Cutright, Rucker ’12 and Spradlin ’12 collaborate on Peruvian archaeological dig
Centre students and faculty often find themselves studying in countries across the globe throughout the year. This summer, John Rucker ’12 and Billy Spradlin ’12 accompanied Dr. Robyn Cutright, assistant professor of anthropology, to Peru for an archeological dig in the Jequetepeque Valley.
“This was the first season of what I hope will be several investigating the site of Ventanillas,” says Cutright, whose research was funded by Centre’s Faculty Development Committee and the Metzger Fund for Field Studies.
This isn’t Cutright’s first time researching in this area of Peru. But this year, her fieldwork specifically attempted to answer basic questions about the Jequetepeque Valley, since little is known about its ancient past.
“We mapped the site — a preliminary map by hand first and then a more detailed map using mapping software. Then we collected fragments of pottery from a random selection of points on the surface of the site,” Cutright explains. “By analyzing these fragments, we hope to figure out when the site was occupied, its cultural affiliation, the kinds of activities that took place there and how these activities were distributed across the site.”
The group conducted excavation work on small test pits “to gauge the level of preservation and to see what kinds of sub-surface architecture — floors, walls, etc. — we could find,” Cutright says.
The dig yielded exciting results early on, including an important find in one of the first test pits.
“After uncovering and removing a clay floor, we found the remains of a small prehistoric fire,” Rucker says. “While not uncommon at all to most archaeologists, this was striking to me. It helped me to grasp the idea that we were finding archaeological evidence not only of monumental architecture and city building but of individual actions that have remained preserved for hundreds of years.”
From small fragments like these, Cutright, Rucker and Spradlin were able to determine much about the culture of the people who lived in the Valley centuries ago.
“Analysis is still underway, but we can say that Ventanillas was affiliated with a coastal culture known as the Lambayeque likely dating around 1000 BCE, and probably played important religious, political and economic roles in the valley, controlling trade between the coast and the highlands, administering irrigation canals and the frontier of the Lambayeque state and providing a setting for religious ceremonies in the region,” Cutright says.
For Cutright, the opportunity to be able to take students with her to Peru proved invaluable.
“John and Billy were essential collaborators in this field research,” she says. “Along with the Peruvian co-director of the project, Gabriela Cervantes, they participated in all aspects of work in the field and in the lab, located in the nearby town of Pay Pay, from excavating a unit with a trowel and brushes to drawing ceramic artifacts.”
Although the trio has left Peru, their research will continue in the fall, when Rucker and Spradlin will complete independent studies with Cutright to allow them to continue analyzing their ceramic data. They will present their research at the meeting of the Society for American Archeology in Memphis this spring.
For Cutright, this archeological dig in Peru brings everything full-circle: she herself went on an excavation trip to Peru as an undergraduate, and the experience was transformative. Now, she is the teacher bringing students to Peru to study archeology.
“This summer was a great chance for me to involve students in my research and introduce them to what it’s like to do archaeological fieldwork,” Cutright says.
Rucker and Spradlin agree that the experience of participating in an archeological excavation has opened their eyes in many ways.
“The fact that I could look at a broken piece of ancient pottery and see a fingerprint on it from the person who made it in the past was truly unique, and aspects of the pieces themselves — surface finish, temper, color, diameter — told a surprisingly detailed story of not only the ceramic itself but the people who used it,” Spradlin says. “This is something that never stopped amazing me, no matter how many broken tinajas (clay water jogs) or ollas (pots) I had to draw or clean.”