1913 was a year in which Europe was on the verge of disaster. Within a few years bombs would rain down over the battlefields of France and Belgium, and millions of young men would be trapped in the muddy trenches of The Great War – the war meant to “end all wars.”

Far from the the impending carnage of the Western Front, German ethonologist Konrad Theodor Preuss that same year navigated the waters of the Magdalena River, head- ing south to explore the foothills of the Huila and Caqueta departments. Born in the Prussian city of Kaliningrad (today a Russian enclave nestled between Poland and Lithuania), Preuss was a middle-aged man by the time he stepped foot in the Forest of the Gods, what would become one of the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th century.

The ‘Forest of the Gods’ was home to over 400 heavy stone statues, carved by an ancestral and mystical peoples, later categorized by archeologists and anthropologists as the Cultura agustiniana, due to their proximity to the remote community of San Agustín, Huila. Konrad Preuss’ exhaustive study of the aban- doned spiritual stones, erected along terraces of a long-vanished culture, led to the greater studies of the region, more discoveries, and the founding of anthropological research in Colombia.

Today, the archeological park of San Agustin forms part of three other parks operated and supervised by the National Institute for Anthropology and History, the ICANH. As the state’s entity in charge of preserving patrimony and heritage, the ICANH’s Director General, Fabian Sanabria, decided that a fitting tribute to the 100 years of Preuss’ discovery of the stone Gods and culture would be welcomed by many countrymen, who until recently, could never imagine a walk in the Forest of the Gods, given decades of security issues in the southern departments of his native Colombia.

The Presidency and Ministry of Culture backed Sanabria’s proposal to bring just 20 statues, which had already been moved from their original locations when the Archeological Park was granted protection status under Law 101 in 1931.

Other statues, which were recovered from being used as stumps on local farms, were also taken into consideration to be exhibited in a landmark exhibition at the country’s National Museum, under the title, The Return of the Gods. But the Gods never returned. Instead, Sanabria found himself on the frontline of a vociferous and nasty feud over the state’s right in showing its patrimony, versus a minority of archeologically-inspired Ayatollas wanting to block the movement of the 2,000 year-old statues.

“When I tell any person from around the world what happened in San Agustín and how we were looking after our patrimony, they thought I was telling a joke. This saddened me very much.”

The stone statues of San Agustin.
The stone statues of San Agustin at the heart of controversy.

When Fabian Sanabria was appointed in 2011 director of the governing body for preserving state patrimony, he set out to meet the San Agustin community, talk with the mayor and explain the curatorial process by which ICANH would celebrate the Cultura Agustiniana centenary. “If there was something we did do, it was to inform through every means possibly, what this exhibition was about. We have everything documented to the millimetre” states this investigator who earned his doctorate in Sociology from Paris’ École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

The ICANH’s history is intricately tied to San Agustin. As one of three archeological parks under its charter, (Teyuna of the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada and the burial sites of Tierra Dentro in Cauca, the others), they also form part of UNESCO’s extensive list of World Heritage Sites. “The statues of San Agustín don’t belong to San Agustín,” remarks an emphatic Sanabria. “They don’t even belong to Colombia. They belong to humanity.”

After meeting with the departmental powers-that-be back in 2011, Sanabria was convinced that Colombians would relish in seeing their Gods exhibited in a serene space. But a cocktail of “cultural misinformation” and political vote rigging stumped the ceremonial process. “If the ICANH didn’t exist, this patrimony would be totally and utterly unutilized,” believes Sanabria.

Passionate about the accomplishments of Preuss in opening the floodgates to ethnological investigations in Colombia, Sanabria refutes adamantly claims that the stone deities were head- ing to Bogotá, never to return. A minority of skeptics point to an incident in 1932, when Pruess, after concluding his landmark research in San Agustin, embarked several stone relics to his native Germany, where they continue to be housed – and shown – at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.

For Sanabria, the stalled exhibition at the National Museum has had a pos- itive lining, and an effect on bringing to light the need to appreciate heritage sites. Having embarked on an ambitious restoration of the park’s infrastructure, from fixing terraces to walkways, the ICANH calculates that 60 percent of visitors every year to San Agustín are foreigners and the remaining 40 percent Colombians. Of that 40 percent only 10 percent are Huileneses. Sanabria puts a question on the table: “Of the inhabitants of San Agustin who live next to park, how many have ever really entered?”.

With his extensive résumé in social sciences, Sanabria believes that the “contradictions” surrounding the centenary route of the stone Gods, put front row and center an appreciation for ancient structures and places. “The most pathetic way of saying one is a defender of pat- rimony is to leave things unearthed and unprotected. There’s a double morality to the debate. By leaving things aban- doned, guaqueros (tomb and artifact robbers) have their way.”

While overseeing three of this country’s most pristine and enigmatic heritage sites, Sanabria wants to “turn the page” on the Agustine statues debate. With a fleet of archeologists, anthropologists, and botanists, the state’s institute is looking towards incorporating a massive and mysterious part of Colombia into its cherished parks list: the Chiribiquete. Covering three million hectacres of rainforest between the Caquetá, Guaviare and Vaupés departments, the steep rock formations and caves of the Chiribiquete are home to tens of thou- sands of ancient pictograms, painted in red achote dye by the tribesmen of an ancient civilization which ruled this outcrop of Guiana Shield sometime between 450 AD to 1450 AD.

The ICANH also plans to release for the International Book Fair, the first ever Colombian printed book of the plate engravings elaborated during the Royal Botanical Expedition to New Granada (1783-1816) and under supervision of Spanish priest José Celestino Mutis.

Professor Sanabria believes that in order to preserve Colombia’s patrimony, barriers of mistrust must be broken down between the central parts of the country and the southern regions. A mistrust rooted in historical debts and political strife. “Feudalism and clien- telism form part of the political structure of this nation,” states Sanabria. “Unfortunately it has also penetrated our culture.”

For the ICANH’s director, the debate over the rightful exhibition of the stone deities, comes down to an “abstraction” of what a “community” really stands for, as well as the belligerent stance of no more than 500 people. “In Colombia we have a surplus of democracy,” states Fabian.

The proof of the enormous respect the ICANH has towards the communities where it works to preserve patri- mony is best evidenced by the fact that when a few shouted ‘No!’ – the 500 compared with the 20,000 of the town – the entity assimilated the decision, but insisted that the celebration would continue at the National Museum, replacing the ancient stone sculptures with imposing, Black and White photographs. The exhibition, launched under a different name, The Silence of the Gods, has been a resounding success.

“What is so ironic of this lamentable episode is that while we couldn’t bring 20 of the 400 statues to Bogotá, the best pieces of the Gold Museum were being shown at the British Museum,” states Sanabria in reference to last November’s exhibition in London of Beyond El Dorado: Power and gold in ancient Colombia.

The collective responsibility of the nation’s patrimony is one of the ensigns of Dr.Sanabria and his job at the helm of the ICANH. Having come through one of the most contentious cultural debates in recent years unscathed, his thoughts turn from stone to narrative. As the published author of several works of fiction, the professor turned administrator understands all too well, that hard realities make for literary inspiration. And archeology, the study of that which once existed, which drives so many “spiritual” interests, (as well as a few demons of intolerance), is anything but a dead end field of study. In Colombia, when talking of Gods, it’s a passionate subject, towering over green fields and with a cold hard gaze.