Archaeological Excavation – Alca, Peru

Archaeological Excavation – Alca, Peru

Dan Sandweiss and Kurt Rademaker, CCI

James Hagerman, Ben Morris and Louis Fortin, University of Maine

Michael Malpass (Ithaca College)

Adan Umire, Oswaldo Chozo

May 10, 2004 to June 19, 2004

ArequipaMonday May 10 – Most of the team left Bangor early this morning and arrived here in Lima, the capital and largest city (pop. 8 million) in Peru.   Over the next few days we will meet up with our Peruvian colleagues, obtain our work permit, and assemble field equipment for the upcoming archaeological excavation near the town of Alca in the highland Cotahuasi valley.   To ready ourselves for work at Alca’s relatively high elevation we will be spending a few days acclimatizing in Arequipa, a beautiful highland city ringed by volcanoes.

Saturday May 15 – Today we traveled in a van across the Andean highlands, an arid, high altitude zone called the “puna.”   Much of the region is underlain by bedrock of Tertiary and Quaternary volcanics.   The highest elevations are rocky, glacially modified horns, some with icecaps.   The puna is a fascinating environment, with glacial moraines and associated landforms, volcanic features, and easily visible archaeological sites, including segments of the Inca Road.   After a 15 hour day of driving on a dirt road through spectacular scenery, in places over 4,900 meters   (16,300 ft) above sea level, we arrived at the edge of the Cotahausi valley, the world’s deepest canyon.

Coropuna Crew  Alca Street

Tuesday May 18 – We are now in the small village of Alca and have spent the last few days relocating three preceramic archaeological sites previously discovered in 1999 by Justin Jennings of the University of California at Santa Barbara.   Much of the first site, Purkaya, has been recently destroyed by bulldozers constructing a soccer field.   A second site named Aycano occupies the opposite side of the Cotahuasi River.   To access the site you have to cross a narrow and treacherous log bridge with the rushing waters of the river just a few meters below!   Due to safety concerns we will not be able to work at Aycano.   Luckily, the third site Waynuna (located at about 3,650 m/11,975 ft elevation) is intact and accessible, and it is there that we will concentrate excavations.

Puente de palos

In exchange for a few truck parts, our friends on the local police force transport us each day in their small pickup to the tiny village of Huillac from our home base in the Hostal Alcala.   We often stop to make road repairs, fixing deep ruts in the narrow dirt road with our shovels and buckets of gravel we gather from the roadside.   Although we have to pack our field equipment up a steep hour-long hike from Huillac to the site every morning, the view from Waynuna is worth it!   Occasionally, massive condors with two meter wingspans glide past the site to check us out, or we catch a glimpse of the elusive viscacha, a large, long-tailed rabbit that lives at the higher elevations. The weather here is incredible – bright, sunny, cloudless days and clear, chilly nights.   Each night the team meets in the restaurant below the Hostal to enjoy traditional highland Peruvian cuisine – delicious noodle soup, rice, potatoes, and occasionally a bit of chicken or thin steak with aji, a spicy chili paste.

Police Truck   View From Wayunna   Huillac   Wayunna

House Wall

Sunday May 30 – The team is in high spirits, as we have enjoyed great success in our twelve days of excavation at Waynuna.   We carefully dug into the ceramic period agricultural terraces that occupy the site surface and discovered a variety of artifacts, including Alca obsidian tools and flakes, ceramic potsherds and spindle whorls, bone tools and refuse, and organic remains.   A breakthrough finally came on May 23 when we reached the base of the terrace fill and encountered a stratified series of older buried preceramic living surfaces, the first excavated evidence of preceramic habitation in the Cotahuasi valley.   The discovery of an intact house wall with associated features and refuse, including artifacts of Alca obsidian and datable organic remains, will tell us how old the site is and will help us study possible connections between Waynuna and the coastal site Quebrada Jaguay.

Excavation Crew
Team with Horses

Monday June 7 – With most of the team heading back to the States it is time to begin the next phase of our research – geoarchaeological investigation of the highland Alca obsidian source.   Two Peruvian colleagues Adan Umire and Delfin Condori, Benjamin Morris (UMaine), and I will be heading up the Rio Chococo from Alca to reach the remote Quebrada Pulhuay, a valley at about 4,500-5,000 m elevation near the headwall of a large cirque, where, according to some local villagers, large quantities of obsidian can be found.   Since there are no settlements beyond 3,600 m elevation, we’re packing in our supplies on the backs of two horses and a burro and following old footpaths and segments of canal beds, and we should get to the cirque headwall after an all-day hike.   Once we establish our base camp we will spend about 12 days searching for obsidian outcrops and early preceramic archaeological sites.   We will also be checking out kettle lakes, moraines, and other glacial landforms around the cirque to learn about the area’s glacial history and to assess the potential for future paleoenvironmental study.


Base Camp Quebrada Pulhuay Kettle Lake

Obsidian Outcrop

Saturday June 19 – We have now returned to the town of Alca, as our work in the Quebrada Pulhuay is completed, and what a wonderful place it was!   The Alca obsidian source is much larger than previously known, spanning hundreds of acres and about 2,000 m of vertical relief.   We mapped the boundaries of the obsidian source and collected more than 100 rock samples for geochemical analysis.   Additionally, we located dozens of preceramic quarry, workshop, and occupation archaeological sites.   Thanks to a great field team who hiked endless miles and endured many nights of Ramen noodle soup, the llamas and alpacas that provided the dung for our “bosta” campfires, and of course the great people from the Cotahuasi valley for their kindness and hospitality.


With all of the information collected at the Waynuna site and the Quebrada Pulhuay, we will have a very busy fall and winter here at UMaine.   Technological analyses of artifacts recovered from Waynuna and geochemical analyses of Alca obsidian will be aimed at examining links between the Alca source, Waynuna, and Quebrada Jaguay to better understand preceramic highland occupations in southern Peru and possible relationships between this area and the adjacent coast.