Memories of the Mummy

Sounds a bit like a script for a superfreaky porn flick: idol with breasts on its head; idol with breast on its belly; tube or pipe with incised decoration. But the really obscene thing about the legacy of Bolivia's archeological past is the fact that the civilizations themselves have disappeared.

We are woefully uninformed about those civilizations. "South American culture and history are so important," says William Urbizu, assistant director of the Miami-Dade public library system and spearhead of Sacred Traditions of Lost Civilizations: Legacies of Bolivia's Archaeological Past. "But people in the United States aren't aware of that the way they are of European history."

Our becoming more aware can be challenging in part owing to the reluctance of governments south of here to share their wealth of artifacts. It's not simply a proprietary issue. It's tough enough to get through Bolivian customs with nothing more than a carry-on bag; just try hooking up transportation for 700-year-old corpses and priceless art. "Bolivia has a vast wealth of treasures," notes Urbizu, "but they had to be talked into this. That took the archaeologist a year and a half. It actually required the signature of the president of Bolivia. But think about it: How often do you see mummies in Miami? Rarely, if ever."

Archaeologist David M. Pereira Herrera and associates at the Anthropological and Archaeological Museum of the University of San Simón in Cochamba, Bolivia, dug through the red tape and grabbed the prize: Beginning Saturday, 4000 years of Bolivian history goes on display in the largest exhibition ever at the Miami-Dade main library. Beyond the compelling fetal-position mummies, Urbizu and company will fill the library's first floor with the golden oldies -- prehistoric fossils such as a mastodon jawbone, ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and sculpture. The second floor will stage more modern representations of the subject matter.

Bigger than Texas and California combined, Bolivia encompasses a variety of terrains and climates, from the snow-capped Andes to its Amazonian jungles. In the highlands known as the Altiplano, human culture began at least 4000 years ago, according to carbon dating. "There were five or six civilizations," Urbizu explains, "and in their times they were successful. They thrived and were advanced in many ways. The European invasions wiped out most of these indigenous people. There were wars, diseases, famines, natural disasters, catastrophes. The survivors became nomadic. Today you see in the faces of some of the Bolivian people the Indian features, the indigenous features. But they don't have the identity [of a separate civilization]."

Bolivia's history, of course, is complex. The early cultures thriving there were eventually dominated by the Incas, who bossed around until 1532. The Spaniards then arrived and took over. As historically important as the resultant societies are, plenty went on before the interloping. The fragments that remain and have made it to Miami are haunting as they dance the fine line between beauty and horror. Beyond the resigned (rather than stricken) expressions on the mummies' faces, you can see into the long gone by imagining what went into crafting an idol "with coffee-bean eyes" from black basalt in the year 1200 B.C.

In addition to the bounty of unearthed objects, the exhibition will include lectures Saturday at 2:00 p.m. by Pereira and Bolivian novelist Nestor Taboada Teran, a performance by the 30-member Bolivia Magica Folkloric Troupe, and "Bolivia:From the Amazon to the Andes," a collection of photographs by Rolly Arauco Arteaga.

Momentous in every sense, the exhibition runs through mid-December and includes numerous ancillary events. "And the best thing," Urbizu adds, "is that it's all free." Priceless, too.

-- Greg Baker

"Sacred Traditions of Lost Civilizations: Legacies of Bolivia's Archaeological Past" and "Bolivia:From the Amazon to the Andes" begin Saturday, October 3, and run through December 15 at the Miami-Dade Main Library, 101 W Flagler St. Admission is free. Call 305-375-2665 for hours.

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Greg Baker