Sondor Bioarchaeology Field School
Sondor, Peru: Summer, 2017
I shift where I kneel, adjusting my knee pads to minimize contact with sharp rocks and jagged root ends. As the sun warms my back, dissipating the mist curtains that had been floating between hills and mountains, and the cool wind blows through me, I pick up the brush I had set on the ancient mortar stone protruding from the ground. My excavation partner had found a context- a set of bones in the same strata, likely belonging to the same specimen. Taking a break from the corner of the quad where I’d found disturbed charred bone, I decided to help her level her context. A piece of bone catches my eye where I’ve been brushing, and as I follow its contours, the irregular shape arises from the dust. Soon, I realize what it is. “Camelid mandible!” I excitedly announce to my partner. She leans down to take a look, and when she glances back at me her mouth is stretched in a wide smile.
I had thought that by the fourth day, I’d be tired of ceramics and animal bone fragments. After all, I had come to Peru for experience with human remains of the Chankas, a people who lived tentatively around 1000-1400 AD and were enemies, then subjects to the Inca. However, things hadn’t initially gone as planned.
My first week of excavation was at a structure we believed to be domestic. Apparently, at a similar previous domestic structure, archaeologists had found a surprise- human skeletons buried underneath the domicile. We were hoping that this structure would also prove similar, providing new evidence of domestic burial or proof that these were no domestic structures but instead temples of some sort. Unfortunately, while I was excavating there, I’d only found ceramics, animal bones, and a handful of lithics.
Yet, anticipation still hounded me to keep working; the exhilaration of any discovery still thrilling, especially as I realized that these too were puzzle pieces. Ceramics, charred animals bones, grinding stones- in my mind, this corner of the house was the kitchen, and I was eager to find more evidence of it. I took care to note when associated ceramic sherds were littered around bones- this could be evidence of the Inca conquerors who’d likely have shatter Chanka burial urns to demoralize the subjugated.
Eventually I moved excavation sites to go to a nearby machay (Chankan burial site) where there were plenty of human skeletons- including juveniles. I myself uncovered disarticulated finger phalanges, a scapula, teeth and ribs as well as helped map the positions of the bones of a partially articulated skeleton whose feet were pulled up in a fetal position. I found a bone flute and objects I initially thought to be sling-stones but ended up being really hard potatoes. Meanwhile, back at the house site, they had uncovered multiple human individuals.
Back at the field house/lab where we were staying, I’d started my own research project using the collection there from previous digs. The Chanka had a tradition of head modification- they’d wrap a newborn’s head to elongate it. Current theories behind the practice suggest that it symbolized status, perhaps within a family since previous research seems to indicate away from lineage correlations. I was interested in how the cranial modification affected the individual’s other skeletal features and perhaps quality of life. Hypothesizing that cranial modification might alter the weight distribution of the skull atop the spine, I looked for dimensional changes in occipital condyles. I collected data on 45 modified and unmodified skulls of both sexes, and I hope to analyze and interpret the data during the school year.
Thanks to the generosity of the Quigley family, I was able to expand my repertoire of skills (excavating, mapping, artefact cleaning, casting and molding), meet like-minded students, receive advice from professionals in the field, and work with a human skeletal collection. I learned how to think and work like an archaeologist and live in a community very different from my own- a community whose language I barely spoke. This has been the greatest adventure of my life so far, and I am thankful to those who made it possible.