Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

The Beginnings of a Collaborative Archaeology Project on the Eastern Andean Slopes

By: and Samantha Seyler

October 22, 2018

As a second year PhD student in Anthropology about to enter my third and final year of coursework, I was nervous as I planned my summer. I had spent the last year researching the history of the region surrounding the town of Comas on the eastern slopes of the central Peruvian Andes. And I had become fascinated with the area’s role in pre-colonial Andean polities as well as its more recent history of resistance to state projects. After spending so much time thinking about this town and the surrounding region I was nervous. I was pretty sure that there would be archaeological sites–even though dense vegetation and satellite imagery quality had made it impossible to confirm this. What I wasn’t sure about, though, was how people would react to me, a gringa, talking about a potential archaeological project.

After spending years on various archaeological projects concerned with cultural heritage and community archaeology, this was the first summer I was to go out on my own and do it. I was nervous to present myself for the first time to the community I had been thinking about working with over the last few months. And I was nervous my ideas would be met with skepticism if not outright rejection.

Luckily, going out on my own actually meant traveling to Comas with graduate student Bethany Whitlock (Brown University) and Penn Museum Consulting Scholar Dr. Douglas Smit. Archaeology is rarely an individual endeavor.

When we arrived in Comas we quickly learned that there were indeed archaeological sites of interest and we spent time touring them with different community members. In between site tours and trips to nearby towns, a lot of time was spent talking to different community members about the area’s archaeological sites, town politics, tourism, and the Chileans (who, during the War of the Pacific, suffered a crushing attack from the peasants of Comas and the surrounding area in 1882). And a lot of time was spent sitting in the plaza, translating Spanish words into English for primary school children on their lunch breaks. After a week in Comas, a short trip to the Amazonian town of Satipo, and another few days in town, I left Comas with the promise that I would be back at the end of the summer.

Bethany Whitlock and Dr. Smit preparing for a rainy hike to an archaeological site. Photo by author.
Coma’s Plaza. Photo by author.

At the end of the summer, after working on an archaeological project in the central highland city of Huancavelica, I returned to Comas. I wanted to demonstrate to the people I had spent time talking to previously that I was committed to both them and the project I had discussed at the beginning of the summer. And I wanted to talk to the Community President, who had been out of town during my earlier visit.

In conversations with the Community President and the Mayor’s Office I communicated how important the community’s comfort with and support of the project was to me as well as what the phases of an archaeology project might look like (something I had spent a summer rehearsing in my head). In both of these conversations I was given support for my project, and after a few days in Comas, I headed for Lima and then home.

View of Comas and surrounding landscape. Photo by author.

Even though I had received support from both the Community President and the Mayor’s Office, walking away from this summer I felt insecure about my position within the community of Comas. After talking to professors and colleagues about my summer, they would say some version of, “Well, it sounds like it went well!” And even though I kept getting this feedback, I continued to feel an internal unease. A combination of excitement and uncertainty and other things I couldn’t quite pin down.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand what that feeling is.  And recently, I’ve been more welcoming of that feeling. I think it’s my own recognition that building collaborative archaeological projects really is a project, a process. I’ve decided that this insecurity is good. It’s the feeling of me holding myself accountable.  It’s the recognition that real collaborative work relies on the continuous process of building mutual trust and respect. Just because I’ve been given permission to work in Comas, doesn’t mean I will always have that permission. It doesn’t mean I can assume there won’t be future objections to my work. It reminds me that collaborative, community archaeology more than anything is about the types of relationships you foster with the people you work and learn and live with.

Because of this feeling, I’ve decided to return to Comas sometime in early spring. Although I told people I would be back in May, I think its important to return sooner. I want to go back not just to remind people that I am committed to this project but also to continue having discussions with the community and its leaders about what a collaborative archaeology project looks like. I don’t want to go back to alleviate that unease inside me, but to embrace it and continue to foster the types of relationships that it demands of me.