By Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda
Lima, Jun 10 (EFE).- The recent discovery of Lima’s oldest cemetery, a burial ground that dates back to the 16th century and was in use until the late 1800s, is allowing archaeologists to shine fresh light on life in that former capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
The cemetery belonged to the Real de San Andres hospital, a medical facility that was located in the heart of Lima’s historical center and the oldest in all of South America.
“Initially, it was a hospital for Spaniards and the children of Spaniards, what we call criollos … but there was also a separate hospital for Indians and pardos or blacks,” the head of the archaeological team of the Municipality of Lima, Hector Walde, told Efe.
Just a few steps away, his team of workers were diligently carrying out the task of recovering the 40 skeletal remains – both men and women – discovered to date.
The dig is effectively the equivalent of reading a book in reverse chronological order, with its topmost level corresponding to the 19th century and deeper levels containing remains that date back to the 16th century.
“We need to keep moving down through levels of burials until arriving at the 16th-century, foundational, level,” Walde said.
On one side of the excavation wall, a crypt holding the remains of some of the most affluent members of colonial society is held erect by wooden pillars, a sign that in death, as in life, social status is the determinant factor.
By contrast, other bodies were wrapped and placed one on top of another with no identifying tombstone or inscription.
Although identifying those corpses can be a daunting task, archaeologists will look to link the remains with information gleaned from hospital records, such as why a patient was hospitalized.
In 1782, patients at that hospital were moved to another more modern medical facility and the enormous building covering several city blocks was turned into a home for abandoned children and orphans. Later, in the 20th century, it was made into a school that operated until 2007.
The former cemetery site became a small recreational area, where the students played unawares over the burial places of deceased Limeños.
After the current archaeological work is completed, the manager of the Municipal Historical Center Recovery Program, Luis Martin Bogdanovich, said the building will be converted into a place for learning “arts and trades.”
Some remains “are going to have to be covered and others will be exposed,” with glass covers and properly climatized “so they endure over time.”
Bogdanovich said the archaeological work is helping to shine light on an overshadowed part of Peruvian history.
“Often in Peru, we think the only archaeological heritage that exists is pre-Columbian, but we have a very impressive viceregal and republican past,” he said. EFE