Andean adventures in ancient art

During the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries A.D. on a hill near the modern town of Guachipas in northwestern Argentina, people gathered on a hill in the centre of a large, flat basin between mountains. In the caves which pit the local sandstone they painted abstract shapes, human figures, representations of clothing and, above all, llamas.

Bright, poly-chrome shapes, possibly representing ponchos with their detailed woven patterns, decorate the ceiling of one of the largest caves at Guachipas.

Bright, poly-chrome shapes, possibly representing ponchos with their detailed woven patterns, decorate the ceiling of one of the largest caves at Guachipas.

A herd of llamas represented using red and white and pigment.

A herd of llamas represented using red and white pigment.

Camelids (the collective term for domesticated llama and alpaca and wild vicuña and guanaco) are the only large indigenous quadruped herbivores in the Andes, making them the main beast of burden and source of meat for Andean peoples, before the arrival of horses and cattle with Europeans. It was, for example, using caravans of llamas that people moved goods, including salt, maize, potatoes and coca around the Andes. Altitude and ecological variation mean that this a landscape in which local specialization and regional redistribution make sense for resource management.

The cave paintings of Guachipas, with their recurring depictions of llamas, appear to refer to this caravan practice. The site has long been recognised as a historical stopping point for such caravans, a meeting place, perhaps, for different groups, and a location of some ritual importance (since it was certainly not residential or domestic). While the paintings are considered to be among the treasures of Argentina’s ancient patrimony, however, the archaeological context of the caves had not been explored. What did people do when they came to this site? What did they bring with them, and what did they leave behind? How might such a landscape have been negotiated, modified and understood?

A modern llama caravan loaded for the journey (courtesy of Axel Nielsen).

A modern llama caravan loaded for the journey (courtesy of Axel Nielsen).

These were among the questions lying behind an excavation project by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, in collaboration with the Dirección General de Patrimonio Cultural in Salta, and organized by Prof. Axel E. Nielsen of CONICET, an archaeologist and anthropologist, in particular, of caravan culture in the Andes and of the spaces which lie between settled domestic contexts.

There are almost too many beautiful pictures of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens to choose one, but thinking in a pool like this is among its lovelier features.

There are almost too many beautiful pictures of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens to choose one, but thinking in a pool like this is among its lovelier features.

Now, it just so happens that Axel and I met in Dumbarton Oaks, while both holding fellowships there in 2012-13 and, in conversations only likely to happen in an institute which specializes in Byzantine studies, pre-Columbian American studies and landscape and gardening – and which brings together world-class collections in all three – began talking about the movement of people and objects, the nature of caravan trade and the means of identifying such networks archaeologically.

My work on trade routes between the Byzantine Empire and India benefitted from such theoretical perspectives and I was keen to learn more. Thus the excavation team at Guachipas, including members of artefact registration for the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano, and another researcher into pastoralism, Juan Maryañski, found itself with an extra member and I found myself on a hilltop in Argentina.

Clearing the site ready for work.

Clearing the site ready for work.

 

The excavation focused on a single cave at the top of the hill, in addition to some survey work and GPS pinpointing of caves previously identified as having rock art in them. The main cave appears to have had a flat plaza constructed in front of it, using the natural shape of the hillside. The front of the cave at one point was also completely or partially walled off from general view.  This gave the excavation three clear foci: the interior of the cave, the small passage-like area through which the interior could have been reached, and the space immediately in front of the cave, under the wall.

The cave with excavations in the plaza visible.

The cave with excavations in the plaza visible.

Full publication and interpretation of the finds from the site must await examination of the materials collected, but these included a wide range of stone tools and fragments of stone left over from their manufacture, suggesting that tools were made as well as used on the site. Ceramics typical of the assemblages associated with the valley and surrounding areas, but also including a few pieces of possibly more exotic origin, were also found.

Whether caravans or boats, how do you identify archaeologically movement and transportation which relied only on ephemeral structures, or as here on the banks of the Hooghly River in northeastern India, no structres at all?

Whether caravans or boats, how do you identify archaeologically movement and transportation which relied only on ephemeral structures, or as here on the banks of the Hooghly River in northeastern India, no structures at all?

For me, the excavation was a wonderful opportunity to apply and develop archaeological training and to gain an insight through discussions and practical application into the ways in which archaeological approaches are deployed in an Andean context but to problems very similar to those encountered in my own research: how to trace movement and identify the ephemeral in landscapes of travel and transition, how to see agency behind the distribution of goods and people behind concepts such as ‘route’ or ‘caravan’?

It was also a stunning landscape to be part of and an extraordinary opportunity to gain an insight into one of Argentina’s most important prehistoric sites. Stay tuned for future updates on the site as material is interpreted and discussions in the archaeology of movement and landscape continue, and thank you to the team for allowing me to be a part of it!

Looking out from the excavation site.

Looking out from the excavation site.


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