Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Saving Old Havanna Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Susan Kepecs

The search for lost history behind colorful, crumbling facades

For armchair travelers and casual tourists, Old Havana is the epitome of picturesque decadence--salsa rhythms, decaying mansions, and 1950s Chevrolets--but beneath the city's peeling layers of faded tropi-color paint lie the material strata of 500 remarkable years. Blessed with an exquisite natural harbor, Old Havana was the center of Spain's colonial commerce, an enviable position that invited piracy. French, Dutch, and English corsairs sacked it repeatedly, and great stone forts were built in response. Then the buccaneers discovered Cuban tobacco. Waves of demand washed across Europe, opening up a world of profitable markets. Such exchange violated Spain's official monopoly in the colonies, but the Crown eventually caved in, adopting free trade policies in the 1770s that brought the economy in line with the realities of the Enlightenment. Slaves poured into Cuba, and tobacco and sugar flowed out. Havana, a thatched hut village in the sixteenth century, became an international city. Streets were paved and lined with the kinds of enduring architecture that became possible when defense was no longer the primary concern--churches, convents, civic buildings, and lavish new merchants' quarters.

The twentieth-century metropolis outgrew the ring of colonial forts, but the city within the walls retained most of its nineteenth-century personality. Historical archaeologists have worked here in the city's heart since the 1960s, but when Old Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, a formal program was begun under the direction of city historian Eusebio Leal Spengler. A dynamic, accessible man who likes to stroll the old streets, Leal created an innovative city plan around twin high-priority goals: restoration and community revitalization. The project's basic support comes from Habaguanex, a government-run company created during the post-Soviet economic crisis of the early 1990s to funnel foreign investments into the development of infrastructure for tourism. Some of the renovated buildings became restaurants, hotels, or museums--and visitor-generated revenues now flow back into the plan.

Since 1982, more than 90 civil, religious, military, and domestic structures have been restored. It takes a lot of specialists to run this show, including historians, conservators, architects, geologists, and, of course, archaeologists. "Archaeology is essential," says Leal. "Sometimes its results add detail to sparse historical documents. Other times, excavation uncovers vestiges of the past that were totally lost. Archaeology often corrects history, and it determines how we decide to restore a building--whether we choose to emphasize its earliest component or a later aspect of greater importance."

Headquarters for the archaeological division of the project is the Gabinete, a two-story, tile-roofed, balconied structure with Moorish flourishes, that houses the city's Department of Archaeology. I first visited the Gabinete in 1998, on a mission to compare Spanish-era ceramics stored there with those common in Yucatán, Mexico, where I've done extensive archaeological fieldwork. Since then I've returned several times. On every trip I find my Cuban colleagues plugging away at a full slate of major projects. Last August, on a steamy, storm-tinged morning, I stopped by the Gabinete to get an update.

Susan Kepecs is a Maya archaeologist as well as a freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She is an honorary fellow of the department of anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

* The Havana City Historian's Office has a Spanish-language website,, which showcases restoration efforts in Old Havana.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America