Ruins and Rock Art Along the Road to Illomas – Katherine Morucci

September 16, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

August 15, 2015

Upon reaching the bottom of the basin Kurt was ready for a break. He shook out his hands, one by one, and vigorously pushed at his short black hair while massaging his temples with his palms. The forty-five minutes of the white-knuckled canyon decent had been taxing on Kurt. We drove through the cobbled bed of what once must have been a raging river but was now little more than a stream. Dave spotted another one of the many blue and white Ministry of Culture signs that we had passed since our survey began.

“Hey, why don’t we go check out that site and take a lunch break,” he said as he pointed toward the sign.

“Good idea, I’ll head toward it and give me a shout when you spot the site,” Kurt responded. The truck heaved over stone after stone and growled as its engine was revved before Kurt shifted into four-wheel drive. We approached the sign and surpassed its border before stopping. Kurt flung open the door and hopped out after admitting he had no idea where the site was but that we could continue from there on foot.

“We’re standing on it,” said Dave as he too dismounted from the passenger side. Shocked, as if the ground had heated to a lava-hot temperature, we all carefully lifted our feet in an attempt to avoid further destruction. We looked around at the stone deposit beneath us, which being accustomed to the archaeology of very early periods, appeared to be nothing more than a mining supply.

On the Road. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci
On the Road. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci

“Well, why on earth didn’t you say something,” Kurt choked as he hobbled off to the side of a mound. Dave laughed quietly and admitted that he thought we had seen it and that it was a strange decision to drive over it. Unfortunately, the site had been completely destroyed at some point, which we assumed was associated with the emergence of mining in the area. The toppled architecture rotated beneath the pressure my feet as I too, awkwardly dismounted the pile. Bret, whose long legs were designed to effectively deliver his body from peril, was already standing to the side.

“Well, getting out of this one will be a job,” he said with a cocked smile as he lit a cigarette. We were met by the reality of this sardonic statement moments later while supplying manpower to push the truck uphill and out of the destruction zone. The eventual success of this venture was enough to re-boot morale and it was decided that we would continue up the river bed in search of a new road that would eventually bring us back up the canyon.

We picked up onto the trace of an unofficial road and followed it to our dismay to a closed gate adorned with a guardhouse. A moment of silence fell over us as fear set in regarding the obstruction in our attempt to identify a route that early humans may have utilized to ascend from the Ocoña Basin to the puna. We waited, and Kurt mused whether or not someone was working the station, as it was Independence Day. Before long I had been elected to play the role of the confused gringa (female English-speaker), whose job it would be to ask directions, or rather determine if there was a guard present from whom directions could be asked.

Confident in my art of cunning, I leapt from the truck and dashed over to the guardhouse. After careful inspection I had determined the house to be empty. I walked to the front of the car and stood there looking at the passengers inside. I met a few apprehensive eyes and a shrug of the shoulders before turning toward the gate and giving it a little shove. I stepped aside and the car passed through it and stopped just ten meters ahead in order to let me back in after closing the gate. It was decided that if anyone lie ahead we would be honest and ask if we were headed toward the road to Illomas.

While we knew the search for cave sites in this part of the canyon would be near impossible due to the presence of heavy mining action, we were pleasantly surprised by what we encountered. Kurt detected the first sign of potential—a flat-faced rock smothered in red ochre. We pulled over and decided to survey on foot. Within minutes Dave was heard laughing to himself and called us over. In awe we stood in front of a life-sized rock art inscription of a human-like figure. The following moments were filled with a rapid discovery of the same figure on other nearby rock faces as well as heavily patterned rock art motifs. The thrill of having discovered these images carried us through the end of our survey and up to the anticipated moment of the start of our own excavation, of the Cuncaicha rock shelter.

Rock Art in the Basin . Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci
Rock Art in the Basin. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci