Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Significant Site Uncovered in Puerto Rico

There have been several earlier news reports about this discovery in Puerto Rico, of a rather hysterical tone; some accused the U.S. Corps of Engineers of pilfering and removing excavated items without proper permission, etc. etc. It's good to see that a balanced news report has now been published. Oops - seems those engineers weren't so guilty of stealing artifacts after all. Of course, this kind of report doesn't make headlines. Nonetheless, I'm glad the nonsense and hoopla have now subsided! This is a significant discovery that will be studied for years to come. To put the discovery in historical perspective, about the time the Taino were enjoying their lives in their administrative and ceremonial center near Ponce, Puerto Rico (c. 600 CE), the pre-Islamic Persians of the Sassanian (Sassinian) empire were a beacon of civilization, at the height of their artistic and literary endeavors, who played a central role in moving goods along the Silk Road from the far east to the west. Archaeologists find "premium" site in Puerto Rico By MIKE WILLIAMS Cox News Service Published on: 12/26/07 nearly a thousand years before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Those voices were lost after Europeans settled the Caribbean, however, as the Taino Indians were nearly wiped out by disease and enslavement. Now, as a result of plans to build a flood control dam nearby, archaeologists have stumbled onto a major discovery that may help reconstruct the rhythms of life of those early Caribbean inhabitants. Corps of Engineers has uncovered the outlines of a very large Taino ball court and ceremonial site, complete with human graves, trash mounds, building imprints and a few carved petroglyphs that are among the most intricate and detailed ever discovered in the region. "Suddenly it went from a very good site to an extraordinary site," said Chris Espenshade, who led a team of local archaeologists and workers from New South Associates of Stone Mountain, Ga. at the dig this past summer and fall. "Part of what makes it extraordinary is that we have everything here, the midden (refuse) mound, the batey (ceremonial site), the house patterns, the burials and the rock art." Puerto Rican archaeologists are excited by the find, which will be turned over to the island's government for preservation and future research. "This is a premium site," said Aida Belen Rivera, an archaeologist with the Puerto Rican Office of Historical Conservation. "It's a piece of flat land next to the river, a lovely site. In my opinion it's too large and too important to have served just the immediate area. It could've been regional in scope. It's an intriguing site." The Taino Indians were part of the Arawak people who settled the Caribbean, most likely venturing from the northern coast of South America, their canoes carried by ocean currents onto the string of islands that curve like an arc through the tropical sea. Several indigenous villages have been uncovered on Puerto Rico and other islands, but the recent find by the banks of the Portugues River appears to be one of the most extensive ever unearthed. The discovery came about because of the river's eons-old pattern of flooding. First, after the site's Taino originators died out, the river covered over the remains of their lives, protecting the artifacts from looters and farmers who might have dug out the stones to clear the area for cultivation. Then, 30 years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a dam on the river to control the floods which periodically wreaked havoc on the string of small villages leading down the river to nearby Ponce, a large city on Puerto Rico's south coast. Archaeologists first found a few artifacts in the 1970s, but the size and importance of the site wasn't known until this fall, when the flood control project finally near construction. Espenshade's team worked through the summer, but only in the past few months unearthed enough to determine the major scope of the site. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime find," said David McCullough, a Corps archaeologist from the agency's Jacksonville office, who said preliminary estimates show the site dates to around 600 A.D. "The petroglyph carvings are outstanding, with various human-looking faces and bodies. Another remarkable thing is the site is so well preserved. It was covered by the river's flooding and wasn't looted or cleared for farming." The project has not been without controversy. After its importance became known, some Puerto Rican archaeologists complained that the early excavation work was done too hastily and without enough care, and that local experts were not kept informed. "Our concerns were that we didn't know what was going on and that they were sending things to the States without our knowledge," said Miguel Rodriguez, a member of the Puerto Rican Archaeological Council. "Puerto Rico isn't a state, it's a commonwealth. We have our local laws and feel that sometimes the Corps doesn't respect these." Responding to the concerns, Corps officials re-designed their flood control project, moving a disposal area originally planned for the site to another location. They also agreed to turn the land over to the Puerto Rican government, and have committed to return all artifacts to the island after the completion of a report on the archaeological significance of what's been found so far. Meanwhile, the site will be reburied to protect what is there, and armed guards have been posted to protect the artifacts from looters. "This will be a site for future archaeologists and the government of Puerto Rico to decide what to do with," said Elsa Jimenez, the Corps spokeswoman in Puerto Rico. "It's a great challenge and opportunity."

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