Unpacking the Collection

Part of the series One World Archaeology pp 249-265


Seats of Power and Iconographies of Identity in Ecuador

  • Colin McEwanAffiliated withDepartment of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, The British Museum Email author 
  • , Maria-Isabel SilvaAffiliated withMuseum Centro Civico Ciudad Alfaro

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On the Pacific coast of Ecuador, the late precontact Manteño (800–1530 CE) culture is noted for its distinctive corpus of stone seats, stelae and other sculpture. The Manteño seats in particular have long played a key role in Ecuadorian iconographies of national identity in the face of successive waves of conquest and colonial influence – Inca, Spanish and North American. They feature variously on the sculptural frieze on the facade of the National Congress building in Quito and on wall murals in coastal cities such as Manta as an emblem of indigenous cultural achievement. This prominence reflects a charged history, including collecting practices that began with the removal and dispersal of the great majority of the seats from their sites of origin to public collections in Ecuador and abroad, and also into private hands. Their potency as vehicles of both local and national political and cultural agency was effectively diluted – a process that is now being reversed. Beginning in the 1980s, the archaeological excavation of seats in their original architectural contexts at the site of Agua Blanca involved a sustained engagement between professionals and campesinos (rural inhabitants). This in turn led to the adoption of the seat icon to express pride and identity locally and as a powerful symbol of endurance and resistance by national indigenous federations. More recently the conscious appropriation of the past has been extended by the newly elected government of President Rafael Correa, which has incorporated the seats into a reconfigured national political consciousness.