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Joe Cronin, 2013 Fellow Dig Blog at Vitor Archaeological Project, Peru

Joe Cronin just finished his third year at the University of Chicago, where he is majoring in Anthropology. For the past two years, Joe has spent his summers in the Vitor Valley of southern Peru, first coming as field school student in 2011. He returned to the same project in the summer of 2012 as a teaching and research assistant, where he began work on his Bachelor's thesis investigating the role of the obsidian trade in pre-Columbian state expansion. This year, Joe plans to return to Vitor to complete this work and more deeply explore his interests in long-distance exchange, anthropological theories of value, household archaeology, and state expansion.

Excavation: Vitor Archaeological Project, Peru

Directors: María Cecilia Lozada (University of Chicago), Hans Barnard (UCLA), Willeke Wendrich (UCLA), Lic. Augusto Cardona Rosas (Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Arequipa)

Entering its fifth year, the Vitor Archaeological Project is an international collaboration of American and Peruvian archaeologists dedicated to studying the both the pre-Columbian and colonial history of the as of yet understudied Vitor Valley in southern Peru. Excavations in Vitor initially focused solely on Middle Horizon (600-1000 C.E.) residential and ceremonial compounds, though in recent seasons more focus has been directed toward endangered formative period cemeteries in the valley. Returning for a third year, Joe will be teaching and supervising field school students in the project's lab as well as completing his thesis work by preparing professional illustrations of micro-lithic obsidian points recovered in Vitor over the past four seasons.

June 16, 2013

I can’t quite remember if there used to be, but there’s definitely a baggage carousel in the Arequipa airport now. It’s got ads for Claro (a cellphone company) running along the conveyor belt. The whole airport looks to be under construction and they’re taking arrivals in a semi-permanent tent to the side. The cab drivers outside are all wearing the same hats, definitely new, that look something like large sombreros with a little “AREQUIPA” emblem on them. It’s suspiciously reminiscent of the “AREQUIPEÑA” beer logo. Things are already looking different around here.

Still, it’s good to be back in Arequipa. This is my third year on the Vitor Archaeological Project (VAP) and I just arrived at the hotel we’re all meeting at before we head out to Vitor in about an hour. I don’t have much time, but it will be nice to sit down and think through the plans for the next few weeks.

Even though I’ve spent three field seasons in Vitor, like the Arequipa airport, this year’s looking to be different. After four years of digging in the valley, the VAP has accumulated a massive amount of archaeological material, and because Peruvian law prohibits cultural material from being exported, all our lab work has to be done in-country. So it’s a lab season, which means no digging and lots of time in doors with the bones, ceramics, and textiles (yes, textiles).

Our lab work has five main focuses: osteology, ceramic analysis, illustration, preservation, and textile analysis. Most the material for the lab work comes from a partially-looted cemetery at which the VAP conducted a rescue excavation at last year, putting a lot of the lab work with osteology and preservation. I did a bit of digging at this site toward the end of our season last year, but only after I wrapped up a (hellish) unit in the domestic sector of one of the Valley’s bigger residential sites. Because I’m trying to stick close to what I know (I’ve got to do some teaching here, as I’m staffing the field school) I’ll be working with our professional illustrator and textile specialist for the next few weeks

While its not digging, so it's a bit out of my comfort zone, I’m really looking forward to the textile work. These things are beautiful, I saw them come in from the rescue excavations last year and I’ve never seen anything so well preserved. We’ve got a few whole uncut barely frayed ones, some with dyed feathers and others colored using an old tie-dying technique. Really, they’re fantastic.

Anyway, that hour’s coming quickly and there’s much to be done. This next coming week is mostly “classes” (readings, discussions, tours of the valley sites) for the field school students so thing’s won’t quite get rolling for a while now. I’m one of the staffers that's been charged with setting up the lab during class time so it’s going to be a lot of logistical work for the next few days.

June 23, 2013

It’s nice to be back in Arequipa. The rural valley where we work is only about an hour away from Arequipa and so everyone on the project comes back to Arequipa for the weekends. Pragmatically, we can pull artifacts out of our collections stored here in previous years that we might need for lab work or deal with important administrative tasks here (there’s no internet in the valley). But it’s also just nice to take a hot shower.

The students had class this week, so they spent most of the time in discussions with our project director while the rest of the staff and I set up the lab. There was some grunt work, moving tables, finding places for old equipment, and setting up lights; things like that to get the place in order, but the bulk of our work was going through old collections.

As often happens, though we had our collections from last year’s rescue excavation stored systematically and labeled neatly, somewhere along the way our master list to the content of the boxes went missing. Though it almost certainly was tucked away in someone’s email, we had no internet so we had to pull every box out and re-inventory everything specimen by specimen. Tedious, but it got done.

Given the sheer amount of material recovered last year in the rescue excavations, we’ve decided to focus our efforts mainly on the tombs we cleaned out rather than the intensive surface collections as they’ve got a slightly more secure context (the whole site of course, was looted, which was why we undertook the rescue work in the first place).

I’m set to start spending my days working with Juana, our textile specialist, unwrapping the mummy bundles we recovered from the looted tombs last year. After the students leave the lab for the day (which is also our staff house), I’ll be working with the projects illustrator to produce publication-quality drawings of the obsidian points my own research focuses on.

Everything then, is set to go for next week. One of the most important preparations we took this week was our pago (from Spanish, literally "payment"), an Andean ritual normally practiced around planting and harvest times in which we thank Pachamama (mother earth, more or less, in Quechua) for our prosperity and ask for health, luck, and protection in the weeks to come. Pagos are undertaken at other special times before activities involving the Earth or the spirits inhabiting it begin. For most local people this involves things like home construction or renovation. Because we’re working with the dead, who we removed from interred places, a pago is particularly important because we’re dealing with both spirits of the dead and a disturbing of the Earth.

The curandero preparing for our pago, an Andean ritual in which we thank the Earth and the mountains for their generosity and ask for good health and protection.

I could go on about the pago, as it really is an involved ritual (it took a whole afternoon), but unfortunately I’ve got to go run some errands for the project while I’m in Arequipa. What’s interesting though is that even though we’ve finished the pago apparently we need some more spiritual protection before we start unwrapping mummies. Juana, who is a local Arequipeña, has insisted we get an ajo macho for the lab. I don’t know what it is (it translates to "male garlic"?), but apparently it’s supposed to give us more ongoing protection as we work with the dead.

June 30, 2013

Lab work finally began this week. After spending two years excavating in Vitor I was at first a bit worried that being cooped up in the lab all day would be a little maddening; I thought it might feel something like cabin fever. Luckily, I was wrong. While I’m not spending all day working hard under the desert sun, I’m still exhausted after we close the lab for the day. There’s no restlessness to be had as there’s lots to do. Still, it’s a different kind of exhaustion (it’s much more mental), and it probably comes from trying to maintain sharp focus for the whole 9 hour work day.

To get things started this week, I worked with our textile specialist. Our lab is set up in stations: one for osteology, ceramics, illustration, and conservation. Each day we try to get through one context (in the case of our looted cemetery, a disturbed tomb) excavated in the previous season. Material comes to the textile specialist and I first, and we make a registry of everything recovered from that context during last year’s excavation before sending it off to its appropriate station. We keep the textiles of course, as well as artifacts we believe may have been used in the mortuary ritual. We then spend the rest of the day doing a quick analysis of the styles and techniques used in the production of each textile and the construction of the “mummy bundle” they come from.

The point of this is more or less two-fold. On the one hand, we want to see how the people who buried their dead at this cemetery went about preparing the “bundle” for burial. This involves examining artifacts of a wide range of materials and functions: things like cactus pins or cane poles used to give the bundles their structure, camelid fur or other textile fragments likely used as “stuffing” or support for the body with the bundle, as well as things like large vegetal ropes we believe may have been used to lower the body or grave goods into the tombs.

The analysis of textile production techniques and styles then helps us determine not only the possible cultural affiliation or influence at this cemetery (the people we are studying have very little known about them, as of yet) but also just how many textiles (and what kinds) people were buried with. Because textiles do not preserve well (and often at all) they often come to us in bags that look more or less like burnt dirt before we sort them. Looking at the different methods of weaving, materials used, and border designs then gives us some idea of at least he minimum number of textiles interred with an individual. All of this has been new to me so far, and while it’s not really the focus of my own research, has been fascinating.

That more or less covers my daily responsibilities as a staff member on the project. Our job is very important not just because of the analysis we’re doing, but because our sorting is the necessary first step in analyzing any other type of the material on the project. As for my own work, so far I’ve mainly been pouring over some existing literature in the evenings to get a better idea of what I’ll need to do to understand the obsidian collections from another site excavated last year in Vitor. I thought it be good to take it easy while the rhythm of the lab set in.

I think next week I’ll begin working with our illustrator to draw the some of the more spectacular obsidian points. This will give me a rough idea of the production techniques, as lithic drawings carefully show each removal of stone from the final point. But, we’ll have to see how hectic the lab is next week and if our illustrator is up for some after-hours teaching work before I can get started with that.

July 7, 2013

Just a flake, not a point. Not inked, but not bad.

Finally have some obsidian drawings! And while they there really was no question of where they came from before (I did the chemical sourcing last year) I can finally compare these drawings to the surprisingly few Wari lithic typologies that have been published. I did that before as well, just kind of looking casually at the obsidian, but with drawings that show all the flakes removed you can really see the similarities in production methods between what we’ve found here in Vitor and those at other Wari sites. There’s more to go of course, but as far as my own work goes I can breathe a little easier now.

The rest of the lab work has gone on as it has for the past few weeks with little surprises. Because the rescue excavation last year yielded no lithics (my obsidian points, as I’ve mentioned, were recovered from another site) I’ll be working with textiles during lab hours for the rest of the season. I didn’t really expect this coming in to the season but I’m really enjoying it.

As always seems to happen, things are taking longer than expected. We initially planned on finishing the analysis for one tomb per day but we’ve hit a few that have been much more difficult. It looks like we’ll only get about half-way through our initial goal by the end of the field school, but some of the staff is staying on once the students leave to finish things up. It’s also fairly expected as we front-loaded the beginning of the season with the most complicated contexts so that we could get through them while we had the most help.

Also, as a nice break, we had our Fourth of July party this week. As should be obvious, the Independence Day for the United States isn’t a big holiday in Peru (they’ve got the 28th of July, which actually, they start preparing for about now), so it always takes some explaining to our friends here in the valley why we’re celebrating. Though they don’t really care about the holiday, the local folks who help us out here in the valley generally seem glad to celebrate with us, and our party had an international menu of both fried cuy(guinea pig), chicken wings, and fried cheese. Though I love cuy, others on the project weren’t crazy about it, but that just meant I got more, which is usually fine by me.

We’re heading out to Caravelí valley north of here, pretty soon to check out some archaeological sites our Peruvian co-director believes are very similar to the one we have here in Vitor. I’m pretty excited for the trip because I’ve never been there, but also its not a big tourist town and it’ll be one of the few small towns outside of Vitor I’ll have had the chance to visit in Peru. I’ll report back on it soon.


Fourth of July, Peruvian style.

July 14, 2013

We returned from Caravelí this week safely and somewhat refreshed. Granted I’ve not been to every one of the dozens of little valleys up and down the coast and highlands of Peru, Caravelí seemed really different to me than what I’ve seen so far.

Not too unlike the people living in Vitor, Caraveleños seem to be very proud of the long history of wine and pisco production in their valley. On our way to visit the Wari sites we had come to see around the edge of the valley, we travelled the “ruta del pisco,” stopping at a few bodegas (vineyards, more or less) along the way to see how production differed here and in Vitor. From the looks of things it was quite different, they partially bury the vessels they age the wine in whereas in Vitor, they don’t seem to bother. I figure it might have to do with different climates, and burying things tends to keep them cool, but I’d imagine Vitor is warmer than Caravelí, which is at a higher altitude, so I’m not really sure.

The Wari sites were also pretty different, though it was relieving to see similar architecture. The Wari sites in the more southern, coastal parts of Peru tend to use a different style of architecture than the ones in the highlands; rather than strict, cellular compounds they tend to be a bit more haphazardly planned and use less formal field stones in the walls. The Caravelí sites had structures like these in spades, but was organized a lot differently than the ones I know in Vitor. For one it was much bigger, and another it seemed to have a lot longer occupation than the Vitor sites (surface sherds all the way up to the colonial period were sitting around). Noting the close similarities but also the clear differences was really helpful in getting a broader picture of archaeology in the region.

Lab work continued as usual this week, more drawings done, more textiles analyzed. The biggest addition to the work routine this week was the unwrapping of our first proper mummy bundle. As I’ve mentioned, the material we’re looking at his season in the lab is from a looted cemetery, and so until now the contexts we’ve been dealing with have been so disturbed there were no intact bundles to analyze; just the bones, textiles, and artifacts that were once inside them.

This week though, we started analyzing the material from our first (still disturbed, but) relatively intact tomb. Last year, they found three bundles when they cleaned out this tomb, and we’ve just started on the first. Working through it was much different than the other work I’ve done thus far. It involved a lot more drawing and photography than the individual textiles and artifacts, as once we unwrap the things there’s no re-wrapping them. The point of our unwrapping of course, is to see how these bundles were constructed so documenting every step in the process is very important so once its been taken apart we can see how all the parts went together. The work’s more tedious, but also a lot more rewarding as we’re finally seeing how the material we’ve been recovering was actually used.

My own work with the obsidian keeps chugging, more drawings are done and I’ve gotten though plenty of reading about them. As I go into this last week I’m feeling really good about what we’ve gotten through as a team so far and how my own research has come along as well.


Some petroglyphs on our way to the Wari site


A little pisco pride in downtown Caraveli


View from a ruined bodega just a stone's throw away from the big Wari site.

July 21, 2013

And with the end of this week, we have the end of the field season. Though we’ve definitely gotten loads done and I’ve certainly learned a lot, still, it almost feels like it never really began. It might have been the nature of lab work (thinking hard inside everyday) or just for whatever reason, how generally fast it seemed to go, but whatever it was I can’t quite believe it’s over.

But it is. Luckily, the directors are happy with our progress on the analysis of last year’s material on all fronts (textiles, ceramics, osteology, etc.) and I have what I’ll need to write up my B.A. about our obsidian collections this last academic year. Overall, good work done and good times had by all.

Speaking of good times and end times, I took this last weekend after the project and before heading back to the states to check out one of Arequipa’s largest tourist attractions: the Colca Canyon. Being a canyon, it’s not of course, in the city of Arequipa, but rather the Department of Arequipa (departments are like states in the U.S. sort of, they’re territories with a shared regional government between the local and national level). In the years I’ve been coming to Arequipa I’ve never gone out there, and I wanted to finally check out why it was so heavily visited.

And I now understand; it’s beautiful. A rugged landscape tamed by hundreds of terraces, some colonial, some Inca, some far older than either. I didn’t do a long hiking tour, as is common, but instead took a bus tour. The highlands there were much, much, different from the more arid, almost coastal environment I’m used to in Vitor. Not just in landscape, flora, and fauna, but in culture. It’s much more “Andean” in Colca, there’s a much stronger link with the pre-colonial past.

Not that colonialism has had no effects (far, far from it), but there are still many Quechua and Aymara speakers in Colca and conscious nods to the pre-Hispanic past. The hats of the local women, for example, are modeled off the different skull shapes their respective ethnic groups aimed for using cranial deformation before it was outlawed by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. In Vitor there’s almost no trace of indigenous history. There, colonial wine production seems to be the only history anyone ever talks about, and the only Quechua speakers I’ve ever talked to have been recent (within a generation) immigrants from Puno.

Almost hard to believe that a places as different as Colca, Arequipa, and Vitor can be so geographically close, but that’s the Andes for you I guess. And with that, I’ll have to say good bye. It’s been a great season, I’ve seen a lot, learned a lot, and met a lot of lovely people.

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