July 17, 2018
Report from the Second and Third Weeks of Excavation at the UNC Archaeology and Bioarchaeology Field School in Peru
This is the second in a series of three reports on the excavations currently being
conducted by the UNC Archaeology and Bioarchaeology Field School in Peru.
The first report can be found here:
For the first week of the UNC field school program on Peru’s North Coast Moche Valley, we performed excavations at Pampa la Cruz, an ocean-side settlement occupied for several thousand years by various North Coast cultures, most notably the Moche (~100-800 AD) and the Chimu (~1000-1470 AD). For the second and third weeks, we have been excavating at a different site located about five minutes from Pampa la Cruz; Jose Olaya.
Jose Olaya is interestingly enough located inside the grounds of a local elementary and middle school. While we were excavating, there were kids playing soccer or doing laps for gym class about fifty feet away in the court next to the archaeological site. During recess, they would all come over and excitedly point at the uncovered skeletons and pots, ask Gabriel and his graduate students questions, and even try to communicate with us in surprisingly good English. The only downside is that there were a few close calls were a ball almost fell into our trenches and bowled into a burial or pot, and some of the smaller children once decided to jump around in one of Dr. Billman’s test pits. Besides that, the kids have all been great.
The excavation process at Jose Olaya was not nearly as far along as it was at Pampa la Cruz when we first arrived – in fact, it had not started at all. All that was visible on the morning of July 2nd was a nondescript dusty field with a section of it squared off by ropes. So, unlike Pampa la Cruz, we were not going to be immediately finding anything – we had to dig down to the first layer of occupation first. The first layer at this site is Moche phase, and is located directly underneath the surface soil, only a few inches down. As a result it is badly disturbed and there is little of it left besides broken plaster floors and some potsherds. Despite our poor chances, we did find several complete spondylus shells, part of a spondylus shell necklace, and a few sherds of Moche fine line decorative pottery. A significant amount of modern trash and even a few colonial era potsherds were also mixed in with the Moche artifacts. Overall, this part of the excavations mostly involved moving dirt with a trowel, moving dirt with a shovel, and moving dirt with a brush. As we were informed by our supervisors, this was closer to the “real archaeology” experience than last week Pampa la Cruz, which was truly spoiling us with what we were finding.
After several days of sifting through backdirt to collect data about subsistence and sherd concentrations, moving dirt with a wheelbarrow, and other unexciting (but important) tasks we broke through to the Salinar era occupation. Salinar refers to a ceramic phase or an archaeological culture that makes up the earlier of the two pre-Moche and post-Cupisnique periods/groups on the North Coast, with the other, later phase being Gallinazo. One of the main differences between them is that there is evidence of an emerging elite class at Gallinazo sites, whereas at Salinar sites there does not seem to be much social stratification.
Below the Moche plaster floor is where we really started to find things. Although the main occupation is Salinar, we did find features, artifacts, and burials from both the Moche and Gallinazo phases mixed in, which comes as a result of later peoples digging down into older occupations to bury their dead. The find that involved the greatest range of emotions for me was a Moche adobe brick coffin that was found early on and speculated to have a complete Moche burial inside of it. Gabriel had us draw names from a hat to pick who would be lucky enough to dig it and open it, and I was one of the two winners. This was the high end of the emotional range. The low end of the emotional range came next when we opened up the coffin and saw that it had been completely looted except for a single piece of some kind of copper artifact. It was disappointing, but you aren’t a real archaeologist until the looters ruin your day at least one time, so I was glad I got to experience it.
Luckily, there was plenty more at the site that was not looted. A few days after the coffin incident I found a child buried with a broken painted pot over his head, which one of Gabriel’s graduate students, Antonio, explained was a common Salinar custom at the site, although to my knowledge it is unknown why exactly this was done. Two of the local Peruvian workers hired to help dig the site and I also uncovered a large decorated white on red Salinar pot which looked similar to the broken pot on top of the child’s head. Most of my time, however, has not been spent on pots, but rather on burials. Every single day here we have uncovered at least two new ancient skeletons in varying condition and from various time periods, and most of them have some form of grave goods. One skeleton, a teenager by the size of the bones and the observation that the growth plates had yet to fuse, had two large copper fishhooks and a stone fishing net weight buried near his ribcage. Several skeletons were buried with beautiful carved spindle whorls near their heads, and one other skeleton was accompanied by a miniature stone mace head. Many of the skeletons had pots of various types buried with them as well – some pots were simple utilitarian pieces, while others were high quality sculpture-like pieces with owl-face designs. My own favorite find was a Gallinazo phase pot with a finely sculpted “rubber-duck” face on it. Thanks to Gabriel, I have been given permission to provide a photo of it:
Besides these finds, we have also dug up several enormous storage pots, various copper jewelry, remnants of textiles, muscle tissue still on the bone (thanks to the unusually good preservation of the arid North Coast), bone sewing tools, and bone beads.
On the weekend of the third week, Dr. Billman and Dr. Gagnon took us to the middle part of the Moche valley to tour two archaeological sites that tourists do not see: Cuidad de Dios and Huaca Manacucho. Cuidad de Dios, the original site at which this very field school was held, was one of the main outposts of the Southern Moche State in the Middle Valley. It consists of several large elite compounds built on a series of ridges overlooking the farmland below. The site is hard to detect now, with much of the architecture in shambles, except for the massive
concentrations of potsherds on the ground – undecorated sherds are almost as common as rocks. The elites in charge here seem to have had direct connections with the capital at Huacas de Moche, as previous excavations have unearthed artifacts manufactured at the capital and given or traded to the lords of Cuidad de Dios.
The second site, Huaca Manacucho, is a 4,000 year old adobe brick temple mound, the first of its kind in the valley. Reaching it requires a long walk through a few miles of rural Peruvian farmland, but given how beautiful the middle valley is, the walk is hardly noticeable and most definitely worth it. This Huaca is much smaller than the two great temples at Huacas de Moche, but it makes up for it with a far deeper sense of antiquity. The temple is climbable, and the view at the top is unforgettable. Look down and you see adobe bricks made around 2,000 BC, some with the maker’s fingerprints visibly impressed into them. Look behind you and you see the remnants of a large ceremonial precinct of stone buildings backed by part of the Andean “foothills” (which are in fact mountains as large or larger than North Carolina’s Appalachians). Look in front of you and you see the expanse of the Middle Valley, covered in fields of sugarcane, pineapple, and various other crops and cut by the Moche river, which although not impressive at the moment has hallowed out a precipitous ravine during El Nino flooding events.
These two archaeological sites embody, along with the commitment to authenticity I discussed in the last post, another critically important piece of a good archaeological project –local collaboration. At Cuidad de Dios the local rural community agreed to help protect the site from looters outside of the field season in exchange for monetary aid from the archaeological program to help develop their town – paving a road, building a school, acquiring a potable water system, etc. The locals hope to build a small site museum or information center nearby to move towards making the site a known stop for travelers. Nobody has done an archaeological project focusing on Huaca Manacucho yet (somebody really should!), but the locals have expressed serious interest in turning it into a more accessible destination, and it certainly would draw people if it were more well-known and accompanied by a small, high quality tour or museum of some sort.
Besides just the rich material findings at Jose Olaya and the sightseeing tours, I think this field school is a good way to learn what a well-run archaeological project looks like and I would recommend it to any student who wants firsthand experience with that.