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Letter from Bolivia: Coping with Chaos Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Alexei Vranich

At the site of Tiwanaku, an American archaeologist deals with civil disorder while yearning to get back in the trenches.

The fifth-to-ninth-century A.D. site of Tiwanaku is a popular tourist attraction and an important monument of Bolivia's Precolumbian beginnings. (Alexei Vranich)

The sound of shouting children running toward us was my first clue that something was amiss on what had promised to be a routine excavation day in early June 2001. Our work on a fifth-to-ninth-century temple came to a halt as workers in the trenches stood up and looked around for the source of the commotion. Several hundred people were approaching, waving colorful flags and banners, some carrying slings and old carbines.

"Achacachi," someone said. Lucas Choque, the leader of the local excavators' association, stood in a small group of diggers speaking quickly in Aymara, the indigenous language of the Bolivian altiplano. I couldn't understand much, but the word "Achacachi," the name of a nearby community with a reputation for militancy toward both the urban mestizo population and native communities in the countryside, punctuated nearly every sentence. Choque, who also serves as the local shaman, blessing the start and finish of every excavation season, asked me if his people should stay or go home. About half of them had already left and others were looking as apprehensive as I felt.

The procession marching across Tiwanaku, Bolivia's most monumental archaeological site, was part of an indigenous movement pressing the ineffective and unresponsive government of General Hugo Banzer for greater autonomy and political power. They were coming our way to rally support for their cause, and they intended to blockade roads leading into and out of the capital city of La Paz until their concerns were addressed. We were worried how they would react to a large group of excavators earning pay while others planned to watch their crops rot, as trade to La Paz was cut off. I was nervous what they'd think of those of us who were foreigners, digging in sacred ground.

Left, the author and Aymara officials conduct a ceremony to help ensure a successful potato crop. Right, tourists throng Tiwanaku for the summer solstice to see the sun rise through an ancient gateway, which doesn't actually happen until the fall equinox, after the tourist season. (Alexei Vranich)

As the protest grew, the list of demands from the indigenous communities quickly swelled, ranging from new schools and paved roads to secession from Bolivia. Local communities hoped to win rights to the archaeological site (then in the hands of the vice minister of culture), including its management and the ticket receipts from an estimated 50,000 annual visitors. A temporary agreement in August quelled the protests, bringing some relief to those of us at the site. In the interim, though, locals had seized control of the ruins from the central government, and I was uncertain whether I would be allowed to continue excavating there. I had been working at Tiwanaku for six years, first as a volunteer in 1995, then as the director of excavations at the temple of Pumapunku, the most elaborate architectural complex of the Precolumbian Andes. (See "Revealing Ancient Bolivia.") Each season, I've worked with a crew of Aymara excavators from the village of Tiwanaku and nearby communities.

As archaeologists, we often talk about how our research will allow indigenous people to take control of their past and future identity. We are often unprepared when they do.

Alexei Vranich is a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America