Sunday, July 19, 2009

Blog by Max Price

Our third week in the field was punctuated by interesting finds in each excavation sector. Though initially complicated by personnel changes, incorrect GPS coordinates (which resulted in us excavating several meters from where we had wanted to excavate), and the obstreperous occurrences of intestinal parasites (don’t ask), the Misti team showed its mettle, persevering and shedding light on the nature of Wari/ Tiwanaku/ local interaction in the Vitor Valley in the Middle Horizon.
Under the direction of Augusto Cardona, systematic field-walking surveys collected ceramic shards, bones, lithics, and other materials on the supposed ceremonial platform overlooking the site. Of particular interest was the recovery of a ceramic shard decorated with local Wari patterns directly on top of the basal fragment of a Tiwanaku style kero vessel, traditionally used for the consumption of chicha. While not contextualized, these finds attest to the presence, whether synchronic or independent, of both Tiwanaku and Wari influence in the area of the site most likely reserved for elite activity.
The team directed by Maria Cecilia (Nene) Lozada meanwhile made the important discovery that the area of scattered rocks adjacent to looters pits was not, in fact, a cemetery, but rather a domestic site, with well-defined walls and molle seeds (used in chicha production, see below).
The team investigating domestic architecture, of which I was a part, worked mostly independently. In a week defined by hard work, not to mention character building, our team (to speak from an admittedly biased position), overcame the greatest obstacles—namely, losing our director in the second week. In Unit 4, a 2m x 2m trench bisected along the East-West axis by a stone wall, we discovered two functional areas. The southern part of the unit seemed to be an outside area, where little activity and some garbage dumping took place. Many lithic core and debitage fragments were found here, as were some animal bones. In the northern part of the unit was the southeast corner of a room. Excavating into the main occupation layer, students Peggy Jones and Max Price discovered three parallel, dug-out pits of various sizes (ranging from around 30cm in diameter and 15cm deep to 60cm in diameter and 50cm deep), each containing molle seeds. Molle seeds were used in the production of chicha, and were found in every domestic context excavated (including Unit 7 and Nene’s unit). The production of this alcoholic drink is usually controlled by elites, and thus the discovery of storage pits sheds light not only on the functional uses of domestic contexts, but also the special aspects of status at Millo 2. The project is now interested in seeing how molle seeds are used in the ethnographic record, which through analogy may allow us to better understand these peculiar deposits.
Also found within these molle deposits were animal bones (mostly camelid, with a high proportion of non-meat-bearing elements, such as cranial and cervical vertebrae fragments), lithic core and debitage fragments, charcoal, ceramic shards, and organic materials, all presumed to be trash which was mixed in with the molle. The most western pit (Feature 2), however contained camelid hair in two colors (light brown and dark brown), human hair, colored threads (red, blue-green, and brown), rope made from grasses or cane, and much wood. It is difficult to interpret these finds, perhaps they represent ritual inclusions, or were parts of baskets of cloths used to hold the molle seeds. These, at least, were the ‘trowel’s edge’ interpretations.
On a different note, Friday, July 17th was spent visiting looted cemeteries in the Vitor Valley. Our combi driver, who was quite knowledgeable in looting activity in the valley, gave us the complete tour. We walked around two looted sites in different parts of the valley, both littered with human remains, cloth, ceramic fragments, and, to my piqued curiosity, the remains of a small canid. Augusto dated both cemeteries to the Formative Period, based on ceramic and textile patterning.
At the second looted site, we were shown a very well-preserved (and conspicuously headless) mummy, its (the sex could not be immediately determined) torso exposed to the relentless mid-day sun. The skin was thick and still contained fat, which was dripping off the body, revealing that the excellent state of preservation would not last for long. Some students desired to experience the notorious ‘mummy smell’… they got their wish.
Also at the second site, the locals showed us how they excavate human remains. In a gut-wrenching episode, we watched as they unearthed a mummy, which had been previously exposed and subsequently reburied. Then they unearthed the pago which they had given to Pachamama to thank her for her fruits—in this case, a mummy from which to profit. The pago was composed of an ancient pot covered in ancient cloth, with modern coca leaves stuffed inside. I, and others, found this ceremonial gesture fascinating. The blend of ancient and modern materials, the relationship of the looters to the past through ancient traditions…
The experience was troubling while at the same time enlightening. The archaeologist inside of me screamed in protest at the crude, ‘unscientific’ excavation methods of the looters. The anthropologist inside me, however, who is the domineering mother figure to the more puerile archaeologist, told me to calm down and reflect. ¨This is how remains of the past are treated here in the Vitor Valley. This is a reflection to and a production of their ways of thinking about history, about the people who lived in the same valley they now live in. Yes, it is different. Yes it is contradictory to our project of knowing the past. But isn´t our project just as contradictory to them? Isn’t the way that we treat the people who lived in a valley thousands of miles from our homes very hard for them to understand? We should strive to obtain a more emic perspective.¨
The reconciliation of the anthropologist and the archaeologist is the theoretical landscape in which 21st-century American archaeology exists. For anthropological archaeology to thrive, we must always ask ourselves questions relating to our perceptions of and projects for the past, and not be unwilling to look at and understand local perceptions and projects, even when these directly contradict our own. Looting is a product of epistemology, it is also a part of taphonomy. Thus, it is absolutely essential that we, as anthropologists and archaeologists, understand it better. Too often have we pitted our profession against looting, attempting to prevent it at all costs. What we gain (when we are successful), for sure, is a an ‘archaeological record’ more prepared for our approaches, but what we lose is an understanding of how other people know and use their past. This is not to say that we should not the wanton destruction of archaeological materials and sites. Rather, it is to say that before thinking of looting as a criminal behavior performed by thieves and, at best, people so desperate that they have no choice but to loot (i.e. ‘subsistence looting’), we should attempt to enter their social and cultural milieu, and through that their mindsets. To be sure, the looters were looking for ancient objects within these mummy bundles to sell. But the fact that they gave back to Pachamama, that they sacrificed a pago to her, means that this practice of digging up mummies is more complex, more fraught with meaning.
Our experience observing the looters-in-action challenged us to perceive the past and the local interaction with the past (and therefore also the local interaction with archaeologists) in a new light. While these practices do not conform to our ethics, they are not unethical, per se. Archaeologists are anthropologists, and this means understanding why people do the things they do. Looting is something not well-researched in archaeological literature, though it is of critical importance to archaeologists. It is a practice we must seek to understand better. What we experienced on our day off from the field was, in a sense, as important as field work itself.

Max Price is a student in the Misti Archaeological Project Field School and an aspiring zooarchaeologist.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ben Nigra Blog Entry



July 11, 2009
La Casa De Mi Abuela: Arequipa, Peru

The Vitor Valley is an awe inspiring and surreal place, a dreamscape for the curious and the romantic, and an enormous playground for the archaeologically inclined. Standing in the back of a pickup truck on those first trips out to the site, the morning chill and dust forced me to keep my eyes shut tightly. Now, as we enter week three, I find it hard to drive with the windows up, despite the dust. There is simply too much to watch. Cattle blocking the road on their way to pasture, sheep with month old lambs in tow, strange trees and alien birds, smoke rising from the clearing of fields, our Apu watching over us from afar, desert to the left, desert to the right, but dense vegetation forward and back - an entire world, wide awake. An entire world that has never slept, not since humans arrived to make Vitor their home some many thousands of years ago. And for human occupation, Vitor offers a gourmet assortment. A little Inka as an appetizer, Middle Horizon traditions for the main course (possibly two varieties, if the chef's in a good mood), a little local tradition for desert, the wines and apertifs all Spanish colonial, and modern occupations as a midnight snack. I hate to beat the metaphor to death, but I can't help myself - it is a mouthful.

Our blessed job is fairly simple: figure out what happened here from the beginning of human occupation in Vitor until we arrived three weeks ago. Our questions are of course a little bit more specific than that. However, in order to answer them, we have to make sense of everything that has occurred since our arrival. If last month some mischievous hooligans buried a pot in the desert, and if we stumble upon it, it becomes part of the story of the landscape. Everyday, as I walk around and make maps, I encounter Fanta bottles, tracks from cars, fresh cut cane, a child's homework, dog poop, you name it. This site is in no way a dead thing. It is fluid, alive, in flux, always becoming something more than what it was a minute ago; even our footprints and trails add a new chapter. We sign the desert in our own hand. We are not a group of perfect observers. We are participants in the story of Millo II. This is no one-way transfer of secrets from the ground to our heads. This is a perfect love affair - giving back when we take away.

I used to wonder why I continually choose to fly five-thousand miles just to dig holes in the dirt. I quickly put these questions to rest. You would too, if you could come and visit us. Not that this dirt is better or worse than any other - it is simply more puzzling, challenging. A veritable rubix cube (if you replace the colors with ceramic patterns). This may be one of the world's premier mystery novels. Sherlock Holmes would cry and wet his pants over the mystery of Vitor. Did you know that in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" Captain Jean-Luc Picard was an archaeologist before becoming a star fleet captain? No lie, watch a couple episodes. Do you know why he gave up the chance to potentially become the world's greatest archaeologist to be the captain of a starship? He excavated at Vitor. "Screw this," he said. "I'll take my chances figuring out the galaxy".

So the work may be hard, but the play is most certainly diamond. Here's one for anyone reading who enjoys the work-play of archaeology: Vitor has been a center of wine and pisco production for the past 400 years. The Spanish selected it and used it to supply their overseas empire with drink. This past week we got to enjoy this boon straight from the source, instead of stuffing our satchels full of the store-bought variety. Every once and a while there comes a time when teams need serious and immediate rest - maybe there's been a heat wave for four days straight, or field madness has put them at each other's throats, or the dusty earth has held on tightly to its secrets. We had a day like this, on Wednesday. So we decided to improvise, called up a combi, hopped in and headed out for a winery tour. This place was incredible - a hacienda built before 1600, full of giant ceramic jars for fermenting wine, walls crumbling, light creeping eerily through the cracks in the half-collapsed roof. And then to look upwards was to wake up in a nightmare - the entire inside of the thatched roof was covered with thousands of wasp nests, all covered in tens of thousands of black and yellow stinging insects. Silently treading through this place was the closet I've ever come to being Indiana Jones. Might as well have been crawling through a tomb full of arachnids. But the treasure at the other end was, in my opinion, better than a gold idol. Gold idols require a ton of paperwork, conservation, publication, and political hassle. Fresh, cool wine aged in 400 year old ceramic jars requires a cup. Salud.

So everyone had a wonderful afternoon drinking wine from the source, talking with one another, learning the history of this awesome place, and dodging flying stinging arthropods. I was trying to organize a soccer game for when we got back to camp. It never happened, because our tour had a second stop. This time we invited ourselves, unannounced but graciously received, to a pisco distillery a couple kilos down the river. For those of you who are unfamiliar with pisco, it is a liquor made by fermenting grapes, like a brandy. The location was surprisingly similar to the winery, minus the wasps - same giant 400 year old jars, but this time full of aged pisco. Needless to say, the soccer game never materialized.

I could sit for hours and describe the cool, sweet taste of pisco aged in Spanish colonial vessels on a hot desert afternoon. I could fill a book with all the small, perfect details, if I could only remember them. I could tell you stories of a perfect day, surrounded by friends - Peruvians and Americans, students, professors, and the inbetweens, locals, Arequipenos, Chicagoans, Californians, New Yorkers, together in an amazing, beautiful place surrounded by beautiful things and ancient wonder. I could attempt to fill your heart with tales of laughter and togetherness, problems long forgotten and forgiveness, the most admirable part of humanity come together to celebrate what else? - each other. But to understand, to really get it, you had to have been there. In the shade of the hacienda, Wednesday July 8, 2009. In the Vitor Valley.

Ben Nigra, field cartographer with the Vitor Valley Project.

Image #1: Spanish colonial vessels still used to ferment wine

Image #2: Terrifying realization that the roof was covered with thousands of wasps.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Second Week in Peru




Before archaeological excavations begin in South America, most archaeologists – otherwise very scientific and proper – like to hold a ceremony where a local shaman blesses the expedition and its findings. It helps to cover all bases and we are no different. Only this time, instead of a run-of-the-mill shaman (Yatiri in Aymara) we had a major figure in the local ingenious religion establishment running the ceremony. This shaman, a direct Inca decedent, found personal interest in our work as he tries to promote the history and mythology of his people, culture and land. He personally wanted to ensure that the spirits of the ancestors and Apus (mountain tops) will be on our side. The result was one of the most extensive, elaborate and beautiful ceremonies I have ever participated. The shaman was so interested in our project that at the end of the ceremony he insisted on reading the future of the three co-directors in coca leaves and proceed to tell us how we should be careful in our relationships and with the site so our endeavor will be long lasting and fruitful.

One would think that such an awesome and elaborate ceremony will lead to the discovery of a Tiwanaku temple as the first shovel hit the ground. How disappointing it is to inform you that this is not the case [yet….]. Instead, most of our first week was spent in setting up the units and working very carefully at the excavation of very thin layers of stratigraphy with very little material culture in them. Maybe the site is waiting to surprise us next week? I hope so. It has such a magnificent presence with all the huge rubble piles that may have once been an important ceremonial center that it is hard to believe excavations will yield so little material.

The students are adjusting to the long work days quite well. They are discovering not only the site, but also themselves. Physical work done outdoors in long, hot and dry days will make the real personality of people come through. Strong friendships are beginning to form and students are finding that being Indiana Jones can be tiring and not-so-glamorous. But it is also a discovery of life outside our protected digital bubble in the US and an observation about quality of life that does not involve iPhones, iBooks, Facebook or most of the things that makes the daily life of young student. At the field, we actually have to talk face to face to get things done.

If we could just find a few Wari Faceneck jars mixed with some Tiwanaku keros in the same layer. Now that will be something to be inspired by……

Image 1: The field house at the Vitor Valley

Image 2: Students excavating at the domestic architecture area (Sector C)

Image 3: A view of the rubble of the ceremonial area (Sector A)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

First week in Peru




Every field season begins with great excitement and a bit of trepidation. Excitement as we are finally out of the office and into the field, a new team in place with fresh and enthusiastic faces. Trepidation as we are never completely ready in our preparations for what we might find at the site. In many ways, archaeology is the reverse of myth making. You start with great ideas and as you dig for data and peel the layers of the site, well thought fantastic ideas are falling by the wayside and the reality of what we discover damper our grand expectations. We also get to know each other a bit better and the promise of the new students and staff becomes less of a mystery and more of a reality.

OK, enough with these meandering, no good thoughts. The first week is behind us and an intensive class work load ended for all. Students took their exam on Friday, and not surprisingly, did very well. A huge pig roast and the Equestrian Club in Arequipa – yes, we are VERY plugged in – ended the week of studies and everyone are ready to get down on our knees and dig. It is a bit difficult to contain the excitement. There is nothing like the first season in a new project when you really know very little about the site.

We are all set, ready to go. Tomorrow morning (Sunday) we are packing and heading towards the Vitor Valley. Into the great promise that is the site of Millo 2. We, the tip of the [archaeological] spear, send farewell to you audience seating in your comfortable homes. We shall meet again at the other end of this promising week.

Image 1: Pig roast at the Equestrian Club, Arequipa

Image 2: Jenny Crawford, a USC student show the locals how to ride a horse with a summer dress

Image 3: Breakfast at the Casa de mi Abuela. Do note the diversity and presentation -- Yes, Chile Field School survivors, this is NO Hotel Majestic meal....

Image 4: Students arriving to the project at the AQP airport

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the Begining.....

Welcome to the 2009 Field Season. I am hoping to publish weekly posts and provide updates both on our scientific progress and the evolution of social interaction between our team members (the gossip stuff is sometimes more entertaining then the actual work....). I will strive to find a balance and will ask our students to review the blog and post their comments. I hope this new format (for me) will be more interactive and allow all of you to enjoy the great adventure that is field archaeology.
The images above are of the sites of Millo II and III. This area is where we will focus most of our research activities for this season.
Good hunting for everyone out there,
Ran Boytner