In 2014 I excavated at the sprawling archaeological site of Huari just outside Ayacucho, Peru. Ayacucho is situated between Lima and Cuzco at 9,000 ft above sea level in the Peruvian cultural-elevation zone known as “Quechua”. The site is notable for having been the seat of power of the Wari Empire (ca. AD 600-1000), the first Andean empire preceding the Incas, as well as for having been a major Huarpa (ca. 200BC – AD400) site prior to the rise of expansive, centrally governed polities in the Andes that came to include the Wari as well as the Tiwanaku state in modern-day Bolivia.
The day I arrived to excavate at Huari was the same day the director of the project was forced to lay off 20 or so laborers from the neighboring villages. These people desperately needed their jobs, and the sudden news of being laid off at day’s end was a heavy blow to them and a very sad moment to witness for the rest of the crew who’d developed close working relationships with them. The local townspeople and villagers make their living primarily from the harvest of cactus fruit and cochineal beetles, which live on the cacti and are used to produce dyes and pigments for coloring fabrics. Both of these industries are intensively exploited on the archaeological site due to the veritable Swiss cheese found beneath the surface, product of centuries of superimposed built environment, which has created the ideal habitat for cactus forest to grow and for root growth to spread in this otherwise inhospitably arid, high montane environment.
As the excavations proceeded, and the units were cleared of “fill” (debris used to deliberately close rooms and occupied spaces in antiquity), we began to expose a royal mausoleum, similar to another in the same sector, but built of very fine-cut stone reminiscent of Incan-quality masonry – a quality of construction until then previously unassociated with the Wari and unknown to have been mastered as early as ~AD800.
My dissertation thesis was born. How could the project, the site directors, or the Ministry of Culture presume to protect the site (~4,000 acres) in case an intact royal tomb were to be discovered? And how could it be that the greatest threat would come from those local descendant communities who preserve Andean cosmological beliefs through the visible practice of pre-Hispanic forms of worship, expressed as offerings of burnt coca leaves, cigarettes, and fruit peels carefully placed throughout the site? Obviously, economic hardship provides part of the answer, but when one speaks to the locals there is no awareness of ancient stylistic patterns, architectural norms, or construction techniques that comprise our scientific basis for understanding this past society. The cultural continuity that persists is effectively washed over by scientific methods of chronology and seriation-building of bounded time periods of interest, sterilizing the site of it’s modern human habitation, places of worship, and total life history, and creating a specimen for study.
And then there is the personal/emotional self-distancing from all things deemed or associated with ‘the indigenous’ and that which dominant Peruvian (read: mestizo) society has drilled into them as being backwards and anti-progress. The mid-20th century definition of ‘progress’ [oh god, this was supposed to be a fun exercise and now it’s a dissertation all it’s own] continues to factor prominently in modern Peruvian society, and by extension, notions of self-identity, thereby constructing a powerful binary predicated on ethnic affiliation, between ‘Indian’ and ‘mestizo’ culture, and between past and future. But here’s the kicker: this country is globally recognized for its archaeology – for it’s past – and so there is a brutally apparent crisis of identity at play that must be understood, or unpackaged, before sustainable solutions can be discussed. This is the work of the ethnographer.
It’s a complicated milieu that has been at the crux of my anthropological fieldwork in working toward a sustainable (read: mutually beneficial) solution for site management of Huari – one that has drawn me to return twice since that first excavation season and most likely a third time next year to develop Partnerships for Patrimony.
Partnerships for Patrimony is a socially-minded program that establishes academic exchange, interaction, and community integration via formal institutional affiliation between schools neighboring the site of Huari and the university that digs the site every year. The project is designed to expose high school students to the array of activities comprising archaeological investigation – surveying, profile drawing, excavation, recording, AutoCAD, lab work, and interpretation – through direct participation, one-on-one, with a graduate mentor for a field season… and in the process reorient not just what an archaeological site is (ie. intellectual curiosity) but what it can be, as a vocational space that contributes to social mobility, social inclusion, progressive policy initiatives, and site preservation.
Thanks for reading,
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