Written by: Kristoffer Damgaard
I think most archaeologists will admit that fieldwork is appealing beyond the simple production of new raw data. It feeds something deeper and more passionate that I have found characterises most archaeologists one way or another. One might call it a yearning: a restless longing for adventure and discovery. It was this same feeling that I felt when Andy first asked me to join the 2019 campaign of the Posic project. I knew Andy from other projects we had worked on together and was pleased that he was building something of his own. I wanted to help him make this project a success. But just as deeply, I wanted to see and experience some of the amazing things Andy had told me about Peru and Peruvian archaeology. In every aspect, in every unexpected detail, Peru delivered what I was longing for. Perhaps not always in the manner that I was hoping for or expecting, but unfalteringly and with an incredible impact.
In order to get from the capital of Lima to the last frontier town of Rodriguez de Mendoza, a harrowing 40-hour trip with several busses was necessary. From the frontier town it took almost a full day to make it out to the site. The last part of which was hours on foot through incredible barrages of mud. We arrived on site shortly before dark and spent what remaining energy we had setting up camp. After that, exhaustion ruled.
Life in the Field
Life in the field can be harsh. I have tried it in many different conditions, including the more exotic (though never before in Peru). I am a relatively experienced outdoorsy type, who doesn’t mind roughing it, but as the days pass and the rain kept falling, each person’s limits were tested in different ways. Yet for all its hardships, there is an equal amount of satisfaction and fun in fieldwork, and I for one always jump at the occasion when it arises. At Posic, the indescribable natural beauty only enhanced the ‘regular fun’ of fieldwork.
Our mission was to continue the archaeological exploration and documentation of a large field of ruins scattered throughout the jungle, and up and down the slopes of the adjacent mountains. Previous seasons had established a general overview of the site and this campaign’s main purpose was to confirm the reliability of that plan and expand our vertical understanding by means of targeted excavation in key locations. The result, we hoped, would be the first publishable overview of a newly discovered site that potentially could shed new light on an un-illuminated period of Peruvian history.
Our Little Piece of the Puzzle
Much of South American history begins with the texts of the conquistadores in the 15th and 16th centuries. Consequently, most school children have heard of the Incas, but it would be a challenge to find anyone knowledgeable about what happened prior to the establishment of their empire. Being largely non-textual cultures, archaeology is the only way to learn about the cultures and peoples that pre-dated the arrival of the Europeans in Peru.
It was exactly such an undertaking that the Posic project was all about. Preliminary analysis of the material culture and sporadic carbon testing indicated that the part of the site that we were excavating dated to the Chachapoyas culture (8th – 15th cent.), which immediately preceded the great Inca civilization. The Chachapoyans were a powerful regional confederacy with a strong cultural identity. Despite being forcefully integrated into the Inca Empire over a century before the Europeans arrived, the Chachapoyans’ desire for independence was so resilient that rebellion and dissent remained an issue documented by the Spanish. Our mission was in other words of some historical import. We would be contributing our little piece of the puzzle; shining a light into a particularly dark part of the past. It was an exciting prospect, and one that in combination with the adventurous nature of expedition, made this the type of campaign most archaeologists dream of.
But archaeology is a treacherous mistress; never yielding what you expect, but always giving enough to keep you hoping…. to keep you hooked. Posic’s ruins turned out to be as resilient and as secretive as its original inhabitants, and excavating it posed more challenges than any of us had expected.
Our local guide and colleague, who had been one of the original discoverers of the site, continually expressed concerns about an ancient curse from the moment we met up with him. His ideas – and the various remedies implemented to counter the black magic – made discussions around the dinner table particularly enjoyable the first nights. But perhaps we should have heeded his warning. Perhaps then, we would have been better prepared for challenges that Posic was going to throw at us.
Stay tuned for the second part of this letter, where we will find out what secrets Posic yielded and what sacrifices had to be made to retrieve them. And how, for this writer, it all came together on a barren mountaintop.
A bit on the Archaeological Method and Fieldwork
While there are a growing number of reasons to advocate non-destructive forms of archaeological investigation (and an even more rapidly growing number of actual advocates), excavation remains an absolutely fundamental part of archaeology. Not only are the most solid empirical data produced in the context of stringent excavations, but excavating in a variety of different settings makes the excavator a better archaeological thinker and more attuned to the reliability of methodologies and datasets. Archaeology is just one of those disciplines where you don’t fully understand it until you have spent enough time rummaging about in the dirt. Consequently, and despite the broadening methodological scope of modern archaeology, anybody venturing into the field would be a fool not to spend enough time in the trenches. It is the only way to get a solid grasp of the difficulties, challenges, subtleties and benefits that excavation produces.