Archaeology, as I’ve learned throughout the entirety of this course, is something that is truly in the depths of our everyday lives. Although we fail to realize this, opportunities like this that we are given to dig deeper into our own personal history and interests sparks a desire to learn more about the ground we walk upon. For my upcoming term paper, I have decided to research the archaeological site in San Agustin, Colombia. I decided to write on this particular site because I wanted to get a better look and feel for a place that is rich in history and a signature destination in my country. While looking around at different sites, San Agustin really caught my attention due to the beauty behind the statues. I was born Colombia, but being raised in the United States has kept me away from indulging in Colombian history, especially pre-Colombian history. My family is extremely proud of our culture and where we have come from, so getting to dig deep into this history is the perfect opportunity to research and present an ancient location filled with mystery and curiosity and get to know my country along the way.
Deep in the Andes Mountains of west Colombia lays a town named San Agustin. In this town stands the “largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America”. The remains of these giant sculptures have certainly caught the attention of archaeologists, making it the location of some of the most important archaeological sites in South America. This area spans around 250-square-miles filled with around 600 known statues and around 40 monumental burial mounds. A third of the 600 known San Agustín statues and half of the known burial mounds are dispersed throughout the Alto Magdalena region which are located inside strict boundaries set in place by the archaeological park. These ancient sculptures vary on size, shape, and style depending on which era they were built in and the overall purpose its creators had in mind at the time. The most interesting part of this archaeological site is the mystery behind who created these magnificent and detailed creations. Little to nothing is known about the prehistoric peoples that once lived among the town of San Agustin, let alone their culture. For many years, archaeologists and anthropologists have tried to fit in what they know to come up with some sort of conclusion to whom and how people lived here. As described by Chris Bell, “the earliest remnants of their culture date back to 3300 BC, and these archaeological sites were abandoned around 1350 AD. They were rediscovered in the 18th and 19th-centuries, and most of the burial sites were looted in search of gold (which turned out to be very scarce – the peoples of this region did not have much gold)”.
Although there is little evidence about the people who created these stones as well as who inhabited this certain area at that given time, archaeologists believe that these sites were abandoned around 1300 AD and were discovered again, as mentioned, around the 19th century. The statues were founded again by a Spanish monk, Fray Juan de Santa Gertrudis, in 1756. He was in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador as a missionary when he passed through San Agustin and wrote detailed accounts about the statues in his famous work Maravillas de La Naturaleza. Archaeologists also believe that they have only discovered around 10% of the statues and ruins in San Agustin, with theories that there are large Mayan-like temples underneath these statues. That is not confirmed however, as much of the details about this site and how it came to be still a complete mystery. Archaeologists, unfortunately, are to believe that they are far, far from discovering who and where these statues came from.
As far as the societal aspects surrounding this national entity, archaeologists have discovered a few things upon researching this mystery. It’s clear to them that the people of San Agustin treated women as superior. They did in fact have female leaders, so this is not necessarily a surprise. There are also many statues of women figures, presumably mothers, in the mixture of the 600 statues that surround other statues, almost as if they are looking upon the others. It’s clear to both archaeologists and anthropologists alike that the people of San Agustin had a love and appreciation for women that was unprecedented in that era. In addition however, they also had a firm understanding of advanced mathematics and in many instances attempted complex surgeries due to the fact they were obsessed with the idea of the afterlife. Often times, “people were ritualistically sacrificed, burned alive and sometimes buried alive under the influence of hallucinogens”. The certain monuments that were thought to be used for these sacrificial ceremonies were allegedly placed in the political center of the sovereign nation. Little details like such are things archaeologists are able to piece together about the government the Andean people followed at that time.
The mystery continues as far as their unknown culture, but this also continues on into the language. According to researchers, they had no written language and had already disappeared several centuries before Europeans arrived in this part of the world. The statues are strategically placed by those who created them, as there are certain religious statues and animalistic-like creatures, that are thought to act as guardians to some of the graves, which surround its burial sites. There are also many cultural changes that took place from the 8th to the 1st century BC that have left the most iconic remains in San Agustin. In this period, the so-called “Agustin culture” was characterized by lithic art that dominated the area during that era. Other findings from that time have also indicated that the people who inhabited the area upheld high standards of agriculture, ceramics and goldsmithing.
Over the course of several years, archaeologists have conducted thorough studies on these statues, many of which were created as early as 100 BC. These statues were carved by volcanic rock and many represent animal like figures that researchers have thought to be guardians for those who had died in many of the burial sites around the famous park. Among the 600 known statues that are currently accounted for, the park has created larger monumental sites for some of the most famous statues. These include; Las Mesitas, where its ancestors created artificial mounds, terraces, and many funerary structures; the Fuente de Lavapatas, a solely religious monument meticulously carved in the stone bed of a nearby stream; and the Bosque de Las Estatuas, where there are examples of stone statues that reflect upon the entire region. These are just to name a few however, as there are many other famous statues that are visited daily and all hold significance into how these statues were originally placed, the Andean people who created them, and any little insight we can gain about their life, culture, and religious practices that might not be so apparent to the public eye.
As with any extremely famous political site, San Agustin has faced issues with vandalism, robbery, and disagreements with other countries about the statues. Over a century ago, a famous German archaeologist, Konrad Preuss, came to the famous site to do pioneering work on the statues. However, he didn’t leave empty handed. Preuss took 35 of the monuments back with him to Germany which set outrage throughout Colombia, where they have been working tirelessly to get them back to their original land. Petitions have been signed by the people of Colombia for their return, however on many accounts Preuss broke both ethical, and perhaps even legal, laws that are far from being erased from Colombian’s minds. David Dellenback, a U.S. archaeologist who has spent many years trying to piece together San Agustin’s history, stated that the possession of archaeological patrimony is an inalienable right of any community and doesn’t go away with time. In a recent interview, he also explained that the failure of the statues return isn’t even necessarily reflective upon the German’s govenment to hand then back over, but rather that the Colombian government has failed to ask for them back in the first place. The statues were excavated in 1913 by Preuss, but due to World War I, he was unable to transport them back to Germany until 1919. This means that almost an entire century has gone by and the statues still remain in Germany, either on display or in a storage closet in a museum. However, Colombians remain hopeful of the outcome they may soon face if Germany is seen to be legally wrong by this extraction. 2013 marked 100 years since Preuss began his extraction, and Colombia even held a celebration with a series of events and conferences in Preuss’s honor. However, David Dellenback disagrees with the stance Colombia has taken on this issue, saying that “the fact that the Colombian government has decided to celebrate Preuss has made it patent that it has forgotten what should be the most important part of the celebrations: bringing the statues back.”
Colombia has always been a nation that takes pride in their culture and the things that make it so special. Although the San Agustin Archaeology Park holds more mystery than it doesn’t, that’s what makes it so unique and so full of life. The continuing research that archaeologists and anthropologists are dedicating their time to is extremely important to the Colombian culture in that with every new bit of information that is found, they’re able to learn more about their history, their culture, and what has made Colombia what it is today. Over the course of history since these statues were founded again in the 19th century, many things have been discovered despite the mystery that remains. Archaeologists have been able to extract over 600 statues and over 40 burial mounds, as well as have been able to piece together the structure, how they were made, and their strategic placement. This research has been ongoing for hundreds of years and still continues in order to shed light on this masterpiece that was lost in history. Preseventionary efforts have also taken place in order to ensure that generations to come are able to enrich themselves with this history and gain a better sense of Colombia’s magnificent history that has yet to unfold. The Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, also referred to as ICANH, has also put plans forth in expanding the area for more archaeological research and in order to ensure effective preservation for years to come. Above all, Colombia is a country that lives and loves deeply, and the pride it holds for its culture and people is beyond anything you could imagine.
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