The Stone Sculptures of
San Agustín

Inscribed meanings and transformation at a World Heritage Site in Colombia in the context of tourism and cultural commercialisation

By Emilia Fernengel

The promoted “peace” in Colombia changed the country’s image in the past years from one of the most dangerous places in the world to a booming travel destination.

Besides the sun and sea destinations in the Caribbean Sea, Colombia primarily promotes its natural and cultural heritage sites. One of
them is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of San Agustín.

This archaeological park is famous for South America’s largest and most important collection of megalithic sculptures. The archaeological record reveals that inhabitants of the Alto Magdalena River buried their dead in monumental earth chamber tombs guarded by colossal stone sculptures during the Regional Classic Period (1-900 AD).

The sculptures show various artistic representations, from abstract to realistic deities, animals and persons. To this day, a clear interpretation or function of these statues remains hidden from the world.

However, most archaeologists assume a religious character connected with the buried individual. Around 900 AD the local ceramic changed and the large earth mounds with stone sculptures were no longer built. Until today, it is unclear what
happened to the culture of San Agustín.

Archaeological parks and their objects are often considered static entities whose influence is limited to the walls of the park grounds.

Using approaches to agency (Alfred Gell) and material culture, the thesis analyses the various inscriptions of meanings of the Colombian stone sculptures of the National Archaeological Park of San Agustín made by a wide range of people and institutions over time.

Often overlooked is that objects are active agents in forming social and material relations within a complex assemblage of networks which reach far beyond the archaeological site.

The literal silence of the stone sculptures – no “written” traditions exist, as the “culture of San Agustín” disappeared before the Spaniards arrived – results in an open space where different bodies of knowledge and narratives have been produced, appropriated, commercialised,  consumed, and contested. The objects’ constantly changing meaning and impact from early colonial times until today are of particular interest to the study.

Today, the negotiations about the territory as a world heritage site and the (re)appropriation processes of the stone sculptures have turned the archaeological park into an active field site. The archaeological park and the growing tourism as a cultural and financial resource create new forms and dynamics of control and access to resources, which lead to new social formations and power relations within the territory.

The research is based on data collected from long-term fieldwork in Colombia. It uses a mixed-method approach, which includes participant observations, in-depth, expert and narrative interviews, and archival documents such as reports, field diaries, photographs and maps.