Archaeological Survey Amidst Switchbacks and Gunshots – 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 13, 2015

Dave’s prediction had been right; I awoke with a smile as sunlight bled through the polyester tent walls. I listened as Kurt rummaged outside and keenly tuned in to the ignition of gas that escaped the MSR—coffee would soon be ready.

I emerged from my tent just in time to catch Brett, the 6’4” Canadian and 4th and final member of our survey team, making quick, long strides to the flowing stream. As if with calculated timing he instantly crouched over upon reaching the water source and vomited relentlessly. He had been less fortunate than the rest of us and had fallen victim to altitude sickness. Uncertain as to whether my primary concern was his privacy, or the preservation of my own stomach, I decided to dismiss the circumstance and pursue breakfast.

By the time we had dismantled camp and loaded up the truck, everyone seemed to be in higher spirits; the promise of rock art and shelters beckoned. We had been on the road for approximately one hour before catching sight of a small town nestled in the terrace-network of the approaching hills. As we drew closer, the sounds of a gunshot from an uncomfortably near source sent me flying down into the foot space of the pickup’s backseat. Bret jolted as well though his size prevented him from assuming a similar degree of cover. Kurt and Dave laughed from the front of the truck before contemplating the date and thus, the cause for festivities. As often happens while in the field, days had passed without much attention and we found ourselves passing through this town’s celebration of Independence Day—a justified affair for drunken and rowdy civilians. I was forced to acknowledge my lack of conditioning as three more consecutive blanks were fired. To my relief, it was decided that we would take a route to avoid the center of town and thus any unexpected roadblocks.

As we peeled around the mountain’s edge the town disappeared from rear-view mirror sight. While jostling over poorly paved switchbacks, Bret drew our attention to the truck’s broken seat belts. After glimpsing out the window and over the road’s open edge he jested, “well, if we keel off the road at least there would be zero chance of survival.” And in a strange, fatalistic manner this sentiment seemed to ease our collective fear of the depths below as well as Kurt’s grip on the wheel.

It wasn’t long before we hit an unanticipated fork in the road at the mouth of what seemed to be a village of miners and their families. We decided to take a right, in hopes of finding a road that lead down the canyon, by somewhat of a guess. As we drove around the outskirts of the village we were silenced by the sight of a teenage boy and his apparent younger sister pulling a truck of ore to a nearby tent. Extensive mining is a relatively recent phenomenon in the South of Peru, emerging as early as ten years ago in this particular region. It was a difficult sight to behold, as child labor tends to be. It wasn’t until twenty minutes later when Kurt broke the silence with his concern as to whether or not these families were educated about the health repercussions associated with extensive time spent in the mines.

Mining Country  Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci
Mining Country. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci

“Now I remember where we are,” Kurt announced long after we had passed by the lasts of any sort of civilization. “Get ready to see some mind-bending scenery,” he spat as we pulled around the base of a red-yellow alluvial fan. It was difficult to grasp our location while coiling through road systems that were encapsulated by the walls of jagged mountains. As we pulled around the last peak in the range we were confronted by clear skies that were cut unforgivingly by a horizon of hundreds of red-brown mountain peaks. Our elevation dwarfed the vista, giving it the impression of a dirt bike arena. We glided into this surreal landscape on a one-way road without rails on either side. If there had been room to turn around, or nerve to back up, we may have proceeded differently. However, in lack of such commodities, it was deep into mining country we went.

Road to the Ocoña Basin. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci
Road to the Ocoña Basin. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci
Abandoned House in Río Grande. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci
Abandoned House in Río Grande. Photo Credit: Katherine Morucci