Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: Camille Weinberg

Wed, January 2, 2019
Graduate Student Spotlight: Camille Weinberg

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Camille Weinberg, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

You work at Jahuay, a settlement in the desert south coast of Peru, can you tell us a little about the site and its occupation history?

Jahuay a relatively small site on the beach at the mouth of a steep, eroded gully called the Topará Valley, about 3 hours south of Lima, Peru. The landscape is sandy coastal desert with heavy fog in the winters. Abutting the Panamerican Highway, which runs through the site, is a natural mound framed by steep hillsides to the east that climb to an elevated desert plain. This hill may have once been terraced and there is a small cemetery sector of looted tombs partway up it. Jahuay had not been extensively excavated until my collaborative work there in 2017 and 2018, apart from a few test pits done by an archaeologist in the 1950’s. It is known for having been a commoner village in the final centuries BCE at the end of a cultural period on the South Coast known as Paracas. We found buildings and trash middens from this period on and around the mound as well as the surrounding hillside, and the excavations focused on this occupation. The excavations I co-directed also showed a second, later settlement at Jahuay that was not previously documented. The westernmost area of the site by the beach, as well as the cemetery, seem to have been occupied approximately 1400 years later, probably in the Late Intermediate/Inca periods. The majority of Paracas research has focused on elite contexts, so this site is interesting to investigate because it is a commoner village.

How has the site’s location affected the preservation of artifacts and ecofacts? Are there issues you have had to deal with in order to collect samples?

I am fortunate to work in a region that offers exceptional preservation of organic remains. Everything preserves due to the hyperaridity of this coastal desert. This has contributed to the renown of Paracas material culture, and particulary elaborate elite textiles and burials. At Jahuay, many of the Paracas human remains from 2000 years ago still have skin and hair, and textiles and fishing nets are intact. In terms of studying diet, I have a much larger collection of plant remains than are available to archaeologists at sites where everything decomposes. From Jahuay, for example, we have fragile peanut shells that are 2000 years old in many of the deposits. The high preservation does mean there is a lot of material to collect and process in the field, and then clean and analyze, however. Also, despite the aridity, it is challenging once some contexts are exposed in the excavations. There is abundant coastal fog and drizzle during the austral winter, and the humidity makes it challenging to properly conserve some of the organic and human remains once they are removed from the ground. Another challenge presented in this sandy environment is that a lot of the sediment is very loose—we had to constantly be aware during excavations about potential areas of collapse.

You are using archaeobotanical materials such as phytoliths and starches to better understand what plants, both wild and cultivated, were utilized. Tell us about this form of analysis, starting with how you collect the samples all the way to how you analyze them. What are you looking for specifically?

Phytoliths are 3D silica forms that develop within the tissue of living plants. When plants burn or decompose, the phytoliths remain in situ for up to millions of years. Starch grains from plants remain in the sediment as well, or as residue on grinding stones, but are slightly more fragile than phytoliths. These microfossils have been used globally to identify ancient vegetation and this is an especially valuable method when organic material is poorly preserved at a site. At Jahuay, preservation is excellent so I have substantial macrobotanical remains (seeds, fruits, stems, etc.) to study from the excavations. However, by incorporating microfossil evidence in my archaeobotanical analyses, I can generate a more comprehensive view of plant use. Some plants do not produce phytoliths, while others do not preserve well in the archaeological record. Comparing multiple types of plant remains helps ensure I will not “miss” any plants in my study.

To study these microfossils, I sampled spoonfuls of sediment from different areas of Jahuay during excavations. I prioritized spots where plants were probably used by ancient inhabitants, such as trash piles or any ashy hearths for cooking. At UT, I am working in the Environmental Archaeology Laboratory (Director: Dr. Arlene Rosen) to process the samples to 1) isolate and 2) identify the microfossils. The general procedure is to sieve each sample to remove large particles, dissolve carbonate minerals within the sample using acid, burn away organic material in the sample in a furnace, and then centrifuge the sample in dense liquids to separate the microfossils from remaining minerals. Ultimately, I mount the isolated phytoliths/starches, which look like fine gray-white powder, in transparent glue on microscope slides. I study each slide under the microscope to identify and systematically count the microfossils that are diagnostic of particular plants. In some cases, microfossils indicate a species and plant part (e.g. a gourd rind), whereas others are less diagnostic but allow for broad comparisons in plant types (e.g. grasses versus woody tress/shrubs). It is crucial to have photographs or physical references to correctly identify the phytoliths and starches, and there is a learning curve because local flora differs between sites and regions. For my research, I want to distinguish between agricultural plants villagers might have been growing and wild plants they may have harvested from natural habitats in the desert if the area was more vegetated in the past.

Along with the archaeobotanical remains, you are also analyzing sediments, what strategies are you using when deciding where to collect samples from? Are there specific contexts you are focusing on?

Another aspect of my project is to reconstruct the local environmental history at Jahuay over the Holocene because the surrounding landscape may have influenced what people ate and the types of activities they carried out. This data will also be interesting to consider how the landscape has changed as the river channel incised, and whether human activity or floods associated with El Niño events were a part of that story. The plants from the excavations at Jahuay itself will tell me something about the surrounding landscape based on what people used. However, most of the data for this reconstruction is from 8 off-site geoarchaeological test pits I excavated on the desert plain above Jahuay along a transect perpendicular to the river channel. This desert plain is empty and unvegetated today but was once an active floodplain before the Topará River incised. I use various geoarchaeological laboratory techniques to determine how the sediments I documented in the test pits were deposited, and these will help show the geomorphology of this system and the valley’s formation. There were no visible plant remains in these strata, but I am examining microfossils from different layers to see if there were perhaps wetlands or riparian shrubland here prior to when the river channel incised. So far, phytoliths suggest there were periods in the distant past when this floodplain was a wetland. Ultimately, I will be dating some of the sediments to determine how the local environmental history relates to the settlement history of Jahuay and the use of plant resources by villagers there.

What first brought you to this research and how has your work evolved since you began?

I’ve always been interested in how humans interact with the natural habitats around them and by the end of my undergraduate degree I knew I wanted to work with paleoenvironmental and geoarchaeological data. I originally planned to do my dissertation in the Andean highlands around Cusco, however. I wanted to focus on wetland habitats, and the highlands have unique, high-altitude mossy peat bogs called bofedales which are used for herding alpacas. After visiting potential archaeological sites around Cusco in 2016, however, I realized running a project at such high altitudes would be too challenging for the scope of a dissertation project. I reconsidered the Peruvian coastline, where I had prior archaeological experience. A friend of mine, Jo Osborn (PhD student, University of Michigan) had selected Jahuay for her dissertation work, so I reached out to her about collaborating when I saw the site’s setting. Between the ocean, the river channel, and nearby wetlands, Jahuay has the dynamic environment I was always interested in investigating. Furthermore, it has been ideal to work with a colleague to run this excavation project while being able to focus on my own research questions and analyses.

Are there any particular challenges you have faced when conducting your fieldwork? If so, what were they and how did you navigate through them?

Sadly, Jahuay has been badly looted due to its high visibility and accessibility along the Panamerican Highway. A smaller road was cut through the site years ago, leaving exposed ancient walls and cultural material hanging out of the hillside below the heavily looted cemetery. My colleague first visited Jahuay in 2015, and now only a few meters of this exposure remain compared to her original photographs. The visible difference over the years we have worked there is striking. Jahuay has been repeatedly bulldozed in areas and part of the site is located right on the riverbank. Any time there is flooding or storms from El Nino it is vulnerable to erosion. It is difficult to witness and challenging to excavate a highly disturbed area. Despite carefully planning every spot to excavate, we ultimately had to just hope it would not be too disturbed. Our first unit in 2017 turned out to exactly frame an old looters’ pit. While excavating the natural mound at the center of Jahuay in 2018, we discovered a cable company installed a fiberoptic cable completely through the side of this feature. The cable passed through all our excavation units, cutting ancient Paracas walls and preventing us from excavating any deeper. We fortunately were able to open different units in this general area and discovered some excellent intact contexts, but it was a frustrating setback. Another morning in 2017, we arrived to excavate and found visitors illegally dismantling ancient exposed walls to collect river cobbles, even though the adjacent river channel is full of cobbles. I am grateful for what data we have salvaged for research during these two excavation seasons because less and less remains each year.

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