The Archaeological Research Center

Yvonne Narganes Storde and Luis A. Chanlatte Baik in the Archaeological Research Center. Graduate Catalogue, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus (UPR-RP), 1984.

In 1947, Dr. Ricardo Alegría Gallardo, then recent graduate of the University of Chicago and professor at the College of Humanities, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, created the Archaeological Excavations Project (Proyecto de Excavaciones Arqueológicas). Alegría stressed the need for creating an excavations program that would complement his classes and enrich the archaeological collections in the small museum operated by history professor Rafael W. Ramírez in the same college.

The Archaeological Research Center (ARC), officially acknowledged by the university’s Board of Directors in 1948, replaced the functions of the Archaeological Excavations Project. The center was later assigned to the UPR-RP’s Museum of History, Anthropology and Art (MHAA) in 1951 although it kept its fiscal independence with an annual budget for research projects. Initially located in the Pedreira building  on campus, and, later, in the Registrar’s building, the ARC was physically separate from the MHAA, which was located on the north side of the historic quadrangle, where the Philosophy Seminar Room now resides. As of 1955, Alegría began his tasks as director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, and, because of this, his field assistant, Mr. Laureano Fuentes, remained in charge of the ARC. In 1964, almost a decade later, Dr. Osiris Delgado officially assumed the direction of the MHAA and the ARC.

Ricardo Alegría at Hacienda Monserrate, Luquillo, Puerto Rico, 1947.

During his career at the university, Alegría—who was in charge of the anthropology section at the MHAA—carried out several excavations of great importance at various emblematic sites on the island, such as Monserrate in Luquillo (1947), Hacienda Grande in Loíza (1948), and Caguana in Utuado (1949). The artifacts retrieved significantly expanded the center’s collection and provided it with a familiar context which made it possible to reconstruct the history of the Indigenous communities being researched. The inavaluable items were also displayed in exhibitions which offered the public some aspects of Indigenous life.

Dominican archaeologist Dr. Luis A. Chanlatte Baik joined the center’s team in 1965 with the purpose of organizing the archaeological collections. And, in 1982, the archaeologist Dr. Yvonne Narganes, a specialist in archaeofauna, was incorporated as well. Forensic anthropologist Dr. Edwin Crespo Torres also formed part of the team from 2006 until 2013. He was in charge of investigating Indigenous human remains recovered from the excavations carried out by the center’s staff.

In 1968, the center was temporarily relocated to the basement of the Hostos building, where it still remains. From 1968 to 1969, minor excavations were carried out at different sites: Punta Ostiones in Cabo Rojo, Las Cuevas in Trujillo Alto, Caguana in Utuado, and Monserrate in Luquillo. In the summer of 1975, Chanlatte Baik organized a new excavations program which kicked off at the Tecla site in Guayanilla, and which continued in 1977 at Sorcé, Vieques. The site at Puerto Ferro in Vieques, discovered in 1989, provided Archaic cultural artifacts and a human skeleton—the oldest in Vieques. The program’s excavations continued for 34 years at these three sites.

View of the Puerto Ferro site in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

In 2006, the center was moved to the College of Humanities since the museum had been assigned to the direct oversight of the university chancellor’s offices while it underwent the process of securing accreditation. In 2013, the center decided to rejoin the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art after the latter was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM; 2013). Consequently, the center ended its 65-year affiliation with the College of Humanities. We are grateful to its deans, who acknowledged the importance of the archaeological collections, for promoting the study and dissemination of these collections. Furthermore, we thank them for supporting us with the center’s maintenance for over six decades. Sebastián González García-Paz, dean of the College of Humanities and professor of history, merits special mention for fervently advocating for the importance of archaeology within the framework of Puerto Rican history.

Thus, we optimistically began a new phase, in which the center, and, in particular, its important collections, would be properly cared for following the rigorous conservation measures from the AAM’s Core Standards for Museums in an attempt to preserve and conserve them for future generations.

View of the Hueca site in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

The archaeological research conducted produced a significant and valuable collection of archaeological artifacts, which belonged to early Archaic and farmer-potter cultures, unique in the Caribbean. The research also brought to light a new Indigenous group, the La Hueca or Huecoid culture. These findings led to the exhibition of the new archaeological artifacts at the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art, as well as to the publication of catalogues and articles, and presentations at regional conferences. Chanlatte Baik developed a new map of Indigenous cultures within the Caribbean region that centered on the historical development and migration of these cultures. The discovery of the Huecoid culture and Chanlatte Baik’s theories sparked new interest within the region’s archaeological academic community in revising Caribbean Indigenous history, an activity that continues to this day. This archaeological event positioned the center and the University of Puerto Rico at the vanguard of archaeological research and among the most renowned institutions of the region and led to international recognition for their contributions to the field.

Presentación ideal de collar formado con 34 amuletos batraciformes, tallados en jadeita, entre 8mm a 32mm. Colección Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas, Museo de Historia del Arte, UPR-Río Piedras.
Reconstructed presentation of a necklace made of 34 batrachian-like amulets, carved in jadeite, between 8 mm and 32 mm. Archaeological Research Center Collection, MHAA, UPR-Río Piedras.
Representación de collar, compuesto por piezas de amatista, coralina y ágata, Sorcé, Vieques. Entre 0.8 y 2.9cm. Colección Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas, Museo de Historia del Arte, UPR-Río Piedras.
Necklace composed of amethyst, coral, and agate pieces, Sorcé, Vieques. Between 0.8 cm and 2.9 cm. Archaeological Research Center Collection, MHAA, UPR-Río Piedras.

Currently, the center’s collections are made up of the archaeological materials gathered from the excavations directed by Chanlatte Baik since the artifacts from Alegría’s excavations have been part of the MHAA collections since 1978.

Aside from the aforementioned sites, most of the archaeological materials housed at the center come mainly from the two archaeological sites, Sorcé and Tecla, on which the archaeological program developed by Chanlatte Baik is based.  These archaeological materials correspond exclusively to the Huecoid and Saladoid cultures.  The rest of the sites contributed Archaic and Ostionoid artifacts.

Ceramic  receptacle, La Hueca culture, 23 x 23.5 x 9.5 cm. Archaeological Research Center Collection, Museum of History, MHAA, UPR-Río Piedras.

The collections consist mostly of fragments of ceramic, lithic, shell, and bone artifacts—mainly for domestic use—and of ceremonial artifacts, such as body ornaments. From these materials, a sample of diagnostic objects was created with the aim of providing objects for exhibition in the museum. There is a small yet significant collection of coprolites that has led to interesting microbiological studies with graduate students from the College of Natural Sciences. Another excellent collection contains faunal archaeological remains, which Narganes developed into a comparative synoptic wildlife collection financed by herself, so that others could carry out research on the subject.

The center’s archaeologists have published numerous essays (in five exhibition catalogues), five books, and forty-three articles, mostly for the conferences held by the International Association for Caribbean Research. There are also more than twenty articles and books written by international colleagues regarding the center’s archaeological materials and the theories that have been developed about these artifacts.

The significance of this work resides in the center’s invaluable archaeological collections, which aid in illustrating the early history of our Indigenous ancestors on the island of Puerto Rico. These objects are evidence of the advanced cultural development reached by these groups and are an essential resource in the reconstruction of the Indigenous history of Puerto Rico. The collection represents an important part of the history of the island and of our identity as a country.

Ceramic effigy cohoba inhaler, La Hueca culture, 14.0 x 11.7 x 51.1 cm. Archaeological Research Center Collection, MHAA, UPR-Río Piedras.

The research based on these materials has served as the basis for a total of sixteen master’s theses and doctoral dissertations in different topics, such as industry (stone tools) and plant fiber weaving technologies, contributions in the identification of native fauna, the development of a subsistence economy based on fauna and botany, the analysis of human skeletal remains, ceremonial objects, and the illnesses that native groups endured revealed by the microbiological study of the coprolites. In the future, we foresee research on the DNA of these groups with the objective of shedding light on the origin of our country’s ancient civilizations.

Another important contribution made by the center was the preservation of Puerto Rico’s archaeological heritage, especially on the island of Vieques. The struggle led by the people of Vieques to oust the United States Navy took a dramatic turn in 1999 when the accidental killing of security guard David Sanes Rodríguez prompted the government of Puerto Rico to create a special commission that would research the damage caused by the Navy’s occupation of Vieques. As part of the different social sectors of the country that deposed before the commission, Chanlatte Baik represented the Archaeological Research Center of the University of Puerto Rico. Chanlatte Baik advocated for the preservation of cultural heritage, particularly the archaeological heritage found in Vieques, as a fundamental element in the preservation of the island’s identity. He has contributed to various international forums on issues pertaining to cultural heritage protection and its archaeological importance not only for the history of Vieques but for the Caribbean as well.

Vasija campanular policromada, cerámica, Sorcé, Vieques, 15.2 x 27.9 cm. Colección Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas, Museo de Historia del Arte, UPR-Río Piedras.
Ceramic campanular polychrome vessel, Sorcé, Vieques, 15.2 x 27.9 cm. Archaeological Research Center Collection, MHAA, UPR-Rio Piedras.

The university suffered a tremendous loss when Dr. Luis Chanlatte Baik passed away in December 2016, after spending more than 50 years devoted to archaeological research on the island of Puerto Rico. His great contributions to the Archaeological Research Center, and the University of Puerto Rico, led to the amassing of a significant archaeological collection that would enrich the historical and cultural knowledge about the island’s Indigenous populations. His zeal and dedication were indomitable, and, due to his tenacity in difficult times, despite the initially strong opposition to his theories and research, he was able to stand firm with the center’s mission and objectives. By doing so, the University of Puerto Rico became the recipient and custodian of the most important and renowned collection of archaeological objects in the Caribbean and has served as an advocate for emerging Caribbean cultural theories. The remarkable contributions of Dr. Chanlatte Baik can be summarized thus: he laid the groundwork for a new conceptualization of Caribbean archaeological history and succeeded in fostering honest and comprehensive critical thinking free from outdated prejudices. Lastly, we hope that the facilities of the center are moved to a new location in the Hostos building, one with adequate and appropriate spaces for the preservation and conservation of archaeological material, which would provide an effective and secure area so that students and researchers can undertake their studies and theses.

The Archaeological Research Center welcomes researchers by prior appointment Monday through Friday from 8:00am to 4:30pm. For additional information please email: cia.mhaa@upr.edu.

Translated by the students of the Museum Translation Course, Graduate Program in Translation, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.

Versión en español: El Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas

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