The Mystery of Pariti: A new museum on an island in Lake Titicaca raises tantalizing questions about who buried a cache of thousand-year-old ceramics there—and why.
Until recently, one of Bolivia’s newest and most exciting archeological finds was stored in a suburban house in a La Paz subdivision where the streets have no names. Every available surface in the house was covered with ceramics: a foot embellished with skulls; a vessel depicting a nobleman with a turban-shaped headdress, a wad of coca leaves stuffed in his cheek; two identical vessels in the form of a wrinkled old man holding a duck, a spout projecting from his back. There were vivid images of pumas, monkeys, condors, and fanciful hybrids thereof, man-eating creatures dancing and undulating, grinning and grimacing. Though these stunning pieces are at least a thousand years old, the cracks they bear are not a result of the ravages of time. These vessels were “assassinated.”
At least that is the theory posited by the team of Finnish and Bolivian archeologists that excavated the objects on Pariti, a small island in Lake Titicaca, last year. The archeologists believe that sometime between 900 and 1050 A.D. the ceramics were deliberately broken and deposited in a pit on the island, along with the bones of sacrificed llamas, in a religious ritual—hence the term cerámica asesinada, or killed ceramics. The group’s thesis is that the vessels were buried as a ritual offering to the sacred lake.
While this thesis is not universally shared, many archeologists agree that the surprising iconography and styles of these objects should provide new insights into the culture and society of Tiwanaku, one of the most sophisticated and far-flung pre-Columbian civilizations. “It’s definitely a major find,” says Margaret Young, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, who organized a major show on Tiwanaku there last year. “The number of Tiwanaku pieces that you could call real portrait vessels is pretty limited. There are quite a few in this find. There aren’t many depictions of women, but there are quite a few in this group. So that’s very special.”
The suburban house served as the makeshift lab where archeologists washed the shards, matched them up, and glued them back together. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Jédu Sagárnaga, the Bolivian codirector of the fieldwork, who lives across the street. Sagárnaga pointed out the extraordinary naturalism reflected in the women’s braids, the men’s Elvis-type sideburns, an attention to detail that has less in common with stylized Tiwanaku iconography than with Moche, an earlier coastal culture known for its realistic portraiture. He admired the unusual, kidney-shaped vessels, and another one that was fashioned like the coils of a snake, its little head peering from the top. He displayed ch’alladores, vessels with holes in the bottom, covered in bizarre mythical figures that wouldn’t look out of place in the concurrent Wari culture—or, for that matter, in modern-day cartoons.
During the last year, Sagárnaga has been shuttling these objects, box by box, back to Pariti. It is a two-hour drive due west from La Paz, past herds of alpacas, llamas, and sheep grazing on the flat altiplano, and then on to Huatajata, a lakeside town with restaurants serving up the deep-fried legs of the Andean frog, a specialty. From there it is a 50-minute motorboat ride to Pariti, which sits 12,000 feet above sea level.
The island’s population of about 200 reflects a mix of old and new. The older women, who speak only the local language, Aymara, still wear the trademark Borsalino hats; the men wear baseball caps. But Pariti’s picturesque homes, covered with tortora, an indigenous reed, and surrounded by spectacular views of the endless lake and the snow-covered peaks of the eastern Cordillera, belie the poverty of the inhabitants. They have electricity but no running water or phone service; children above grade-school level must commute to the mainland to continue their education.
Ancient terraces indicate that Pariti housed a small agricultural community in pre-Columbian times. Many scholars believe that it was, like many islands in the lake, a destination for pilgrims. “Probably an important shrine was situated there,” says the project leader, Martti Pärssinen, director of the South Central Andean Cultural Heritage Project of the University of Helsinki, which has supported the excavations with grants totaling about $70,000. How Pariti fit into the social and political structure of the capital city, Tiwanaku, is one thing archeologists hope to learn from the cache. The objects “show a bit how local elites at Pariti were interacting or participating in a Tiwanaku courtly society, in a sense—what they look like, how they are representing themselves,” says Nicole C. Couture, assistant professor in the anthropology department at McGill University in Montreal.
Wendell C. Bennett, a curator from the American Museum of Natural History in New York who did extensive excavations at Tiwanaku itself (and famously gave his name to a stela there), excavated at Pariti in 1934, though the location of many of his finds is unknown. But no one had done systematic fieldwork since then. So when a young man approached Sagárnaga and his Finnish colleagues at Tiraska, a nearby town where they were excavating Tiwanaku tombs, and showed them some intriguing objects, they accepted his invitation to the island.
The first excavation, in 2003, didn’t produce much. But in 2004, the team excavated a circular pit holding shards of about 350 ceramic vessels, along with some intact ones that included a few of the realistic portrait heads. “We had never seen anything like this before,” says Pärssinen. “The quality of these ceramics is extraordinary.”
Some of the best examples were shown earlier this year in the Museo de Arqueología in La Paz, where several government officials wanted them to stay. But the Pariti community had obtained a promise from the archeologists that they would try to raise funds for a museum on the island, so that the people could benefit from their own cultural patrimony. Eventually, Sagárnaga secured a $30,000 grant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which has a branch in La Paz. And so in September, islanders welcomed the Museo de Pariti. Built on a plot that was previously a cactus field, the 2,000-square-foot building is rustic in style, with a tortora roof (hiding the more practical tin one underneath). Two small galleries showcase 268 ceramics in vitrines, mostly from the 2004 excavation; in a small room around the bend, visitors can see a Tiwanaku tomb that was unearthed on the site during the museum’s construction. The Swiss grant, along with a more recent pledge from the Finnish government, will also go to train the local community in tourism services and to market the island as a tourist destination. The hope is that Pariti will again become a pilgrimage site, of a sort.
While many experts on Tiwanaku ceramics have expressed excitement about the find, they caution that the excavation was too narrow in scope for them to draw many conclusions. “Statistically, the chances of so many vessels of this quality being found in one spot are quite remote,” says Couture. “The question that a lot of archeolo
gists have is, What are these vessels associated with? Are these actually in situ, is this where they were intentionally deposited 1,200 years ago?”
Paul Goldstein, associate professor at the University of California at San Diego, concurs. “Never before has such a cache of so many and so unique Tiwanaku pieces appeared in one place,” he comments. “It could be a paradigm-shifting find. But we need to know more about the context.”
Pärssinen acknowledges that many questions remain about the ceramics: who made them, how they got to the site, why they were put there. Do the portraits represent members of a local elite—or alternatively, as Pärssinen suggests, “persons who have lived in distant provinces under Tiwanaku influences”? Did vessels with images of monkeys come from the faraway jungle, or did local artisans at Pariti adapt images of animals they had probably never seen? Most likely the latter, says John Janusek, an archeologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “That kind of elaboration you’re not going to see on the edges of the empire,” he says. Janusek suspects that the ceramics were made by skilled artisans working on Pariti or on a neighboring island.
Radiocarbon tests in Helsinki have confirmed the dates of 900 to 1050, Pärssinen says; the team is still awaiting results from analyses of the mineral composition of the clay used in different vessels and of the bones of the animals buried with the ceramics.
“It would be important to continue the excavations in order to understand better the wider context of the double offering,” Pärssinen acknowledges. “Now we only know that the offering was probably made inside a room whose stone foundations we have seen and mapped. Nevertheless, we do not know how big the entire complex might have been.”
For Pariti’s residents, reconnecting with their heritage is itself a thrill. Gerardo Limeche, a fisherman who made tortora decorations for the museum, marveled at the pots in the vitrine. “The faces,” he said, “look exactly like us.”