Luis Jaime Castillo Butters
Photograph by Adam Sarck
Photograph by Jose Canziani
Birthplace: Lima, Peru
Current City: Washington, D.C.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
It is hard to say; I was VERY curious. I wanted to be many things and at the same time I was not sure of anything in particular. I loved to read, and thus I liked literature; I loved history, but that was a family thing; I liked to spend hours talking and discussing arcane subjects with my friends, and thus I thought I could be a good lawyer. I also wanted to change the world, make it better, particularly given the conditions of poverty and lack of equality in my country. It was not until I started my undergraduate training, in a very intense general studies program, that all my interests coalesced in the sciences, in the pursuit of answers to big questions about the past and the present. And then I found archaeology, which has a bit of everything: half sciences and half humanities, fieldwork and lab, computers and drawing boards. And finally I rediscovered the Moche of northern Peru, where my family comes from.
How did you get started in your field of work?
First from my mother, who was the first influence in the arts and the humanities, and then my country. In Peru, wherever you turn there are ruins, huacas and huacos, museums, artifacts. My professors at PUCP were the other big influence. I had great professors from many parts of the world, passionate about the research they were doing. Archaeologists, of course, but also philosophers, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and artists. I think that confronting their intellects became the most intense activity that could ignite a young mind.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?
I love what I do, and not many people can say that. But doing archaeology on the north coastst of Peru makes things easy. We are like children, playing in the sand, drawing, writing stories, and being outside in the sun. But that is not all. I think that everyone has to find a niche where they can make a difference, and doing seriously what we do makes a difference, transforms lives, makes the world a better place. Not everyone has to be a missionary or an environmentalist; it is OK to be a good archaeologist or whatever you choose, as long as you try your best. There are unpredictable outcomes in what we do, and in my country the past has become very much part of the present. It is front-page news and has made people proud and bettered their lives.
What's a normal day like for you?
There are not many normal days. Each one is different. When I am in the field the day starts early and finishes late, and in between there are visits to sites, climbing hills, driving in the desert, supervision excavations (regrettably I am too busy to dig myself), lecturing, and a lot of organizing, dealing with local authorities, and fundraising. In the off-season it is basically teaching, working in the lab with my research collaborators and colleagues, and a lot of writing. Lately I have been doing an archaeology TV show for the Peruvian PBS, and that takes a lot of time.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
I admire people that try their best in whatever they do, even if they fail, but try again and learn to live with their limitations but continue pushing forward. I don't admire people that are flawless or that have superpowers. For them things are easy. I think that the real heroes are complex, human, essentially contradictory, unsatisfied but driven. These qualities you find in the biggest scientist, the statesmen and stateswomen, the humanitarians, the entrepreneurs, but also in the peasants of San Jose de Moro, in the fathers and mothers of real families that have it tough. I think we are surrounded by these kinds of people, and if we could learn the details of their lives, share their struggles, if we could live their lives for a day, we would recognize real heroes.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
Years ago, when I started in San Jose de Moro with Chris Donnan, my professor from UCLA, we found a huge chamber tomb, 20 feet into the ground. The excavation demonstrated that it belonged to a female, the first priestess of Moro, contrary to what everyone believed then. That was the turning point in my life in the field. Afterward we found many more burials, and even ten tombs as large as that one, but it was the first one that really made a difference.
The most challenging experience has been working with the community in San Jose de Moro and learning about the real world with them. We work under the Sustainable Preservation Initiative logic, where to preserve the site we have to change the lives of the local people and create opportunities for their development on the basis of the potential of the archaeological site. SPI gave us their first large grant, and since then a lot of my time is devoted to this end, to foster artisans that produce the best replicas of Moche ceramics in the world, to train young kids in the crafts that will support their families, and to organize the community and help them in their needs. But it is not an easy thing to do. Regrettably, immediate need makes long-term programs a removed thing, so jointly we have to address present and future needs and opportunities. A lot of people stand in the way, but also a lot are willing to take the challenge.
What are your other passions?
Outside of archaeology, my other passion is that I collect Playmobil toys. I have been doing it for many years now, and I really do not know why, besides the fact that these toys are wonderful artifacts. I am really passionate about them, and I don't care much for things, beyond their utility, but for some reason I have narrowed my interest to these toys. My kids also love them, or so they say to please their dad, so it has been a way to connect with them. Cooking comes second, and consequently eating. I only know how to do Peruvian dishes, but this is already a lot because Peruvian food is one of the richest and most complex in the world.
What do you do in your free time?
My family, my wife Monica, and my three kids, Alonso, Marco, and Luis Jaime—they own my weekends. I cook for them and my friends. I love to go away with my wife. I read when I can find time, comic books if they are available, and lately I am glued to my iPad, where I get everything. I am even trying to use it in the field.
If you could have people do one thing to support archaeology, what would it be?
I think that supporting institutions that care for the past, that help preserve the cultural patrimony that has survived until now, is quite important. Caring for our ancestors, at a world scale, in a way is recognizing that we are but one piece of a large chain, and soon we will be ancestors to the next generations. Caring for the voiceless, nonrenewable legacy of our ancestors is congruent and complementary with caring for present societies and the environment. Thus organizations like National Geographic, the AIA, or the WMF are worth supporting. I think that it is even better if we can preserve our past and at the same time contribute to the well-being of people in the present. This is what SPI is trying to do in Peru and other parts of the world. If people make a living "with" the sites, with the legacy and not of it, then they will be the first line of defense of this voiceless patrimony of humanity, and their pride and identity will grow from the roots up.
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Yes, it's yielded human remains—including five females who may have been ritually sacrificed. But it's the signs of life that make a half-excavated Peruvian pyramid of the Moche culture stand out, archaeologists say.
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In Their Words
I think that everyone has to find a niche where they can make a difference, and doing seriously what we do makes a difference, transforms lives, makes the world a better place.
Luis Jaime Castillo
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