A chamber found under the Plaza San Francisco during works on a subway station in Quito Ecuador.

Subway Station or Cultural Preservation? Development Clashes with Patrimony at a World Heritage Site

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The city of Quito, Ecuador is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site due to having the best-preserved and extensive historic centers in Latin America. But there is another, much older story below the pavement of the old city, one that local activist groups fear may be in danger as the development of a subway system pushes on.

The colonial city of Quito was founded by the Spanish in 1534. Yet the Spanish were building on top of an important Inca and Pre-Inca site. Locals often say the first known settlers were the Kitu (Quitu) people, who are believed to have lived in the area since as far back as 2000 BC. Remains of Pre-Inca cultures have largely been recognized in and around Quito through their deep underground tombs and ruins of their settlements or fortresses.

Ruins at the Rumipamba archaeological site in Quito, Ecuador.

Ruins at the Rumipamba archaeological site in Quito, Ecuador. (Gustavo Valladares/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The rich heritage of the city means that any construction work done, especially in or around the historic center (which has held ceremonial significance since Pre-Colonial times), should take its special situation into consideration. Thus, it was to be expected that when archaeological features were encountered while working on the subway station at the San Francisco Plaza in 2016 the city stopped work so archaeologists could assess the site. Surveys were completed , test pits were dug, and the results of the analysis were posted soon after. The result? Well, that depends on who you speak with…

The reports presented on the Metro Quito website show the results of the rescue project completed by archaeologists approved of by the INPC (the National Institute for Cultural Heritage). They say that anomalies were encountered in the area that would be directly impacted by the work, including stairs, walls, canals, circular and semi-circular chambers or vaults, and walls. Ceramics which have been radio carbon dated to colonial and Pre-Inca times were found as well as textiles, floral and faunal remains, and middens. Some human remains were also noted (see pages 45-46 of this pdf report) in niches of an area alongside a circular chamber.

Infant bones were found in this niche.

Infant bones were found in this niche. ( Metro Quito )

The existence of human remains as well as the nature of the circular and semi-circular chambers has been likened to Integration period tombs excavated in the La Florida site of Quito. Those tombs have been dated to 220-640 AD and contained human remains as well as a wealth of grave goods. The La Florida artifacts and archaeological features have been enhanced through the creation of an on-site museum.

A double-chambered tomb from above at the La Florida museum in Quito, Ecuador.
“Chamber 3” found under the Plaza San Francisco had a figure-8 like form.

Top: A double-chambered tomb from above at the La Florida museum in Quito, Ecuador. ( Museo de Sitio La Florida ) Bottom: “Chamber 3” found under the Plaza San Francisco had a figure-8 like form. ( Metro Quito )

The rescue dig covered 13.89% of the 3360m 2 that makes up the San Francisco Plaza metro station. The report published in October 2016 recommended that at least 30% of the archaeological site be saved. The report’s authors suggested that unique elements such as canals and floors be removed and put on exhibition at an on-site museum over the Plaza San Francisco. They also suggested that all construction work at the site be monitored.

A 2016 report on the analysis of the San Francisco Plaza suggests that an on-site museum be created to preserve some of the archaeological features to increase cultural awareness and value.

A 2016 report on the analysis of the San Francisco Plaza suggests that an on-site museum be created to preserve some of the archaeological features to increase cultural awareness and value. ( Metro Quito )

However, there is an issue here – individuals have begun to protest that these recommendations are 1) not being completed and 2) not enough. As with most situations where development and cultural preservation clash, there is an ongoing debate. It has been argued that the new subway being added to counter the gridlocked streets of Ecuador’s capital is not taking its cultural importance into account – in fact, activists are making it clear they see a huge infraction taking place against Quito’s cultural heritage and they are worried for other archaeological sites in the area as well.

A movement began to protest the apparent destruction of cultural relics in the Plaza San Francisco on September 18, 2016. The most well-known of the activists is Diego F. Velasco Andrade, a respected Ecuadorian architect who specializes in heritage sites. Velasco Andrade and others have held numerous talks and posted several videos to inform the public of the situation in the Plaza San Francisco and they have even taken the case to court to try to detain the construction of the subway station while more preservation work could be completed. However, work on the subway has continued and shouts of corruption” and laments of “ injustice” have fallen mostly on deaf ears.

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