Prospects: Archaeological Research and Practice in Peru

By Lane, Kevin | Antiquity, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Prospects: Archaeological Research and Practice in Peru


Lane, Kevin, Antiquity


The following comments reflect on the present state of Peruvian-led research archaeology and irs prospects for the future, from the viewpoint of a friend, colleague but notably as an outsider. As such this piece is informed by both personal experience and the informed opinions of local Peruvian investigators who, for reasons that will become apparent, have opted for anonymity. The essential premise here is that the intellectual and financial basis of archaeology in Peru is ata critical stage, and a major part of this article is to see how the next generation can negotiate this quagmire; and believe me for all the myriad problems there are important rays of light that could significantly and positively alter the state of Peruvian archaeology. With this in mind, in this brief essay I consider the research environment, the theoretical basis, and the means by which research projects and resource mitigation are carried out, and summarise some of the challenges that archaeologists living and working in Peru now face. A recent, thorough treatise of the history and state of Peruvian archaeology can be found in Shimada and Vega-Centeno (2011).

Research environment

Institutionally, there are four state-funded universities that provide a grounding in archaeology, these being the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo (UNT), the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC), the Universidad Nacional Federico Villareal (UNFV) and the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (UNMSM); these last two are based in Lima. Other public universities exist that purport to teach archaeology but really these programmes are geared towards incentivising tourism and the tourist-driven heritage sector. State universities are very poorly funded adding significantly to their inability to compete at an international research level. The other principal player is the private university, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (PUCP) which is funded more generously than irs state counterparts, has the resources to compete in some way at an international level, and has assumed the mantle of elite university, long-since discarded by the UNMSM (Burga 2003).

The parlous state of publically-funded universities has already been commented upon in an earlier article (Matos Mendieta & Bonavia 1992) and matters do not seem to have advanced much since then. An existential problem for Peruvian scholars at state universities seems to be their inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to emerge from under the shadow of the great post-1950s generation of archaeologists. These stalwarts came archaeologically of age in the 1960s and 1970s bringing New Archaeology, Marxist perspectives and a more rigorous field methodology to bear. Although entirely commendable, during the subsequent political, economic and cultural crisis of the 1980s and 1990s Peru stifled much discourse at state universities. These institutions became the targets for a repressive governmental apparatus and were themselves riven by internal strife (Sandoval Lopez 2002), the social sciences and humanities suffered particularly. In this climate of fear it is not surprising that a whole generation of archaeologists was quite patently lost; army-occupied universities with cowered academics discouraged intellectual foment, whilst the wholesale abandonment of foreign-led and financed archaeological excavations shut an important avenue for aspiring new researchers to grind their intellectual nous.

Whilst state universities experienced state repression, the PUCP carried on regardless. The PUCP naturally attracts a different profile of student to that of the state universities, these being middle- to upper-class students, privately funded and generally more socially and politically conservative. Therefore, although the cost of an education at the PUCP can be prohibitive for many of Peru's poorer social strata, it does provide a much more thorough grounding in archaeology.

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