a ceramic ocarina made by the Tairona people

Tales of ancient treasures lured looters to Colombia's 'Lost City'

When looters targeted Teyuna, ancient capital of the Tairona people, archaeologists scrambled to save this repository of Colombia’s past.

A ceramic ocarina made by the Tairona people. Metropolitan Museum, New York
ALBUM

In 1976 a group of Colombian archaeologists and their guides embarked on a grueling mission to save and ancient site from looters. Swinging machetes, they inched their way over the thick, jungled foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta near Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

The area had once been inhabited by the Tairona, a pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the centuries before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Their remarkable, interconnected settlements were being slowly rediscovered, excavated, documented, and studied. Days into the trek, the archaeologists, all members of Colombia’s Institute of Anthropology, were feeling the strain. The long hike through the dense jungle was exacerbated by the searing heat, torrential rain, and biting insects. (See the facial reconstruction of an ancient queen.)

Their mission was urgent: Authorities had been tipped off that a major archaeological site had been found by huaqueros, archaeological looters. Items from the site had already begun appearing on the antiquities black market. The team needed to bring the site under state control before more damage was done to the country’s heritage.

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