Dr. Jo Ellen Burkholder provides new insights at March meeting
~ report by Anne Wilson-Dooley ~
Dr. Jo Ellen Burkholder’s topic on March 31 attracted a good-sized audience and we were treated to an examination of the importance of drawing on local cultural traditions, stories, and architecture in interpretation of archaeological remains. She brings to this work her interests in gender and ethnicity studies and recognition of the sacred.
Dr. Burkholder has been teaching at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for 14 years and has worked in Bolivia and Peru for 20 years. She was attracted to the area by the extent of preservation of archaeological remains in the dry environment.
The archaeological focus of her talk was on her excavations at the site of Pisanay in the Sihuas Valley in the Arequipa Region. The site is located on a peninsula type formation stretching out into the Sihuas Valley. To the west is the Pacific coast and to the east the majestic peaks of the Andes.
The broader focus was on recognition of the sacred, gender and ethnicity in archaeological structures, artifacts, and motifs. Archaeological investigation looks for the sacred outside our experience, including music, even smells. From her work in Peru she knows that the traditions give substantial meaning to the landscape, topographic and geologic elements – including stones and rock formations. The mountains are thought to have personalities; they can have relationships and interact with each other; they are capable of “amazing” things.
As an example of context and knowledge, in looking at the altar in a family home, elements from Christian and local traditions were fairly easily recognized as sacred by their form and location on the altar. Other items like stones had meaning to family members and were placed on the altar because they came from a particular place, perhaps a magical place, or were picked up along a pilgrimage.
Dr. Burkholder’s local knowledge led to increased interpretation of motifs on textiles and pottery. There are two ethnic groups in her area and today they can be recognized at a single location by the differences in the woven clothing they are wearing. Seeking evidence of females in their art, Burkholder pointed out some figures on textiles perhaps representing local traditions of women squatting and holding onto a pole during childbirth. One of the pan-Andean stories still told today is represented in ancient woven and ceramic art: a woman impregnated by a fox.
At another point she talked about an example from the landscape of a small pile of stones, then a bit further along was another, similar, small pile of stones and then another. It ended up with over a mile of these, roughly in a line, clearly placed intentionally.
At site excavation at Pisanay again the interpretations were informed from local knowledge. In one of the units they recognized a sunken pit that had structural elements of a stairway on one side and four pits on the floor. The pits were assumed to be supports of some type of a roof. Associated with the structural items there were some stones at the top of the stairs and remnants of color on some of them, probably offerings. An important find in the area of the stones was a colored bead of a non-local shell which suggested perhaps a more sacred meaning for the structure. Also, there was evidence of cuy (guinea pig) and s. molle for a drink in the structure along with shards of cups, as evidence of feasting. The Pachamama goddess traditions of the Andes with her being associated with earth and fertility may help in interpreting the artifacts found within the structure. Based on current structures, the poles probably supported a light weight mat over an open air structure.
Near her second unit of excavation, large stones created an alignment with the mountains to the east perhaps giving them special meaning and perhaps serving as an “observation platform.”
In a third area of the site are circular ground formation of “Nazca-line” essence. These are perhaps more easily interpreted as sacred but of unknown meaning.
We sincerely thank Dr. Burkholder for being our speaker and providing so many examples of the intertwining of local knowledge with archaeological interpretation.
Pisanay and the Endangered Rock Art Traditions of Arequipa, Peru by Jo Burkholder - 2017