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Trailing footprints from the past.

FOR OVER HALF A CENTURY, ALBERTO REX GONZALEZ HAS CHARTED THE COURSE FOR ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE SOUTHERN CONE

I am here, following the footsteps of these who have gone away, I am walking along the path left by those who have gone away, I follow the trail of their footsteps, Those who have gone away talk to me from far off, Those from the infinite have been talking to me, The footsteps of those who have gone away are here

To Alberto Rex Gonzalez, this song fragment of an Ona shaman from Tierra del Fuego reflects the archaeologist's respect for those who have gone before. Referred to by his students and colleagues as the "Father of Southern Cone Archaeology," Gonzalez has left an indelible mark upon his profession through more than fifty years of inspired hard work.

Curiously, unlike the soldiers of fortune or autodidactic diggers who uncovered important sites earlier in this century--Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu, for example--Gonzalez has no discovery of a mythic ruin to his credit. Rather, he sought the best academic training available to his generation and then applied it to impose order upon the confusion of sites and accumulated artifacts throughout his country. At each stage of the archaeological process he introduced new scientific techniques and, most critically, he passed these innovative procedures on to younger generations. As beneficiaries of his vast practical and theoretical knowledge, Gonzalez's progeny today continue his important work.

"Rex," as friends affectionately call him, was bitten by the excavator's bug as a teenager in the town of Pergamino in the Province of Buenos Aires. He was born there in 1918. His father, a railroad employee who admired King Albert I of Belgium, decided to name his son Alberto Rex. The youth became captivated by tales of mastodons and other Pleistocene creatures of the pampa, which he discovered in a fascinating book by Argentine anthropologist Florentino Ameghino. Paleontology led to archaeology and soon, while still in high school, he was involved in a controlled dig to recover pre-Columbian remains at a site called Paradero, near the city of Cordoba. He carefully collated and published his findings, just the first of over one hundred scholarly articles and books during his career.

"I wanted to be an anthropologist," Gonzalez recalls, "but in Argentina the field had not yet been invented." Instead, at the Universidad de Cordoba he earned a degree in medicine, a background that later served him well as he investigated health conditions of ancient peoples. Thanks to a scholarship, Gonzalez went on to New York City in 1946 to study anthropology at Columbia University. While working on his doctorate, he met some of the near-legendary figures in the Americanist branch of anthropology: Wendell Bennett, Julian Steward, Leslie White, and Alfred Metraux.

Given the roughly one-million-square-mile expanse of Argentina it must have been daunting for this young professional to decide just where to make his first foray. But then, with logic, he decided to study the earliest stage of Argentine prehistory, a phase largely ignored by previous investigators. If indeed evidence demonstrated early man first reached North America by way of a Siberian land bridge perhaps twenty to twenty-five thousand years ago, then when did these nomadic hunter-gatherers reach the southernmost part of the landmass?

Initially, Gonzalez spent four months in the windswept reaches of Patagonia collecting data to answer this question, but then he shifted his point of attack to a cave called Intihuasi, or House of the Sun, in the Province of San Luis. Gonzalez sifted through three feet of accumulated debris on the cave floor, recovering almond-shaped arrow points, bones, and bits of food. Through radiocarbon dating techniques, used for the first time in Argentina, he demonstrated deer and guanaco hunters had huddled around their fire pit some eight thousand years earlier. Gonzalez's careful collection and reporting methods at Intihuasi established a new standard of excellence for archaeological investigations in his country. For this work, in 1963, Argentina's Secretaria de la Cultura awarded him the Premio National de Ciencias.

In the 1950s, Gonzalez assumed a teaching post in anthropology at the Universidad Nacional de la Plata with the added responsibility of overseeing the archaeology section of the Museo de la Plata. Gonzalez sought work in La Plata because it was something of a dumping ground for thousands of shards and other objects associated with sites in the northwestern provinces of Salta, Catamarca, Tucuman, and Santiago del Estero. This zone, like that of neighboring Bolivia and Peru, had been populated by numerous early peoples capable of producing objects of surprising technical and aesthetic sophistication. Gonzalez went to work on this mass of material which, though documented, had never been systematically collated. After additional fieldwork, he began to define the attributes for the distinct groups--La Aguada, La Cienaga, Condorhuasi, La Candelaria--early cultures (circa 500 B.C. to 600 A.D.) that take their names from the first sites excavated. He proposed a chronology for the settlement of these ancient peoples and, more importantly, began to describe how they lived and interacted.

To this day, Gonzalez's name remains closely associated with the Tafi culture, noted for its beautiful carved monoliths. For a three-year period (1959-61) he and his assistants excavated this aboriginal site in the heart of the Aconquija mountain range of Tucuman Province, establishing it as one of the earliest ceremonial centers ever found in Argentina. Once again Gonzalez employed radio-carbon dating methods, but added to his repertoire aerial photography, improved stratigraphic techniques, seriation, and computerized analysis.

Eventually, he determined people at Taft del Valle lived in stone structures situated around a large circular patio. Therein, they erected menhirs or dolmen-like stelae carved with highly stylized human faces and animal motifs. These farmers and herders, living at about the time of Christ, grew potatoes and quinoa and protected their llamas and alpacas in corrals (much as is still done throughout the Andean highlands). They skillfully worked gold, fashioned small stone masks for the dead, and employed hallucinogens as part of ritualistic practices. The discoveries at Tafi del Valle, widely covered in the press, engendered great interest, throughout the country. Gonzalez emerged as something of a local hero, even traveling to Vienna, Austria, to present his tentative findings to the 34th International Americanists Congress.

The glory of this rare moment in the spotlight passed quickly and soon Gonzalez was back at work, roughing it in the Andean foothills where he still feels most at home. There he could employ his extraordinary "nose" for ancient settlements, a sixth sense developed through years and years of on-site experience.

"Rex has a tremendous understanding of how people lived," says architect and artist Giancarlo Puppo, author of Arte argentino antes [Argentine Art Before] (1979). "He considers water sources, light conditions, exposure to weather, soil fertility, all to determine where people would want to live. He'll wander an area for hours seemingly doing nothing but when he marks the place to dig, almost magically, his team finds things."

Such was the case in the mid-fifties when he recovered splendid zoomorphic and anthropomorphic vessels associated with the Condorhuasi culture (300 B.C. to 600 A.D.). In much the same manner, elsewhere in northwest Argentina, he discovered caches of funerary urns from the later Santa Maria, Belen, and San Jose cultures (circa 900 to 1400 A.D.).

In 1961 Gonzalez's definitive report, "The Aguada Culture of Northwest Argentina," was published by Harvard University Press (part of the Essays in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, edited by Samuel K. Lothrop). It was based on his own field-work in Catamarca Province and also on typological and iconographic analysis of hundreds of ceramic pieces in public and private collections. He demonstrated the Aguada people were notable for their beautiful, painted, cream-colored earthenware pots and distinctive black burnished vessels, which they incised with fabulous images of man and beast. Certain pottery shapes, as well as frequent use of feline motifs, seemed to point to ties with the Tiwanaku civilization of highland Bolivia or even stylistic traditions farther afield.

Remarkable were ceremonial ax blades and metal disks, or pectorals, cast from copper and bronze using lost wax techniques. "They were used by shamans," Gonzalez explains, "or possibly placed on the chest of sacrificial victims." Then, working from a photograph in his book Las placas metalicas de los Andes del Sur [Metal Plates of the Southern Andes] (1992) and reading the tangled pattern in low relief, he continues: "Don't you see? Two felines on the shoulder, a priest in the center, maces in each hand. That's what they used for human sacrifice!"

By the 1960s Gonzalez's reasoned analysis of Argentina's complex pre-history began to earn him a reputation far beyond his nation's borders. In 1963, he was invited to participate in a Franco-Argentine expedition to Sudan to rescue ancient monuments of Nubia. In 1966, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which was renewed the following year. He spent these two years at Harvard University as a visiting professor, using the opportunity to pursue his own research, efforts that led to his sweeping treatise on his country's entire prehistory, Arte precolombino de la Argentina [Pre-Columbian Art of Argentina] (1977).

While at Harvard, Gonzalez worked closely with ethnologist Egon Vogt, an experience that encouraged him to look for relationships between ancient cultural traits of native America and those that survive to the present. He also met the flamboyant Junius Bird, who had overseen major excavations in Peru and Chile under the auspices of the Museum of Natural History in New York.

"Bird convinced me to join him in a crazy expedition to an island off Puerto San Julian on the south coast of Patagonia. He had become entranced by a historical figure, Sir Francis Drake, and his second in command, Vice-Admiral Thomas Doughty, whom Drake executed for participation in a mutinous conspiracy. Bird thought there still might be surviving inscriptions that could be compared with writing on a controversial plaque found during the 1950s at Drake's Bay in California. Except for the company of what we estimated to be a million penguins, whose incessant squawking made it impossible to sleep at night, we found absolutely nothing. We did recoup our losses a bit by discovering some important pictographs in caves of Santa Cruz Province."

The hardships and rewards of fieldwork can produce a strong sense of camaraderie. This was certainly true for members of the "merry band" from the Museo de la Plata--Gonzalez, his assistant, Jose Togo, and museum caretaker Domingo Garcia--all veterans who had worked closely together for many years. In 1971, while exploring a remote valley of northwest Argentina on horseback, Gonzalez's team came upon nearly one hundred caves that showed signs of early habitation. Further investigation revealed entire villages within the largest caves, settlements through some quirk of fate that remained largely undisturbed. One community had been attacked, apparently with all residents killed. The bodies, partly clothed, were desiccated, with one poor fellow's neck twisted many times. Team members also discovered a funerary urn with its lid still sealed with clay and therein the remains of three children, one of whom had been ritually sacrificed. Given Gonzalez's own medical training, he was particularly interested in issues related to the health of these people from the Candelaria culture (550 to 650 A.D.). He and his colleagues recovered portions of some forty human remains, including the skull of a man who had been trepanned and yet survived. Later, through laboratory analysis, they were able to detect evidence of cancer, study various dental problems, and even conduct DNA analysis upon samples of dried blood. Equally curious about foodstuffs found in the caves, Gonzalez germinated some of the seeds to measure how much staple crops had changed over the centuries. He recorded detailed notes on this site but decided not to publish a final report because much fieldwork remained. (He also took great care to conceal the precise location of the valley to prevent looting.)

The mid-seventies proved to be a difficult time within the Argentine academic community. There was an official suspicion of intellectuals, especially humanists, and many fell victim to wholesale housecleaning at the hands of the military regime. Although Gonzalez had always avoided politics of any stripe, he was relieved of his university teaching position in La Plata and denied his pension. Fortunately, the international academic community rallied to his cause, offering him several teaching fellowships. During the remainder of the decade and well into the 1980s he lectured regularly at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Arizona at Tucson, and Harvard University. He also served as visiting professor at the Universidad National Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. He worked as well with UNESCO trying to muster support for the preservation of endangered sites associated with the very early (circa 1500 B.C.) Valdivia culture of Ecuador.

He was also involved in a UNESCO-sponsored inventory of an important Inca site near Cochabamba, Bolivia. With the help of Professor Antonio Cravotto, an old friend and architectural preservationist from Uruguay, Gonzalez surveyed the fortress complex. Their findings, Estudio arqueologico e inventario de las ruinas de Incallajta [Archaeological Study and Inventory of the Ruins of Incallajta], were published in 1977. Other important studies from this period away from Argentina included a seventy-page contribution to a massive survey, Pre-Columbian Metallurgy of South America (published in 1979 by Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Research Library), and an investigation of Incan settlements in Argentina, which appeared in a 1982 publication of the Muse, Nacional de Lima.

In recent years Gonzalez has continued to write and publish, and has also fought hard to introduce legislation that prohibits illegal excavations and trafficking in antiquities. He has refrained from active participation in the ongoing debate between traditionalists in his field and the rebellious "new archaeologists," who believe systematically there are certain scientific principles that govern cultural behavior. Nonetheless, Gonzalez is skeptical of this latter approach, which involves holistic models purely theoretical in nature.

"The 'new archaeology' is something of a vogue. We are 'pre-historians' and therefore we should approach our discipline just like historians do. I think it's best we continue to rely on concrete evidence and accept the limits of what can be known."

Gonzalez, a widower, lives near the Plaza de Mayo in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires. In an office markedly devoid of artifacts but crammed with books, papers, and slides, he still puts in long hours pursuing topics dear to his heart. One project, supported by the Smithsonian Institution, involves a study of pre-Conquest symbols and motifs and their evolution through time. For Gonzalez, the incised or painted condors, jaguars, and serpents that decorate many artifacts are like the trademarks and brand names on today's commercial products. They, too, gradually change over time.

Recently, when an associate telephoned him with news of an exceptional stone piece recently recovered, Gonzalez insisted the friend bring it over immediately. Soon it was in the archaeologist's hands, an egg-shaped stone piece drilled and ground from all sides by some patient artist from antiquity. "It's obviously an 'Alamito', a lithic culture related to that of Taft," Gonzalez declared without hesitation. "You see! It's a seated figure. There are his privates. You know, this sculptor was a genius. He had a remarkable ability to see abstractly. His awareness of negative space was no accident. He might as well have been a Henry Moore!"

More than a half-century of tireless work has in no way dampened the ardor of this pioneer. He still brings to the study of antiquities his own youthful enthusiasm, curiosity, even awe for the skills of those who walked this earth in centuries past.

Caleb Bach teaches art history and Spanish at Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and is a regular contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:archaeologist Alberto Rex Gonzalez
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Words:2628
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