Sunday, August 23, 2009

I went to Ecuador and all I found was a lousy Valdivia village…

So the last few weeks have found your intrepid adventurer embroiled in a bit of personal turmoil. If you will remember, I came here to carry out research on frontier identities of the late pre-Hispanic Manteño culture (800-1532 AD). Despite some tantalizing surface evidence of a reasonable sized Manteño occupation in this valley, most of our excavations turned up very little sub-surface evidence of this habitation. It’s been quite demoralizing because what seemed so clear back home – both in terms of excavation locations and research questions – became a lot less so when I got here. I suppose it’s to be expected, but it’s disheartening nonetheless.

Salvation (and possibly damnation) came in the form of my field assistant, Luis, who was also my guide when I was here back in 2006 for the survey. My assistants were well aware of my increasing despondency and fear that I’d never make a dissertation out of what we’d been uncovering. He took me out to a field where we surveyed in 2006, but the vegetation is much less dense this year. Quite visible on the surface now, but hidden then, was a quantity of artifacts to die for. I seriously wanted to weep, and not only because here, at last, could be the kind of reasonably contained site that would be great for a project, but also because few of the ceramics I turned over with my toe were Manteño. Most were from the preceding Guangala culture, but others pre-dated even that.

I consulted the two most intellectually important women in my life – my current and former advisors – to ask their opinions of whether to pursue this new site. The answer was the same; go where the artifacts are, the significance will become clear. Part of me doesn’t like that, because I worked long and hard to come up with a research question that would get funded (the ultimate test, right?), but also because I sincerely am deeply interested in both the Manteño period and processes of identity formation and negotiation. But, as work was wrapping up in a third unproductive location, I decided to take their advice, and began work at the new site this past Monday.

From the start it’s been heady. We are uncovering so many remains it is ridiculous. In the week we’ve been there I think we’ve managed to match the quantity of artifacts that we recovered in the past month, if not the past two. In four randomly placed test pits we’ve got a trash pit, post holes of two different structures, and a human burial. And as fantastic as that is, it’s all Valdivia!!!!!! Now, I know some of you will say, so what? Well, Valdivia is the oldest ceramic culture in coastal Ecuador, dating as far back as 3500 BC. Yes, that’s right, I went out to dig Manteño and ended with something nearly 5000 years earlier. It’s like going out to buy a bicycle and coming home with a velocipede – cool, but not quite what you had in mind. I’ve just never really been that
in to Valdivia, what with it being so early, and so Valdivia-y. Also, the vast majority of my training in Ecuadorian archaeology has focused on the Manteño period, so I’m in uncharted territory here.

The new site, on a rain drenched day, in 360 view.

Looking on the bright side, though, it looks as if I might have a tidy little elliptical-shaped village on my hands, with several other similar sites in the region that I can compare it to (like Loma Alta – just 12km away – and Real Alto, for those of you in the know). Now, however, I’ve really got to dig in, figuratively and literally, so that I’m up on the scholarship and don’t miss anything, and also so I can start working out the good research questions. I just wish I’d seen the site three years ago. I don’t know if it would have completely changed my research question, or if I would have chosen another place to work. At the very least it would have given me a chance to get used to the idea. At the moment I’m really glad that my assistants’ knowledge of English is somewhat limited, because my vocabulary has gotten quite colorful over the last few days, and I wouldn’t want them to think any less of me.

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