The Bennett Monolith: Archaeological Patrimony and Cultural Restitution in Bolivia

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This chapter is concerned with the links between the material culture of the ancient site of Tiwanaku and competing unifying ideologies of nationalism and indigenous pride in Bolivia. I narrate the story of the Bennett Monolith, discovered at Tiwanaku in 1932 by Wendell C. Bennett, as well as the associations of both the monolith and the archaeological site with the construction of national and cultural identity by Bolivians today. The monolith’s journey from Tiwanaku to the capital city of La Paz, and then back to Tiwanaku in 2002, after 69 years, has marked different intellectual and political movements that have swayed this small Andean country for almost a century. The Bennett Monolith and Tiwanaku iconography have alternately been seen by Bolivians as symbolic of past Andean glory, nationalist sentiment, religious superstition, and ethnic restitution. Given Bolivia’s recent sociopolitical history and the role grassroots social movements and indigenous political parties are playing in shaping the country’s governing structure, it is important to examine and trace some of the myriad ways in which representations of cultural patrimony and heritage have been used in the effort to challenge Bolivia’s long-standing social hierarchy. Understanding the arduous process and negotiations that culminated in the return trip of the monolith to Tiwanaku and the implications of this return for the construction of a new unifying Bolivian identity based on discourses of indigenousness contributes to a clearer vision of ongoing transformative processes in Bolivian society today. I write this chapter from two entangled perspectives, that of a cultural anthropologist working in Bolivia and that of a Bolivian with deep attachment to her country of birth.