Thursday, October 10, 2013

#768 San Agustin, Huila, Colombia

San Agustin Archaeological park
Excerpt from Cadogan Guides: The Spanish chronicles of the 17th century talk about the area around the village of San Agustin in some detail. They speak of the settlement of the land, of the fertile soils and valuable minerals to be found, of building roads and a chapel, and of other administrative details. But, strangely enough, not one mention is made of the sculptures. What had happened to them? Had they been buried and hidden? Or did the Spaniards, with more important matters at hand, simply ignore them? Perhaps there are some as yet undiscovered sheets, yellowing in the archives of a Colombian convent, which hold the very first eyewitness account of San Agustin's sculptures. It seems possible: the earliest record of the site was found only recently, in the public library of Palma de Mallorca, in Spain. The strange story that the crisp but faded parchments told, runs as follows.

In 1758 a lone Franciscan priest, Friar Juan de Santa Gertrudis, whose Amazon mission was facing many difficulties, decided to cross the Eastern Cordillera and to travel to Santa Fe in order to appeal to the Spanish Viceroy for help. Accompanied by a few missionized Andaki Indians, the friar ascended the eastern flanks of the Andes and reached the headwaters of the Magdalena river at San Agustin, then only 'a village of no more than five miserable huts'. There were few people to welcome the traveler, but among them happened to be another cleric from Popayan who had established a small mission at San Agustin. The reason for his mission was to become clear during the hearty meal that the cleric cheerfully offered to the tired friar.

Over coffee, the cleric confided to Friar Juan that he was an inveterate treasure hunter, and that, with Indian help, he had been digging for buried gold amongst the ruins and monuments he had found scattered in the vicinity of the village. He continued to speak at length about the strange burial sites, and revealed that while his men had already dug out 19 tombs, they had so far only found one gold earring. His grave-robbing had not as yet proved very successful.
Friar Juan listened in amazement. And the next morning, while his Indian escorts were still asleep after a night of merrymaking, he set out to see for himself. He was troubled by what he saw: 'There are three bishops...all of stone...with their mitres. They are dressed in their rochets which are fringed with lace, well-worked and beautiful. Only one has arms, but one can see that the left held a bishop's croizier while with the right he was giving his blessing...From there I went to see another monument...They were five Franciscan Friars of the Observant Order shown from the knees up, carved of the same stone as the bishops. Two stand with hands folded and hidden in their sleeves...two others are shown as if preaching...the fifth wears a hood over his head and the hair in front is so finely worked that it looks quite real."
Crocodile Carving
There was no doubt in his mind that the statues represented Franciscan friars and mitred bishops in pontifical garb. This was immensely worrying. As the images were doubtlessly older than the Order of Saint Francis, Friar Juan reasoned that they could only have been made by the Devil. In his notebook he wrote, 'I believe that the Devil made these statues and said to the Indians: men like these, dressed in this manner, shall rule over this land.' The Devil had already done his work in God's new country, warning the infidels that Christ's ministers would soon be coming. Friar Juan -- and others of his calling -- was too late!
-Excerpt from Cadogan Guides 'Ecuador, the Galapagos and Colombia' by John Paul Rathbone 1991, pp 268-269

The most important archaeological spot in Colombia by far, this mystical collection of standing stones is very under-researched and not much is known about them. The local tribes are unrelated, and they bear little similarity to most other cultures in the Americas aside from their usage of the same sacred animals - jaguars, alligators, monkeys and birds.
The sites are spread over many hills in quite a vast area, with some like the 500 sq. m San Agustin Archaeological Park with more than 100 stones to just one or two clandestine tombs on a hillside, to a group of carved rocks on a cliff above the river.

Alto de Los Idolos - the second most important area of San Agustin era statues
People have lived here for 2500 years (since around 3300BC) which is longer than civilizations in Mexico and Peru, although they have had sudden and complete changes of population (AD 50, 5th C, 1400-1600) for unknown reasons. The 'classic' period was between 200BC and 800AD, which is probably when most of the statues were carved, but, the people that built these zoomorphic and anthropomorphic carvings and statues were gone by the 16th Century.

Sarcophagus and small mouse carving behind
Interestingly, Juan de Santa Gertrudis' account retold in the excerpt above was written about in his 'Maravillas de la Naturaleza' (Natural Wonders) but it was only published in 1956. The next famous visitor was Francisco Jose de Caldas who came in 1797. He would later be famous for his research into the relationship between altitude and boiling water, but he was hanged for his role in the struggle for independence. Italian Agustin Codazzi also visited in 1857 and he left us many maps and hypothetical reconstructions of the ruins. Archaeologist Konrad Theordor Preuss did the first investigations in 1913, and he was followed by more significant excavations in the 1970s and 1980s by Luis Duque Gomez and Julio Cesar Cubillos (whose names dot the information boards throughout the area).

Some of the tombs have residue of paint and other decoration
Standing stone at Alto de Las Piedras
The most famous standing stones are known as chinas in San Agustin, and are mostly rectangular or oval carved into tuff or volcanic rock. The smallest is around 12 inches while the largest is 7 meters high, and many were found half buried in the tropical soil. They were originally painted in yellow, red, black and white, but the colors only remain in those stones that were underground or under cover. Sadly, in 2011 someone tried to 'repaint' the statues at El Purutal, which only caused damage, but the new repaint has been removed. Each stone appeared to 'guard' a tomb and represent a reincarnation theme. There was strong imagery and representation of the supernatural world.
The town of San Agustin lies on a hilly mesesta (highland plateau) at 1700m, and it was founded in 1552 by Alejo Astudillo. The 500+ stones cover around 2000 square kilometers, but many important figures have been moved to the archaeological park. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and the area was quite unsafe to visit for many years, but has improved greatly in the last decade. Aside from the statues, San Agustin also has many mesitas which would be similar to the barrows in Europe except they are named as 'tables' (mesa). The large stones are set up in a vertical arrangement around a tomb, with three stones (often the side ones are also decorated) forming the front guard area/entranceway. In the museum area there are four mesitas spread over two hills. Other important sites line the hills around San Agustin and a 15km hike will take in the important ones like El Tablon (5 sculptures under a roof), El Purutal (statues with excellent remains of paintwork), La Chaquira (carvings on the rockface overlooking the river) and La Pelota (2 painted statues found in 1984). There are also Los Petroglifos on the right bank of the Rio Magdalena near the Estrecho, and the ambitious can walk to the town of Isnos to see the second park of Alto de los Idolos.
Lavapatas carved ceremonial fountain

This fountain was unearthed in more recent times and has 30 monuments carved into the riverbed including lizards, snakes, salamanders, iguanas, toads, chameleons, and turtles, along with human faces and shapes.

The painted statues of El Purutal
La Chaquira - a spectacular location overlooking the Magdalena River

Downtown San Agustin village
San Agustin is not only a great place to visit for its historical records but for the other things that are in the district, from waterfalls to narrow river canyons.

El Estrecho - the point where the mighty Magdalena River sluices through a narrow 2.5m gap

Obando -- underground tombs similar to those found at Tierradentro

Salto de Mortino -- 250m high waterfalls just off the road to San Jose de Isnos

Salto de Bordones - the highest waterfall in Colombia at 450m
Source: Cadogan Guides Ecuador, The Galapagos & Colombia 1991 by John Paul Rathbone
Michelin Green Guides Colombia 2011
National Geographic Traveller Colombia 2012 by Christopher P. Baker
Footprint Colombia Handbook 2009 by Charlie Devereux 

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