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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Archaeological Training in Uruguay

José María López Mazz

Although official Uruguayan history scarcely remembers its Precolumbian ancestry, the scientific study of archaeology actually had a relatively early development. In 1878, Clemente Barrial Posada, a Spanish land surveyor, recognized the prehistoric origins of some rupestral art. The following decade saw the excavation of burial mounds in the Tierras Bajas del Este by Bauza Figueira Arechevaleta and paleontological work on the coast of Montevideo Bay by the Argentine paleontologist Florentino Ameghino. The 20th century would see the development of the Sociedad de Amigos de la Arqueología de Uruguay, which would undertake a number of important investigations and publish a regular periodical. A degree in classical archaeology would appear briefly in the Department of Architecture in Montevideo. Later, through the work of Eugenio Petit Muñoz, the first degree in prehistory of the Río Uruguay would be created in the university's Department of Humanities and Sciences.

Despite these promising beginnings, the organization of a curriculum for a B.A. degree in archaeology would require further effort. The intellectual climate of Uruguay was strongly affected by the visits of the French anthropologist Paul Ribet in 1957, and of the Brazilian political exile, Darcy Ribeiro in 1967, who both contributed to the debate over the role of social sciences in education. The origin of scientific investigation and academic anthropology and archaeology will always be associated with their influence and the ensuing debate over the Uruguayan cultural identity.

During the 1960s and the early 1970s, the Centro de Estudios Arqueológicos (CEA) was established under the guidance of Antonio Taddei, in cooperation with academic archaeologists from Argentina, Brazil, and the Smithsonian Institute. In 1976, as a result of CEA activities and archaeological conferences, the Department of Humanities and Sciences-Montevideo created an undergraduate program for the study of anthropological sciences with a specialization in archaeology, modeled after a program at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.

From 1976 to 1980, a UNESCO-coordinated archaeological salvage program for the Salto Grande dam enlisted American, Brazilian, Canadian, French, and German archaeological crews, creating an unparalleled learning opportunity for the first generation of Uruguayan students of archaeology. Annette Laming-Emperaire's colleagues and students facilitated the project--a critical role under the military dictatorship that controlled the university system.

In 1984, the end of the military regime stimulated much debate about education and change in academic programs. As a result, anthropology and archaeology benefited from greater administrative support and the creation of new jobs related to the increase of archaeological salvage projects. The 1971 legislation to protect cultural patrimony represented a significant victory for archaeology, both in terms of providing protection for sites and creating more work and student training opportunities. However, despite the solid, existing legislation, the government has been negligent in enforcing protective measures.

The Department of Archaeology practices an applied archaeological approach in conducting salvage projects and assessing environmental impacts, particularly in urban projects in Montevideo, Colonia, and Rocha. The research also has developed a thematic approach, such as coastal archaeology, landscape archaeology, and historical archaeology. Ethnohistoric and bioanthropological studies have been incorporated into the academic context. Analyses of human remains is beginning to contribute important prehistoric data. A growing interest in Afro-Uruguayan studies is further expanding the range of archaeological research.

The eight-semester B.A. curriculum is directed toward providing the student with a broad experience in research, conservation, data publication, and teaching, as well as in environmental impacts and management of cultural resources. This broad perspective responds to the demands of the profession in Uruguay, and to the lack of availability of training in museology.

During the past 10 years, the professional requirements to practice archaeology have been the subject of serious discussion. The problem of looters and underwater treasure hunters also has been addressed in this context. While postgraduate studies must be undertaken outside the country at the moment, a Master's degree program is being planned for 2000.

Traditionally, the Consejo de Investigaciones Científicas y Tecnológicas del Uruguay, a government branch that works closely with the Universidad Central, has not embraced the social sciences. But for the first time, it has recognized the competence of archaeologists in conducting paleoenvironmental studies. In 1996, it funded a project by the Comisión Nacional de Arqueología (Ministerio de Educación y Cultura) in the Tierras Bajas of the Laguna Merín. However, it is still too early to judge whether this action will set a precedent for future support. The Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, an organization designed to facilitate research and provide the archaeologist with some level of economic security, does not appear to be effective.

The existence of a B.A. degree in Anthropological Sciences is now 23 years old. The program has grown considerably, since the fall of the dictatorship resulted in university enrollment free of charge. The consolidation of anthropological and archaeological studies in Uruguayan universities is firmly established. Teaching positions, financial support for projects, research opportunities, professional conferences, publications, and especially, the number of graduates, have all increased substantially. The Asociación de Arqueología Uruguaya, composed of university archaeologists, has guided this growth and development, mediating problems and helping the university system to shape its future.

José María López Mazz is director of the Department of Archaeology in the Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación, in Montevideo, Uruguay.

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