(c) Panoramic Terre Productions / Xavier Rambaud

Research and Study on Chilean Archaeology

Project BELSPO
Federal Science Policy Office


The project RASCAR
This Collective Project of Research aims at strengthening the exchanges of skills and sharing of the knowledge between three institutional partners grouped around a common problem: the study of the Prehispanic coastal communities of the Northern Chile, over a period which extends from 1000 to 1600 AD.

The choice of this theme finds its origin in a project led in 2016-2017 in the Royal Museums of Art and History of Brussels: Interdisciplinary Research on Andean Mummies (IRAM Project). It was dedicated to the research of the identity of the pre-Columbian mummies kept in the collections since the mid-19th century. One of the results of this research was that three of the seven bodies mummified as well as the archaeological material which is associated with them come from a coastal cemetery close to the present city of Arica situated in the valley of Azapa (the Northern Chile). One of the individuals is none other than the symbolic mummy which inspired Hergé to create Rascar Capac, in his albums "7 Crystal Balls" and "The temple of the Sun". These first investigations give the impulse necessary for the implementation of a project of bigger scale requiring the creation of an international network. This network will gather various institutional and scientific actors involved in the study of the coastal populations of the Northern Chile. This network aims at understanding better how these coastal populations lived, and to study the network of trading which they maintained with the nearby valleys but also at longer distance.

This institutional cooperation include the Royal Museums of Art and History (Belgium), the Museum of the Quai Branly (France), the University of Tarapacá of Chile (which also includes the Museum of San Miguel de Azapa de la Universidad de Tarapacá et le Laboratorio de Análisis e Investigaciones Arqueométricas del Instituto de Alta Investigación of Azapa). Each of its structures keep a large number of archaeological objects of this region of the Northern Chile and work on complementary themes.

The archaeological material as well as the laboratories of every institution, will allow to develop the collective reflection of this scientific cooperation. The contribution of the specific skills of the researchers will favor dynamic exchanges aiming at the construction of a project common to international scale. 

Thanks to the preliminary study led in Belgium on a part of the funeral artefacts and especially on the mummified bodies, it is already possible to propose at least three angles of approach:

- The first axis is connected to the ritual practices. The majority of the archaeological material - and it includes mummies - associated with these Chilean Prehispanic communities were discovered in funeral context. Indeed, only cemeteries situated along the coast were the object of archaeological excavations from the mid-20th century. The zone of settlement, situated in the surrounding valleys and along the coast, is probably under the modern constructions and was only partially documented until now by the archaeology. However, the funeral material is of a big variety and allows, thanks to its study, to approach other themes such as the economy of these communities.

- The second axis concerns economic activities. These include mainly the use of the available surrounding resources. Today, and always on basis of the archaeological material, we can see the predominant activity was the activity connected to fishing and hunting of sea animals. Harpoons, fishhooks, shaft, arrowheads, quiver, objects in balsa wood, paddles, etc., are present in great amount and give evidence of these activities. Nevertheless, although the hunting of marine fauna - such as the sea lions, cetaceous and big fishes - seems to have prevailed throughout the concerned period (1000-1600 AD), the agricultural and pastoral resources must not be neglected. Their presence is obvious, among others, by offerings of seeds, basketworks, weaving kit (spindle whorls, spindles, needles), of textiles weaved from wool of camelid, etc. The development of the isotopic searches should also allow to complete the archaeological results. From elements taken from mummified bodies (such as tooth and hair), it is today possible to determine the diet and the geographical origin of the deceased.

- The third axis is consequently the identification of inter-and intracommunity networks. This coastal population was not isolated and had contacts with more distant and close communities. This is the way we find, for example, ceramic and textiles made in Tihuanaco, situated several hundred kilometres away, on the lakeshore of Lake Titicaca. Also, we distinguish clear Inca influences in certain types of ceramic. These exchanges and outside influences are to be identified to have a clearer vision of the nature of the relations which were maintained by these populations with the rest of the Andean world and the other pre-Columbian cultures.

The Royal Museums of Art and History wish, by means of this networking, to value a part of their collections and to develop their expertise around a specific theme. It also wishes to create a sustainable synergy between various foreign actors to set up in fine and concretize an international research project, in particular by the return to work of promising archaeological excavations in still unexplored zones of the neighborhood of the city of Arica.

From the outset, the Museums supplie a directional frame to all the participants through three common themes arisen from the same problem. Concretely, on a duration of 3 years, we propose the organization of a workshop in Chile, a meeting in Paris, in the Quai Branly and the organization of a seminar and a workshop of conclusion in Brussels, to concretize this networking.

Royal Museums of Art and History, the Museum of the Quai Branly (France) and the University of Tarapacá of Chile (which also includes the Museum of San Miguel de Azapa de la Universidad de Tarapacá et le Laboratorio de Análisis e Investigaciones Arqueométricas del Instituto de Alta Investigación of Azapa)