

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Narratives of discovery and wealth [Show/Hide]

To separate out one of these examples, the Bollaert 1860 account was published in The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Review. This series ran from July 1856 to May 1868 and was part of The Gentleman's Magazine founded in London in 1731 (by Edward Cave using the pen name Sylvanus Urban; all subsequent editors also used the same name). The intention of the magazine was to create a monthly digest of any news the educated public might find of interest. The frequently sensationalised archaeological reports of such magazines, however, raise the question of what role popular media accounts, personal narratives, and rumour should play in archaeological assessments. I invite discussion regarding this issue: do such accounts provide texture and subtext or only entertaining background noise? How do they differ or parallel what we see daily on the Discovery Channel or other educational yet frequently sensational outlets for archaeological discussion?
  • Karen Holmberg
  • 15-SEP-2010 at 16:51
In section 1.1, "Narratives of discovery and wealth," you bring up an important point in questioning the appropriateness of the term "looting." For me this passage raised larger questions of what we choose to value and why. In your example, the issue at stake is how to understand the appropriation of local artifacts prior to the passage of legislature outlawing it. At the time, those committing the act probably viewed the artefacts as valuable commodities while ignoring their less qualitative aspects of cultural and historical value. Parallels can be drawn to other acts of cultural destruction and defamation, such as the loss of the giant Buddhas in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban. I think a key underlying factor in why events like these occur is that heritage is, to some degree, a social construction. Value is a process (your phrase, I think?) - a contract, almost, by which people agree to regard an artefact a certain way in order reify it as something greater than its intrinsic worth. When this contract is broken, destruction ensues.

On a different note, you mentioned in class that many scholars have overlooked this area because it is "impure," but I think that the "gold rush" in Chiriqui adds a unique wrinkle to the local history and heritage, which made the narrative of your article very engaging.
  • Misa S
  • 03-MAR-2011 at 03:37
To respond to the authors question "do such accounts provide texture and subtext or only entertaining background noise?" I submit that such accounts provide important textual information to a situation.

For one they set the context of the current social setting. Regardless of the source there is always some information that can be discerned. For instance a rumor spread throughout the community may not be information in itself, but the very existence of the rumors tells us something about perception of the subject.

This type of 'unofficial' information is even more important when it may represent fragments of the actual culture of the place. While greatly diminished these type of sensational stories occasionally represent the remnants of cultural oral histories. Much like the Western interpretation of ethno-histories and mythology this type of information has to be understood in the social context of the culture and interpreted as a combination of history, religion, science, and society.
  • Noa Lincoln
  • 07-MAR-2011 at 20:15

Tierra Firma: the association of riches and adventure in Chiriqui [Show/Hide]

Chiriqui is the name of the province in Panama, an archaeological cultural time period (roughly 1000-1500 AD), and a culture area that spans the modern border between Costa Rica and Panama. While it is important to note that in this article I only discuss an exceptionally localized portion of the Panamanian side of Chiriqui in order to streamline the discussion, I invite discussion and debate regarding the usefulness of the concept of 'culture areas' in general. Does the heuristic value of a culture area compensate for the static nature and uniformity it imposes upon what were likely very permeable and varied cultural areas in the past?
  • Karen Holmberg
  • 29-SEP-2010 at 13:18
Culture areas like Gran Chiriqui have been defined in normative terms. These offer some sort of heuristic value in a culture-historical sense when one discusses the artwork and monuments of the region, even if such statements are ultimately based upon few sites or studies. The culture area also productively links researchers on each side of a national border into the same intellectual discussion, which is a relatively rare phenomenon elsewhere in the world. For the first time in a long time, a conference on Gran Chiriqui archaeology is both desirable and possible. However, where to the draw the lines between various culture areas (or whether such line drawing is actually productive) continues to be a topic of vigorous debate in Southern Central America.

In my opinion, one of the principal strengths of Chiriqui archaeology has been to eschew normative concerns in recognition of the highly variable sequences which the region presents to archaeologists. The classic example of such an approach has been Linares and Ranere (1980, eds.) Adaptive Radiations volume, which explored the differences between the Pacific, highland, and Caribbean sequences. Such organizational variability has clear empirical support in the Chiriqui record, and if careful comparisons are attempted between sequences, the analysis of such differences offers broader theoretical potential. The culture area concept is certainly laden with all sorts of undesirable connotations, but it hasn't discouraged most Chiriqui researchers from exploring similarities and differences in increasingly sophisticated ways. In this case, the long-term effects of culture area concept upon archaeological interpretation appear to have been relatively harmless.
  • Scott Palumbo
  • 24-NOV-2010 at 04:36

The looting and collecting of Chiriqui: The major European and US collections [Show/Hide]

Looting in Panama is an ongoing impediment to archaeological research in the contemporary period (see Cooke 1997). The discovery and looting of Chiriqui cemeteries continued throughout the 20th century. In a 1949 letter to US archaeologist Samuel Lothrop at Harvard, US archaeologist Matthew Stirling wrote that a large cemetery was discovered in late December near El Hato de Volca and was decimated within a month (Wood and Shelton 1996, 8, from Stirling's field notes, Accession File No. 364365). Two decades later, German archaeologist Wolfgang Haberland (1963) noted the complete destruction of the site of Puerto Gonzales Viquez on the Panama-Costa Rica border. Given this context, I invite debate regarding the ethics of publishing site locations in archaeological literature (this article included). Is it essential in order to provide subsequent archaeologists with information or is that value outweighed by the potential abetment of looting?
  • Karen Holmberg
  • 15-SEP-2010 at 16:55

All that does not glitter in the Baru vicinity [Show/Hide]

Ceramic typologies have yet to become uniformly defined or applied in the Chiriqui culture area. This project drew upon typologies developed through prior fieldwork in Chiriqui as well as museum collection studies (Corrales 2000; Linares and Ranere 1980; MacCurdy 1911; Shelton 1984). I welcome debate, input, dissent, or data regarding the way I classified the ceramics.
  • Karen Holmberg
  • 15-SEP-2010 at 16:56
I think the distinction between value in the artefact market and value in the cultural landscape is a very important issue that this article brings to light. Placing an emphasis on, for example, gold over stone tools in the market has a very negative impact on what we choose to remember and what we choose to preserve. The looting and selling of artefacts undoubtedly removes many cultured objects from the landscape, but it is useful to remember that not everything is removed. As the volcanic rocks in Chiriqui have shown us, there is often plenty of value in what remains.
  • Kelsey Broderick
  • 03-MAR-2011 at 06:56

Quarrying and querying the volcanic landscape [Show/Hide]

The portability of Nature is extremely interesting. In Iceland we tend to think about volcanic ash only as a dating method (tephrochonology) or as a hindrance (with the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajokul). What is interesting in connection with Karen's work here is the other uses of volcanoes, and in particular their telluric properties.

In one way or another, through long term geological processes, the products of volcanic activity end their way as important sources for both the material and spiritual in contemporary life; the rare materials that are in our phones and computers; the raw materials for our houses etc. There is therefore no reason why the products of more recently active volcanoes can not have a similar significance in the lives of those in the historic or more recent pasts.

There is also a tendency to view volcanic activity in a negative way, as a destroyer of crops, grazing areas for livestock, and the radical transformation of habitable land into desert. While these negative associations are very real they are also over played, and the positive aspects of volcanic activity are rarely represented. Volcanoes have value, and this is not only about power, but also in their symbolic meanings and in their practical uses. Volcanoes are not just time machines or negativities that impinge on society, but provide plenty of positives and opportunities for contemporary society and in our understanding of the complex myriad of relationships between humans and their non-human partners in the past.
  • Oscar Aldred
  • 24-NOV-2010 at 09:18

Placing the material: 'The archaeological problem of Chiriqui' [Show/Hide]

Utilising data within a GIS environment is a good example of literally going beyond what we tend to conventionally consider the map. It is more than a 'graphic' which is a map as a representation only, it is also a map for intervention. Counter-mapping and materialising the Other even though they are representations is that there are associated consequences.

Consequence clearly lies at the center of the project of 'placing' both the material and immaterial, whereby the action of looting brings into force the notion of collecting as memory. Furthermore, thinking about the role of intervention as a kind of mapwork means that the 'static' site with which place so often becomes associated with, is turned on its head: we begin to see the dynamic and active nature of its creation as a processes of flows in, out and through only some of which become solid, or emplaced. In fact, with greater resolution (facilitated by GIS or other kinds of mapwork) of the Chiriqui landscape we begin to see the fallacy of defining cultural areas, or at the very least assuming continuity without change.

The Chiriqui landscape is constantly being disrupted and made unstable, being reconstituted and forged in new ways through time. But while I might question the continuity at a generalised level in any landscape, using the map to rematerialise the immaterial (either immaterial practices or things forgotten) clearly makes connections between what we would define as different temporal episodes. But an important connection is between materialised practices that have been forgotten and their rematerialisation through archaeological practices.

The binding agent in this process is intervention demonstrated here by Karen in her archaeological survey and archive work and in the mapping of these sites. Intervention is not either just about technique or what kind of practice is being performed, although these have effect on what is done and revealed, but it is about the consequences of this work and how this intervenes in what we do and interpret. Are we representing worlds or creating them? Clearly a bit of both. In the making of our archaeological objects (the sites that have been mapped through survey) in a process of materialising what has been forgotten we are rematerialising the past and in a small way the intentionality of its people through mapwork; the ontology of which is flat and thoroughly archaeological.
  • Oscar Aldred
  • 24-NOV-2010 at 08:59

Heritage values and the value of Chiriqui heritage [Show/Hide]

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

The quirky mimetics of cartography: Re-placing Chiriqui material in archaeological perception [Show/Hide]

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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