Paper No. 145-6
Presentation Time: 9:20 AM
‘BUT IS IT ART?’: THE IMPORTANCE OF TEPHRA IN CHAITEN, CHILE IN UNDERSTANDING THE LONG-TERM EXPERIENCE OF THE LIVED HUMAN LANDSCAPE
Despite the absence of tephra as an easy stratigraphic marker for eruption events within the Vilcun rock art cave where I am PI of a transdisciplinary project in Chaiten (NW Patagonian Chile), tephra is incredibly important in the overall understanding of the Chaiten landscape and how it has been shaped by volcanism during human occupation. In the cave excavations, we found no tephra lenses but did find small amounts of artifactual obsidian. We also found one enigmatic piece of pumice that is carved with a design similar to that found on the rock art walls. ‘But is it art?’, as the refrain queries. Friable and easily marked, tephra does seem to have been used in other pre-Columbian contexts as a medium for small scale, informal sculptures. The designation of ‘art’ and its meaning is tantalizing and important but in the larger context, what is significant is that the palm-sized piece of pumice was deliberately brought into the cave and added to the assemblage of shell midden refuse and excised and painted prehistoric designs.
The tephrochronology study by Alloway et al. (2017) details how the rhyolitic eruption that surprised residents in 2008 was preceded by roughly 18,000 years of continuous but intermittent eruptions. The presence of the pumice, the obsidian pieces, and this overall stratigraphic record of tephra from the Vilcun caves indicate that Chaiten has been an active participant and agent in the lived landscape for the entire span of human use of the area and will continue to be so. The larger understanding of tephra and volcanic materials has ramifications not only for how we perceive the past but also for how contemporary residents perceive the ongoing resettlement of their community and future risks from Chaiten eruption events.