Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fernando Moscoso on Forensic Archaeology in Guatemala: Looking Back, Writing Recent History, & Advocating for the Use of Forensic Evidence in Court

On March 10, 2011, archaeologist Fernando Moscoso attended Columbia University’s Archaeologies of Contemporary Conflict seminar, where he spoke to students and visitors about his experiences applying forensic techniques to the study of mass human rights violations in Guatemala. Moscoso’s presentation was preceded by a laudatory introduction outlining his professional trajectory and his many contributions to the fields of forensics, archaeology, and human rights. Trained as a specialist in Mayan archaeology, Moscoso received his Master’s at Stanford University. In 1992, he helped found the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology in Guatemala (FAFG, Fundación de Antropología de Guatemala) and served as its Director between 1992 and 1998. In addition to the praise that Moscoso and the FAFG have received within an ever-expanding global network of human rights advocates, Moscoso himself has been decorated with a range of public recognition, such as Time Magazine having named him one of the most pioneering researchers, thinkers, and human rights advocates of the 1990s. Throughout the description of his achievements, one thing remained constant: Moscoso’s dedication to innovative ways of thinking about forensics, history, memory, and human rights.

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Moscoso framed his presentation as an attempt to describe “the state of forensic archaeology in Guatemala.” In a field where practitioners often collaborate across geographic regions, continents, and nations, this desire to describe the specific characteristics of Guatemalan forensic archeological practices is a telling one. More telling still was Moscoso’s insertion of his own development as an archeologist as a part of this larger historical narrative. Like many other Guatemalan anthropologists, Moscoso’s first experiences in the field were heavily entangled with the study and excavation of Mayan artifacts. Guatemala, like many of its Central American neighbors, has a rich history – a history that is marked by the Spanish Conquista, the ensuing colonial period and independence movements, and a multitude of changes between rural and urban life and forms of agricultural subsistence that took place throughout these periods. As a result, archaeology was almost completely centered around the study of distant histories regarding indigenous culture.

Before 1992, archaeologists working in Guatemala were almost uniformly interested in the Mayan archaeological record and issues of patrimony and history linked to it. In 1992, things changed. Suddenly, archaeology was recognized as a way of documenting, understanding, and uncovering powerfully revealing evidence of the armed conflict that had been consuming Guatemala for more than thirty-six years; an armed conflict that despite its extreme violence had gone unnoticed by many Guatemalans. With much of the violence relegated to the rural regions of Guatemala, not seeing violence often led to misunderstanding it or simply not recognizing its powerful, even pervasive existence. For Moscoso, this change in intellectual focus was not merely constitutive of a general shift taking place among Guatemalan archaeologists and anthropologists. It was also indicative of a personal revelation and the beginning of Moscoso’s more nuanced understanding of Guatemala and its violent past.

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In an honest and revealing tone, Moscoso described an excavation that he conducted in 1992. The focus of the investigation was to study Mayan artifacts. What Moscoso found, however, were “modern remains.” Moscoso described the powerful impact that this experience had on him. In search of clues regarding a distant past, Moscoso found himself facing a more immediate history whose brutality could not be ignored. For many Guatemalans and the wider global community, the extreme violence experienced in rural regions of the country were often not recognized, ignored, or simply not seen. Moscoso was no different. However, unlike those who feared finding an explanation for the existence of so many modern remains laying just beneath the earth’s surface, Moscoso and other archaeologists decided to figure things out. In figuring things out, thousands of mass graves would eventually be unearthed, the details of bloody deaths would be teased out from the confinement of silence, and relatives of the disappeared began to become more active in their calls for justice.
The birth of forensic archaeology in Guatemala began in 1992 when Clyde Snow and other Latin American forensic anthropology teams like the EAAF, came to Guatemala to oversee the first exhumation and to train local archaeologists in forensic methods. Since 1992, the exhumation of mass graves and the application of forensic techniques and technologies to the study of grave human rights abuses have not ceased. According to Mocoso, there are between one and two thousand mass graves that have now been exhumed in his country. In fact, Guatemala is the country with the most exhumation mass graves in the world. More shocking is the fact that this number of exhumations is more than the total number of exhumations conducted around the world. In the shadow of these staggering statistics, only one exhumation case has reached the Guatemalan courts. As Moscoso poignantly demonstrated, the sheer quantity of evidence of mass human rights violations is paired with an unpaved, practically absent road to justice. This, Moscoso suggested, is a reflection of the state’s willingness to look at, understand, and make sense of “La Violencia.”
In order to understand this blocked road to justice, we must understand the Guatemalan experience with political violence. This, as Moscoso, illustrated in his presentation is contingent on understanding the country’s history. Before the colonial period, there were over twenty-two indigenous communities living in what is now Guatemala. These communities had their own territories and languages. The members of these communities also owned or controlled the land that allowed them to subsist. With the arrival of the Spanish, ideas about ownership was mixed with a more complex system of land control. The resulting system of land tenure, known as comunales, stayed constant even after independence. However, in the mid-1900s, liberal governments put an end to this system in order to reap the benefits of controlling land and the resulting export of agricultural goods. Simultaneously, European migrants were brought to Guatemala in order to start and oversee coffee plantations, production, and export.

The resulting need for land and labor prompted the first attempts to create laws that would regulate land and work. Under these laws, indigenous communities were required to work plantation land for at least one third of the year. Those who did not want to participate in this system were forced to work indefinitely in order to build highways and improve aspects of the country’s general infrastructure. As a result of this legislation, indigenous communities grew poorer. They had no control over their own lands, and they were obligated to work in an unofficial form of slavery. In the mid-twentieth century, indigenous communities reacted to this and led a peaceful revolution, known as the “Revolución de Octubre” which resulted in an agrarian reform that abolished forced labor. All non-cultivated lands went to the indigenous communities that had been cultivating them. At the same time the US staunchly supported the ag-industry and defended Cold War inspired politics. The result was the US’s backing of a counter-revolution. In 1954, the Guatemalan president was overthrown, and indigenous communities were forced to return their land to the new government. Finally, in the 1970s guerrilla movements fighting against this system began to gain momentum. The result of these developments and political intersections was almost four decades of armed conflict. As national and local governments, guerrilla fighters, and indigenous peasants were caught in this conflict, a long period of harrowing political violence ensued. As a consequence, an estimated 200,000 people were killed, 50,000 people were disappeared, and over 1 million were displaced.

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In light of this history, Moscoso’ experience unearthing “modern” remains was a moment of realization: The unknown past was not necessarily the one of hundreds or thousands of years ago. The past that needed to be revealed and studied was the more recent one, in which a wide variety of latent, political, social, and economic factors resulted in the massacre, abuse, and disappearance of thousands of Guatemalans. Moscoso’s insistence that the “state of Guatemalan forensic archaeology” must be understood within in broader understanding of the country’s history – of his own history – is a call for understanding the ways in which extreme forms of violence are permitted. More importantly, it is a call for understanding why a nation finds it so difficult to look back, to uncover suppressed stories, and to recognize a period of violence in which everyone was implicated, whether they were aware of it or not. For Moscoso, forensic archaeology in Guatemala is about looking back and moving forward. In order to move forward, however, archaeologists must actively participate in the excavation of the past. However, more importantly, they must continue to face the looming threat of political violence and look for new paths of bringing perpetrators to justice. With thousands of graves now opened, the struggle is to find ways in which the evidence that forensic archaeologists collect can be made public, disseminated, and brought into courts of law. The struggle is to give communities and individuals whose lives were almost erased completely a voice in which the recent past can be rewritten from their perspective.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Smell Map of NYC

This seems slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it's a concept that has been bandied about quite a bit in discussion about phenomenology and such. Following Ingold's reasoning, I think you could argue that a map like this isn't as visually biased as it first seems. We use each of our senses to orient the others. Smell is a particularly experiential sense, linked closely to memory. While we lack the ability to conveniently reproduce smells, we are often able to recall through close description the experience of them.

I believe that the Chicago Tribune also ran a similar feature a couple years before this as well. Note that the most prominent smell in Manhattan according to this map seems to be urine.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

forensic archaeology in Guatemala

Ontologies of Exhumation: a speaker series considering the ethics and philosophy of archaeological exhumation.

Fernando Moscoso Moller, founder of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team
Thursday 10th March, 4.10pm.
963 Schermehorn Ext.

The second speaker in this series is Fernando Moscoso Moller, who will be talking about his experiences carrying out forensic exhumations in Guatemala. We will be discussing the role of NGO’s, and thinking about the tensions between forensic practice and the need to attend to local sensibilities around death and exhumation. If you would like to join us the readings for the class can be found on Courseworks at the link below.

The ‘Ontologies of Exhumation’ speaker series is sponsored by the Council for Graduate Schools Project for Scholarly Integrity, the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Archaeology, Columbia University, and is running in conjunction with the ‘Archaeologies of Contemporary Conflict’ graduate seminar at Columbia.

Please contact Zoe Crossland for more information and for the readings (

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Egypt’s Antiquities Czar Quits: What’s next for Zahi Hawass?

The archaeology and Egyptology worlds are abuzz with questions, gossip, and rumor surrounding the resignation of Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Antiques Minister, Thursday in Cairo. Dr. Hawass is a man about whom it is easy to have mixed feelings. Everyone loves Indiana Jones, and Zahi is clearly his heir. He's the most well-known and easily identifiable Egyptian since Omar Sharif played Yuri Zhivago. This passionate Egyptian with the omnipresent hat has done more for Egyptology than anyone since Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone in the early 1800s. At the same time, he has been in office for 30+ years, has not trained a replacement, is very tight with Suzanne Mubarak, and prefers to be addressed as Pharaoh. And, oh yes, he misspoke repeatedly about the safety of Egypt’s antiquities, reassuring the world they were protected, when they weren’t.
What lies in the future for Zahi Hawass? As an Egyptian American, a student of archaeology, and a fan of the absurd and humorous possibilities of predicting the future fortune of others, I have assembled a list of potential options for Dr. Hawass.
  1. Becomes CAO (Chief Archaeological Officer) of the Discovery Channel and the best paid archaeologist in history.
  2. Heads new archaeological institute in Germany, backed by those nice folks who gave him a personal CT scanner for his mummies. His compensation is more than the average Egyptian wage of $2 a day.
  3. Becomes a tycoon by merging Stetson and Borsalino into his hat company. Corners the international explorer’s hat market with his $45 signature replica collectible model, currently available only at the King Tut Store.
  4. Becomes fabulously wealthy selling impossible to tell from the real thing reproductions of Egyptian art exclusively through Walmart.
  5. Goes into the antiquities business, opening successful shops in Geneva, Rabat and Shanghai.
  6. Takes a break from all the terrible events of 2011 with Hosni and Suzanne in Jordan.
  7. Sits at home in Heliopolis obsessively checking Facebook, waiting for the people of Egypt, or, perhaps, the Sphinx, to beg him to return to the job only he can do. It will be chaos without him.
  8. Consults Kim Kardashian about how he, too, can earn $10,000 per tweet, which he will use to safeguard Egypt’s antiquities.
  9. Is seen dining in LA with Lindsey Lohan in that cute white mummy dress she wore to court. Charlie Sheen stops by the table for a chat and introduces Zahi to his goddesses.
  10. Runs off with California babe archaeologist Dr. Kara Cooney after friending her on Facebook.
- Sylvia VT Calabrese