July 31, 2018
Report from the Final Week of Excavation at the UNC Archaeology and Bioarchaeology Field School in Peru
This is the third in a series of three reports on the excavations being
conducted by the UNC Archaeology and Bioarchaeology Field School in Peru.
The second report can be found here:
Now that UNC’s archaeology and bioarchaeology field school in Peru has officially concluded, I would like to finish this series of reports by offering some last reflections on the program and by giving some advice that may be useful for other students planning to attend a field school, whether in Peru or elsewhere. First, however, I will briefly detail what we did in the last week, which was just as eventful as the previous weeks.
As with the majority of our earlier time, for the last week we were excavating at Jose Olaya, a site located on the grounds of one of Huanchaco’s middle and elementary schools. At this point we were about six or seven feet down into ground from our starting point, which put us in the mixed Gallinazo/Salinar layer. As I have stated before, this layer was extremely rich. Although we were most of the way through it, on the first day alone I worked on two Gallinazo burials, the first including a pot with the “stirrup-spout” shape that was most prominently used by the Moche, and a second with an oyster shell under the skull that had several copper objects and a green stone arrowhead placed in it.
As this is the UNC archaeology and bioarchaeology field school, I was able to spend a day in the bioarchaeology lab despite choosing to focus on field archaeology. When I went into the lab I had a very limited understanding of skeletal anatomy and almost no idea how to determine any of the things bioarchaeologists are able to determine (age at death, sex, manner of death, etc.). Fortunately I was working with two other students who were experts and able to explain exactly what we were doing and how to do it. We started the day by taking an inventory of the bones of a baby skeleton to see which were missing and which were not, and then used digital calipers (an extremely accurate measuring tool) to take various bone measurements, which were then used to estimate the baby’s age at death. Our results gave us an age of 1 year ± 9 months, not a particularly useful range considering it includes anything from recently born to toddler. The most common causes of death vary significantly within this age range so more skeletal analysis is needed here to make any conclusions. We were unable to determine the sex of the baby as the skeletal features used to differentiate men and women do not develop until puberty.
We had much more trouble after finishing with the baby. We were supposed to be inventorying, determining the sex of, and estimating the age at death of an adult skeleton. Unfortunately, someone had mistakenly put two bodies in the box we were working on without properly separating them. As the bones were mixed together, there was no easy way to differentiate between the two individuals and we had to embark on a long and arduous sorting and reconstruction process. Reconstruction involves taking the broken pieces of bones and gluing them back together to make it easier to determine what kind of bone you’re looking at and any pertinent features (like dimensions, injuries, diseases, or large muscle attachments). It also allows you to make the measurements that are critical for determining sex and age at death. The process is similar to a putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except slightly more high-stakes. After several hours of doing this the resident bioarchaeologist, Dr. Celeste Gagnon, came in and used her decades of experience and knowledge to rapidly separate the bones into two people by looking at various subtle features of the skeletons. It was frankly inspiring to watch and allowed us to continue our work without further confusion. We had enough time to age and sex one of the skeletons, who was determined to be a probable male of 39 ± 8 years at death. My experience in the lab that day taught me the true importance of paying close attention to bagging procedures so I would never be found guilty of creating a massive headache for the bioarchaeologists. If I ever run a project I will be drilling this into my students.
After returning from the lab, my remaining time in the field was primarily spent digging. The bottom of our trench had become uneven due to all the burials we were finding and pulling out – it was time to flatten it out and proceed down to the next layer of occupation. This would be an earlier phase of Salinar or possibly even Cupisnique. Thus, a lot of shoveling, troweling, moving wheelbarrows, and picking up buckets of dirt was required. During this process we did find a beautiful but partially broken Gallinazo figurine and a bird-shaped whistle pot (which can be blown into to produce a whistling sound), which helped break up the monotony.
That concluded our time at Jose Olaya. On the Friday of the last week, we spent most of the day at a ceremony that the town of Huanchaco held in honor of the sacrificed children and llamas found at Huanchaco’s archaeological sites. Huanchaco’s mayor, several high-ranking members of National Geographic, and Dr. Gabriel Prieto (the Peruvian archaeologist in charge of the project) spoke about the tragedy and the details surrounding it and unveiled the Park of Remembrance built on the beach. It consists of 140 trees, one planted for each of the sacrificed children, and a statue of a child and a llama with a commemorative plaque. I thought it was excellently handled – the town was able to come to terms with and understand the darker aspects of its own past instead of resorting to denial, justification, or suppression. This is exactly the sort of thing well-done archaeology can do – promote a worldview that involves facing and understanding the past as opposed to allowing ancient history to devolve into a mere source of out-of-context evidence used to support any number of individual beliefs or agendas. I’m grateful that my first experience with field archaeology was as part of a project so committed to this idea.
As for my advice for any students looking to attend any archaeological field school, I have a few suggestions that might be useful. Talk to the professor in charge of the field school or anyone else who has been and ask them if there is anything you should bring that people don’t normally think of. They might tell you something that isn’t on the packing list. Do as much research as you can into the place you are going to – on both the ancient history and the modern conditions. You will have a richer experience digging if you have some strong background knowledge, and you will be able to navigate the local area much more effectively if you have a clearer idea of what it’s like going in. Consider bringing your own tools, even if it isn’t required. Having your own tools can speed things along significantly if there happens to be a temporary shortage at the site. Make sure you quickly familiarize yourself with the bagging and tagging system of the project you’re working on so you don’t accidentally mix anything up or write a faulty tag, and make sure you know what kinds of things need to be preserved for the lab and what kinds of things don’t. This will ensure that you don’t accidentally damage evidence and will speed up your work. When in doubt, assume everything is important in some way.
Most importantly, if you have an interest in archaeology as a career, find a good field school, go as soon as you can, and learn as much as you can. I am still undoubtedly a novice in archaeology, but after having a taste of real experience I feel significantly more developed in knowledge and practice.
Thank you for reading this series! I hope it was informative or entertaining to you in some way.