Seats of Power and Iconographies of Identity in Ecuador
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.
Manteño Stone Seats
From as early as the 4th millennium BC Ecuador’s Pacific coast fostered a precocious formative cultural florescence. Subsequent cultural developments maintained an essentially independent trajectory up until the Inca incursions of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Nevertheless, compared to Mexico and Peru, indigenous Ecuadorian achievements have struggled to find their due place in cultural histories of the Americas as well as in the popular imagination. It is not widely appreciated, for example, that the coastal Manteño Culture (800–1530 CE) successfully forged a powerful confederation of polities known as Señorios that controlled a long-distance maritime trade in sumptuary goods using seagoing balsa rafts. Among the populous coastal towns and inland settlements of this period, two hilltop ceremonial sites in southern Manabí, known respectively as Cerro Jaboncillo and Cerro de Hojas, were an important focus of religious life. Situated on adjacent plateaux, each about 600 m high, they served as the preeminent regional cult centre and the setting for an impressive corpus of stone sculpture comprising seats, stelae and diverse anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects.
In this chapter, we will first address the profound dislocation among indigenous societies brought about by the Spanish Conquest, followed centuries later by early collecting practices that entailed the removal of many cultural objects from their sites of origin. We then describe the role played by archaeologists more recently in reconstructing the ceremonial and political settings in which Manteño seats were once used and their significance as indices of indigenous social hierarchy and religious power. We conclude by tracing the reappropriation of the seats by contemporary communities and national politicians alike, as potent symbols of indigenous cultural achievement and prestige.
Conquest, Collapse and the Early History of Collecting
Epidemic diseases introduced by first European contact had a devastating impact on native populations, resulting in the rapid demise of Manteño ports and towns. In 1585, the new Spanish provincial capital of Portoviejo was founded, and the collapse of indigenous social and political institutions was further hastened by forced resettlement implemented in the seventeenth century. By this time most indigenous towns lay abandoned and the hilltop ceremonial centres had long since fallen into disuse. Today little survives in the way of extant ruins to indicate the location, size and layout of the native towns and villages. Modern settlements have developed on, or adjacent to, some of the largest archaeological sites such as Jocay near Manta. As these sites were overrun by urban expansion, mounds have been levelled, terraces destroyed and the pre-Columbian wall foundations frequently ‘quarried’ for construction materials.
Two leagues north of Montecristi there are some hills, such as the Cerro de Hojas; this is a low mountain with a flat summit; in this plain there is a circle of seats of stone, no less than thirty in number, each one is a sphinx, above which is the seat with two arms, all of stone well worked, and of a single piece which may be transported (Villavicencio 1858: 101).
This account of the alleged discovery of a circle of seats found on top of the hills gained currency over the years and was further embellished with the claim that a stone table also originally stood in the centre of the circle.
there are some other broken chairs, four of which could be easily repaired, to be found on a hill eleven leagues and a half northeast of the small port of Manta (Wiener 1880: 178).
these seats are found in the Cerro de Hojas, placed in a semi-circle, in each one of the platforms on the hill. This comprises a group of broken hills, and on the summit of each one of these were a number of these seats placed around with symmetry (González Suárez 1890–1903: 256).
In the early 1900s, the George G. Heye Foundation (New York) began sponsoring archaeological collecting expeditions to selected regions of the Americas. In 1906, 1907, and again in 1908, Marshall H. Saville, then Loubat Professor of American Archaeology at Columbia University, led a series of exploratory trips to the coastal provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí and Guayas, Ecuador. His horseback treks took him down long stretches of the coastline with occasional forays inland. On his first visit to Manta in 1906 he observed Manteño stone sculptures that had been brought in from the hills. He returned in 1907 equipped to excavate and explore the other hilltops from which the sculptures were said to have come.
Careful examination was made of the summit of Cerro de Hojas, and it will be remembered that, in the description of the ruins on the hill mention is made of the numerous house-sites locally known as corrales which are found in great numbers. It was in the rooms of these houses that the stone seats were found; and in no case were they observed occupying any regular order, or placed in any way which would indicate their having been around stone tables or in a circle. In fact no large stone slabs are found in any of the ruins, with the exception of small bas-reliefs (i.e. stelae), to be described later. In some rooms only one seat was found, in others two; and sometimes three, four or even five have been discovered in a single house. So far as the Cerro de Hojas is concerned, we must conclude that the story of the ceremonial placing of these seats is a myth (Saville 1907: 24).
Saville recorded a clear association between the seats and the buildings of different sizes that housed them, but the fact that he could detect no ‘regular order’ is hardly surprising. As portable, highly visible objects, the best intact examples were probably among the first to be removed and would have left no trace of where they once stood. Saville does, however, provide much useful information about the seats and other sculptures that he observed in situ. He then arranged for a substantial number of the seats and other stone sculptures to be removed from Cerro Jaboncillo and adjacent hilltops and shipped back to the Heye Foundation New York (now incorporated into the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution).
The Distribution of Seats at Cerro Jaboncillo
The exceptional concentration of stone sculpture recorded by Saville at Cerro Jaboncillo underlines the preeminence of this site within Manteño culture and its distinctive ceremonial character. Using information extracted from Saville’s two-volume publication Antiquities of Manabí, together with his unpublished field notes now held in Tulane University Library, it has been possible to reconstruct the location of the seats in something approximating their original topographic and architectural contexts. This is complemented by an analysis of the stelae iconography that helps explain why this hilltop site was revered and its enduring viability and elaboration as a ceremonial centre (McEwan 2004: 341–425; 2011).
During the summer of 1907, while the work of clearing the corrales, and excavating the two large mounds on Cerro Jaboncillo, was being carried on, we visited nearly all the corrales on the hill, carefully noting the number and position of seats, and fragments of seats, to determine, if possible, whether there was any fixed arrangements or order of placing them in the corrales (Saville 1910: 88).
There was no definite arrangement, so far as we could determine, and the same holds true of the other undisturbed corrales. Where a large number of seats were grouped in a single corral, undoubtedly there may have been originally some orderly arrangement around the sides, or even in a circle, but there is no way to verify this presumption at the present time. The two large mounds had formerly a considerable number of seats on their summits, but the greater number have been removed, and we found only the fragments of perhaps a dozen medium-sized seats lying scattered around the mounds. Here there was probably some arrangement in relation to the columns and other sculptures. Seats, bas-reliefs, columns, human figures, and other sculptures are found in the same corrales, and must have been placed in some regular order in relation to each other (Saville 1910: 89).
Nearly a century later, Saville’s unpublished field notes provided the basis for reconstructing the distribution of the seats among the different architectural complexes (McEwan 2004: 221–224, 229–233, 310–315, 324; McEwan and Delgado 2008). In the meantime, the Manteño seats began to occupy an increasingly prominent role in Ecuadorian public iconographies of identity.
Seats as Symbols
Initially it appeared to Saville that the seats were restricted to a closely circumscribed area within a twenty-mile radius of Cerro Jaboncillo and Cerro de Hojas (Saville 1907: 23). This has now been expanded by modern archaeological fieldwork to embrace most of southern Manabí province and coincides with Manteño territory as indicated by early ethnohistoric accounts and the archaeological presence of Manteño pottery. Together this evidence points to an integrated polity that played an influential role far beyond the territory under its direct control (McEwan 2004: 97–104, 132–134). The Manteño were renowned seafarers and their coastal ports and anchorages such as Jocay located towards the northern limits of their territory, and Sercapez and Salango at the southern extremity, lay at the hub of a far-reaching long-distance maritime trade network that employed large balsa rafts with considerable navigational expertise (Marcos 1977–1978). In a well-known account Pizarro’s pilot Bartolome Ruiz made a careful inventory and description of the valued sumptuary goods aboard a raft that the Spaniards encountered as they approached the coast of Ecuador from the north. This trade swiftly disintegrated in the early sixteenth century as a consequence of the disruption and dislocation brought about by European contact. Apart from their immediate interest in whatever gold they could lay their hands on, other materials, such as the prized red Spondylus princeps in the form of chaquira (shell beads) that fuelled Andean trade and exchange, held little more than curiosity value for the arriving foreigners.
Some coastal products gradually found a market in the international mercantile economy, and in the course of the nineteenth century, crops such as tagua (popularly known as ‘ivory nut’) became a major export. In parallel with this, the history of informal collecting practices, briefly described above, resulted in the removal and dispersal of the great majority of the seats from their sites of origin. They were delivered to collections abroad and also to the anthropological museums of the Central Bank in both Quito and Guayaquil as well as into private hands. This had ambivalent consequences. On the one hand, the process of sundering the connection between object and place effectively diluted the seats’ potency as vehicles of political and cultural agency in Ecuador. A few have been on public display, but the majority were consigned to museum storerooms and have languished out of sight for decades. On the other hand the publication of the seats and stelae in Saville’s substantial volumes amply illustrated with photographs and line drawings, gained them a newfound visibility within the international archaeological community. They have since become a standard point of reference for all synthesising treatments of both Ecuadorian prehistory and South American archaeology in general, which all draw upon Saville’s original illustrations (Meggers 1966; Willey 1971).
Archaeology and Community at Agua Blanca – Using the Past to Forge the Future
The archaeological site of Agua Blanca is located in the Buenavista Valley about eight kilometres inland at the heart of the Parque Nacional Machalilla. In pre-Columbian times, this was an important route connecting inland settlements such as Jipijapa (originally, Xipijapa) via Joa, Julcuy, with those of the Pacific coast. At the neck of the valley lie the ruins of a very large Manteño (800–1530 CE) settlement that takes its modern name from the nearby community of Agua Blanca. Around 500 years ago, this site was the nexus of an alliance of four coastal towns collectively referred to by the Spanish chroniclers as the Señorio of Salongome. In fact, the ruins seems likely to have been those of Salangome itself, the pueblo principal (leading town) described in the ethnohistoric accounts as governing the Señorio and a key political and religious centre controlling the southern approaches to Manteño territory (Silva 1983, 1984, 1985). The stone wall foundations of several hundred structures are still visible today scattered across an area of some four square kilometres. The principal architectural complexes reveal a carefully ordered hierarchy of public and residential structures serving a variety of functions. They range from large public buildings up to fifty metres long and twelve metres wide, down to smaller standard domestic dwellings. Comuna Agua Blanca itself lies directly on top of one barrio (outlying residential sector) of the archaeological site, and the Manteño wall foundations that underlie the village are clearly visible in places. Sporadic finds of Inca pottery are consistent with the accounts recorded by the Spanish chroniclers of an imperial presence on the coastal mainland complementing the Inca burials that have been found on Isla de La Plata, twenty-five kilometres offshore (McEwan and Silva 1989, 2000; McEwan and van de Guchte 1992).
The accidental discovery in 1985 of an intact Manteño stone seat at Agua Blanca galvanised everyone’s thinking about the possibility of an archaeological display in the comuna. The seat was initially sold by the finder to a local merchant who, having bought it, then realised that everyone in Agua Blanca was united in demanding that it be restored to its rightful place in the community. He subsequently returned the seat voluntarily and without being recompensed. This pivotal moment provided the impetus for securing funding to support the creation of a small Casa Comunal (village hall) display and served as a catalyst by engaging villagers’ awareness of the significance of cultural resources for practical ends (see McEwan et al. 2007 for a fuller account; see also Ballesteros 2009 for a broader ethnography of Agua Blanca situating the archaeological project within the life of the community). It stimulated donations of artefacts for display and led to using local labour to create a visitor path around the archaeological site, making it far more accessible. Members of the archaeological team visited other sites and museums, and talks were given in the village hall by visiting archaeologists and others. The archaeological project also helped find support for alternative subsistence activities, including irrigation for family horticultural plots, a tree nursery and a pig project, and one or two villagers found employment as park rangers.
The creation of the Casa Cultural at Agua Blanca was a signal step in transforming the Comuna’s fortunes. The number of visitors to the archaeological site rapidly increased along with income from the sale of food, drink, and handcraft goods as well as through guiding, providing accommodation and renting out trail horses. Soon after the site museum and cultural centre opened, a bar and café was built nearby, and later a craft centre was created next to the museum. The annual cultural encounters continued as Dia de laRaza, which roughly translates as Day of Indigenous Pride, and represents a ‘grass roots’ alternative to the conventional National Columbus Day holiday on October 12, originally conceived to celebrate the Spanish arrival in the Americas.
In 2005 the cultural centre was refurbished with support from the British Museum, enabling new showcases to be built with bilingual captions and lighting. By 2006, 70% of households in the Comuna were engaged to a greater or lesser extent in ‘Community Tourism,’ which provided an estimated 25% of overall income. In the same year 25 women made and sold craft products. The Archaeology Committee that manages the maintenance and guiding around the site comprised 29 men. In 2008, Comuna Agua Blanca was awarded the inaugural Hernan Crespo Toral prize for the ‘conservation, protection, development and dissemination of Ecuadorian heritage.’
All these achievements are positive manifestations of the village’s ability to preserve and manage its cultural resources and have increased its confidence and commitment to future improvements. The villagers’ newfound expertise is recognised by the National Park administration, which now understands that the human population within the park can be a positive rather than a negative asset. Along with the alternative economic activities, vegetation and bird life are recovering and the Park is now building structures with local materials.
Collectively much has been learned from these experiences: it is vital to work from needs expressed by the community rather than impose unwanted projects; people knowledgeable and proud of their past are less likely to part with objects that represent it; the long-term advantages of preserving and managing cultural resources outweigh short-term gains made by huaqueros’ (looters) sales; community engagement can make an essential and very positive contribution to heritage management and conservation projects. This modest experience has encouraged the local community to develop responsible attitudes to the conservation of their cultural resources and has contributed to substantial improvements in village life. Moreover the Encuentros Culturales (cultural festivals) have helped forge intercultural ties between indigenous peoples from the highlands and the coast.
Reconstituting Identity – Symbols of Cultural Identity and Resistance
The central symbol chosen for Ecuador’s national flag is the distinctive snowcapped profile of Mount Chimborazo – an extinct volcano south of Quito whose massive bulk broods over the surrounding landscape. Chimborazo, for a time thought to be the highest peak in the world, had been projected into international visibility and fame through the illustrated accounts of the travels made by the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Above the mountain on the flag perches a condor; however, any reference to Ecuador’s indigenous cultural heritage is conspicuously absent. In truth, few appropriate cultural symbols exist. Most of the best-known archaeological sites in the highlands such as Ingapirca or Rumicucho were built by the Incas. The pre-Inca tolas at Cochasqui were eventually accorded due recognition as a manifestation of indigenous cultural prowess (Benavides 2004). The Museos of the Banco Central del Ecuador also adopted a pre-Columbian gold ‘sun mask’ as an iconic symbol, notwithstanding the confusion generated by the divergent claims concerning its cultural attribution.
The evolving process described in this chapter has proven instrumental in investing the Manteño seats with renewed significance. An indispensable part of the process of recovering meaning has been to restore the link between the objects, their original setting and the people who live there today (c.f. Lumbreras 1974). Seat imagery has been appropriated anew by local communities seeking to define their own vision, values and realities and also adopted by national indigenous federations as a symbol of resurgent indigenous identity and resistance in the face of successive waves of colonisation – Inca, Spanish and North American.
In this chapter, we have described how ‘packing’ and ‘unpacking’ the collection has been shaped by paradigmatic shifts in perceptions, attitudes and practices towards the past and to archaeological objects. The initial phase of collecting was a semi-casual, haphazard pursuit leading to the dispersal of Manteño seats to diverse collections in Ecuador and abroad. The subsequent application of scientific method in the early twentieth century witnessed the systematic recording of contextual information but was also used to justify the wholesale removal of objects to foreign institutions. By the end of the century a new community-based approach to archaeological investigation began to be implemented. This, in turn, has combined archival and collections research with a discerning field strategy adapted to local circumstances and actively seeking to reaffirm the connection between object, people and place. This has been instrumental in effecting the seats’ metamorphosis from abstract icons of a remote past to potent signifiers of social agency and empowerment.
Comuna Agua Blanca; Museo Antropológico del Banco Central del Ecuador (Guayaquil); Instituto Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural, Ecuador; Corporación Estatal Petrolífera Ecuatoriano; Servicio Forestal Nacional; Parque Nacional Machalilla; Museo Arqueológico del Banco del Pacífico; Programa de Antropología para el Ecuador; Fundacion Natura; University of Illinois; UCL Institute of Archaeology; The British Council; The British Museum.
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