Lake Titicaca museum

Plans backed by UNESCO are advancing in Bolivia to create a €8.5million underwater museum beneath Lake Titicaca. It will house some of the 20,000 objects retrieved from 20 submerged ritual sites, prehistoric ports and drowned villages, that have come to light in the past few years.

Speaking at the recent launch of the project, Bolivian culture minister Wilma Alanoca said: 'It will be both a tourist complex and a centre for archaeological, geological and biological research, which will make it the only one in the world.'

Archaeological excavations have been conducted by Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), led by Christophe Delaere, in collaboration with the Bolivian Minister of Culture.Last year archaeologists, from both Bolivia and Europe, uncovered the largest find of 10,000 pieces, including bone artefacts and kitchen utensils. The artefacts date from the pre-Tiwanaku period (AD 300–1150), which is thought to be the oldest culture in the Americas, to the Inca period (AD 1400–1532).

The lake, which is shared with Peru, was sacred to the Incas, particularly the Isola del Sol, near Copacabana, where Manco Capac, the son of the Sun God, and his wife Mama Ocllo, emerged to found the city of Cuzco. The population around the lake was far greater during the Inca period than it is today.

In late 2013 stone pumas and gold leaf fragments hammered into anthropomorphic forms were found off the island at around seven metres deep. 'The pieces have incredible historical value, because they're the first pieces of gold we discovered,' said Delaere. The discovery led to a three-year exploration programme, and the ratification by Bolivia of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

'The real problem with underwater archaeology is that nobody can go to see it,' says UNESCO's Paris-based Ulrike Guerin, whose responsibilities for the organisation's marine archaeology include the proposed underwater museum off Alexandria, Egypt.

'It is important that the local population is really involved,' explains Guerin. 'All the communities around the lake are taking an interest in the project.' The 3200-square mile (8300-sq km) freshwater lake is 3810 metres above sea level, and reaches depths of around 1000 metres. For many decades archaeologists, including the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, have been interested in what it holds.

Its water levels have risen and fallen over the centuries and, besides the build-up of silt from the rivers that feed the lake, the cold waters have protected the archaeological evidence from the corrosive effects of sunlight and oxygen. There are about two months a year when conditions are suitable for exploration, which is expected to continue for at least a decade.

The museum will be sited at San Pedro de Tiquina, just to the south of Copacabana, near the spiritual and political centre of Tiwanaku culture. Part of the complex will be built on land, and a second building with a glass bottom will be half-submerged in the lake.
Roger Williams