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Havana, a Vast Arqueological Site
An archeological excavation is not just a way of obtaining artifacts and other material remains; it is a scientific method for gathering information, moving towards knowledge and trying to rebuild the cultures of previous societies.

With mason picks in hand, archeologists work everyday to remove consecutive "stratigraphic" layers (studying archeological strata), through which they will identify the passage of time or the trail of human intervention. Their task is not a simple one because it involves physical and intellectual effort. This trade requires infinite hours of hard work from those who, sunk into the land, will "see" "in fragments of bone or ceramic" signs for drawing a historical conclusion, or at least its hypothetical formulation. The first 20 years of the City Historians Archeology Department have passed with this daily hard work. Founded on November 14, 1987, this institution is devoted to investigating the origins of the city of Havana, founded on 1519.

"We contribute with our research to explain how the city started and grew, where the first population settlements were, what were the adaptive characteristics made by the Spanish colonists on this space and how they did they exploit the environment where they lived," said Roger Arrazcaeta, who has been the director of the Archaeology Department for more than ten years.

Another objective of this scientific center has been to support building restoration. Numerous colonial constructions in Havana lack building plans or written architectural records. The archeological method allows for recording and backing up that history implicit in the walls of structures.

Arrazcaeta said that using stratigraphies so that we can "read" the constructive evolution of a structure from the roof to the subsoil, and in that way we can draw up a more complete vision of the city.

Due to its strategic position as the key to the Indies and as the place where fleets loaded with treasures gathered coming from the Americas on their return to Spain, the city of Havana was favored by official Spanish commerce, which at that time was minimal and controlled by the metropolis. In Cuba, and especially in Havana, there was a huge black market given the difficulties other colonies of the Spanish America had in obtaining supplies.

According to the researcher, these historical events have been established through material evidence that constantly appears in the citys subsoil, because Havana is a "vast archeological site."

Complex stratification

During the course of two decades of work, the team of specialists of the Department of Archeology has carried out excavations at different sites, including the San Francisco de Asís Church-Convent, Paulas Church and in buildings such as the homes of Pablo Pedroso, the Count of Villanueva and the Counts of Santovenia.

"We have observed that the archeological stratification of the city is quite complex. In Old Havana there is a great superimposition of buildings in the same sector or solar (densely populated urban dwelling)," said the director of the Archeology Department.

He noted that another curiosity was the discovery that many houses were built with materials excavated from the same places where they were built. Quarries were opened and then filled with garbage. This is why the stratigraphies are very rich and abundant in some of these sites and have a great depth.

"In these places, significant collections of ceramic and glass remnants are found that give a wide panorama of the types of containers used and the different origins and functions that pottery had in the city from the 16th to 19th century, as well as the wealth that existed in this context.

Cranes and flemings: indigenous plates Numerous animal bone remains appear in the archeological excavations of Old Havana. Their study is complemented with historical documentation. Information from both sources has allowed gaining an ever-supporting knowledge about many of the eating habits of people from Havana in previous centuries, as well as the introduction to the country of diverse species from Europe and America.

"Among the most representative were cows and pigs. Birds were also part of the diet of Havana residents; they even ate cranes, flemings, cocos, ibis, gallinuela, ducks and pigeons, indigenous animals that lived in the natural niche of Havana. On the other hand, birds such as turkeys, hens and domestic ducks were introduced on the Island," said zoologist-archeologist Osvaldo Jiménez.

The study of bones remains has also provided data in relation to the process of adaptation by foreign species to Havana and the national environment. For instance, it has been determined that the size of cattle that existed in Havana in the 16th century was larger than that of specimens introduced in the rest of the Antilles in that same epoch.

According to Jiménez, it is possible that these animals found an environment in Cuba that suited their needs due to the calcium provided by the pasture of limy soils, and the lack of natural predators and diseases that struck cattle in Europe.

Adaptation of Spanish people to the islands environment also led to an intense incorporation of sea resources within human consumption. "An abundant presence of the remains of fish and chelonians, such as turtles and caguamas, can be seen in almost all archeological sites in Havana. Likewise, there are remains of shells and eatable mollusk, including oysters, very common in the city from the 16th to the 19th century," said the archeologist.

A coastal city

Sub-aquatic and coastal archeology is also part of the research projects developed by the department. Its studies cannot be limited only to the inland of a city bordered by the sea to the north.

Among the most attractive research activities in this field is that focusing on coastal swimming pools along Havanas waterfront. These consist of basins dug out on coastal stretching from the Castillo de la Punta to Vedado, with the oldest dating back to the 18th century.

"They were built by slaves and prisoners. Some were incorporated by grand chalets. We have lithographies from the 19th century in which the luxury of these swimming houses can be seen. All of them were built with precious stones and were sites for dances and parties," said Alessandro López, a specialist on sub-aquatic archaeology of the department.

Other studies of the coast describe the workings of three series of swimming pools: those of San Rafael or Recreo (recreaton), which converge at Crespo Street; those of the Troops or Soldiers, related to Águila and Galiano Street; and that of the Champs d Elysse, related to Genio (Genie) Street. It seems that the latter was the most splendid given the facilities that were built there.

Swimming on the coast of Havana began to disappear with the construction of Havanas waterfront at the beginning of the 20th century.

López mentioned the exploration of an indigenous site in the area of Punta Macao, in Guanabo, as a project holding great expectations. "This is a settlement almost completely covered by the sea where we have found numerous objects of indigenous groups. These materials gathered on sea floor."

Enriching or refuting what is understood

In addition to the aboriginal sites, the historical patrimony of Cuba includes a number of cities and villages from the colonial times, estates, sugar mills and coffee plantations. To this should be added the enormous underwater potential: many ships submerged around the island of Cuba since the times the fleet came to our shores and were hit by hurricanes.

"To investigate more on this valuable cultural inheritance is a goal of ours, the people devoted to historical archaeology, using science to verify material evidence and the patrimonial documents so as to complement, enrich or refute existing information," Roger Arrazcaeta said.

"We also want to go deeper into studies such as the analysis of pottery by using non-destructive testing methods, with which we have made great advances. The creation of a catalog with all the types of pottery that were brought to Havana in the colonial times is also among our main objectives."

"As an archeologist, what is Havana for you?

"It is a rich, huge archeological site with much research still to be done and results sure to be found. As a Cuban, Im concerned with the state of the city.

"Despite of the efforts by the Cuban government and those of the Office of the Historian of Havana City to save such valuable patrimony, a great amount of resources is needed to rescue it. There is also a need for greater citizen awareness regarding how to take care of everything that is renovated."

"A lot is lost or is in danger of becoming lost due to the ages of the buildings. The resources needed for the renovation are provided mostly by we Cubans, even though Old Havana was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982," he concluded.


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