It’s been nearly a year since my last post, but there’s been a lot going on: new job, new city, etc.. Recently, however, I read the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann, which reveals what the Americas were really like before Columbus arrived. Although it’s a great read from cover to cover, I’d like to draw your attention to pages 198-199:

“On the day I [Mann] visited, the team was unburying a city they called HUARICANGA, after a nearby hamlet. Here the Pan-American Highway had, as it turned out, sliced through some of the oldest public architecture anywhere on earth.”

The entire chapter, entitled “Cotton (or Anchovies) and Maize,” focuses on early civilization in South America with quite a bit of attention on the Norte Chico region. Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer–my friends and colleagues–are featured rather predominantly as befitting their standing among archaeologists working in the area.

Moral of the story, the mention of the archaeological site (where I spent such a wonderful time with my HARP team members) in a national bestseller has motivated me to get back on track with publications. So stay tuned to our Results page!


For more from Charles C. Mann check out his post on The Atlantic.

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Huaricanga Then and Now: Who Owns the Past?

During the final week of my recent fieldwork in Peru I visited Huaricanga to look up old friends in the community. It was the first time I had been back to the site in three years. As I pulled into that old familiar “parking lot” I was a bit surprised to see that one of the mounds was not quite as tall as it was when I left it in 2012.

Mound B3 is an accumulation of residential architecture about 20 m away from where I did my dissertation research (Mound B2). In 2012, Mound B3 stood 4.5 m tall and it was from its summit where I used to set up the Total Station. As you can see in the photos below, most of Mound B3 has been destroyed.

Mound B3 in 2012 (arrow).

Mound B3 in 2012 (arrow).

Mound B3 in 2015.

Mound B3 in 2015.

An individual living at Huaricanga had decided to level the mound in order to bury a concrete tube in the ground and connect his/her home to the local sanitation pipeline. The bulldozer used to complete the destruction was still on site when I visited. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture had documented the incident and issued a denuncio, which equates to a sort of lawsuit that the individual will have to “fight” for the next several years. Many papers will be signed and trips to the town hall made. Ultimately, however, no tangible repercussions (e.g. fines or jail time) will be passed down and the damage to Mound B3 has already been done.

Bulldozer at the scene of the "crime."

Bulldozer at the scene of the “crime.”

Although initially irate, the situation brought to mind some interesting ethical dilemmas. For example, can the local community decide on the fate of its own cultural heritage? Is it a crime to build a well, a school, or a hospital on a 5,000-year-old pile of stones and broken shell? What right, if any, does an archaeologist from thousands of miles away have to dictate how a community balances its current needs with its long-lost past?

Fortunately, that other mound where myself and HARP team members spent six months of our lives was largely intact. As you can see from the photos below, the protective measures we took to preserve it (stone walls and backfill) have served their purpose thus far. I’m hoping Mound B2 will still be around during my next visit to Huaricanga.

Irrigation Canal Profile in 2012.

Irrigation Canal Profile in 2012.

Irrigation Canal Profile in 2015.

Irrigation Canal Profile in 2015.

Summit of Mound B2 in 2012.

Summit of Mound B2 in 2012.

Summit of Mound B2 in 2015.

Summit of Mound B2 in 2015.

To learn more about my recent fieldwork at the Late Archaic (3000-1800 B.C.) site of Caballete, which is just a short drive north from Huaricanga, check out the Caballete Archaeological Research Project (CARP) Facebook page or visit our website.

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CARP Launch

I am pleased to announce that I have begun the next phase of my research studying South American prehistory. With generous funding from National Geographic and the Curtiss T. & Mary G. Brennan Foundation I have launched the Caballete Archaeological Research Project (CARP).

View of Caballete towards the northwest.

View of Caballete towards the northwest.

CARP is envisioned as a multi-year scientific investigation dedicated to exploring the emergence of complex societies along the north central coast of Peru. During the Late Archaic Period (3000-1800 B.C.), the region witnessed dramatic cultural transformations including the construction of monumental ceremonial architecture. This research project is focused on the Late Archaic site of Caballete in the Fortaleza Valley.

Caballete is a located approximately 8 km from the Pacific coast. The site consists of six large platform mounds roughly oriented in a U-shape. Three of the mounds are associated with sunken circular courts.

Google Earth image of Caballete above the Fortaleza River floodplain.

Google Earth image of Caballete above the Fortaleza River floodplain.

Over the next few years, CARP and its team members will document the ancient architecture, reconstruct what occurred at the site, and interpret the role that religion and ceremonial performance may have served in the development of early Andean civilization. Our first field season (2015) is a joint effort with the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies to conduct a multi-sensory survey at Caballete. This research phase will involve kite aerial photogrammetry to map the site as well as ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry to identify 5,000-year-old buried architecture. These methodologies will help to pinpoint subsurface features (walls and floors) for more targeted excavations in the future.

If interested in following the adventures of CARP in the field you can “like” our page on Facebook.

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Peruvian Archaeology in the South Suburbs

On Thursday, May 21 I gave a talk for the South Suburban Archaeological Society entitled “Religion and the Development of Andean Civilization.” The illustrated lecture was held at the Marie Irwin Community Center in Homewood, Illinois. There were about 30-40 members and guests in attendance and they graciously entertained my stories from Huaricanga. Although most of the folks are hobbyists, I was amazed at how much they’ve traveled and all of the archaeological sites they’ve seen. Some of them put my limited peregrinations through Peru to shame. Their enthusiasm was contagious and their questions were truly thought-proving (more so than some of my students!).

The South Suburban Archaeological Society is a chapter of the Illinois Association for the Advancement of Archaeology. Such groups are fantastic outlets for recent archaeological research as well as an enriching experience for public speakers trying to perfect their craft. I would likely to sincerely express my gratitude for their generous hospitality. I would love to visit them again soon!

South Suburban

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Science Dialogues: New Online Magazine for Integrating Science

Check out my post to Science Dialogues, a new online magazine dedicated to integrating science in the modern world by facilitating and fostering intellectual ties and friendships across disciplinary boundaries: http://sciencedialogues.com/?p=1593.

In the post I mention my recently defended Ph.D. dissertation (which was accepted by the UIC Grad College last week following their final review of formatting!) as well as my upcoming project–more on the latter to come. For now here is a sneak peak at the possible next site…

A General View of Caballete

A General View of Caballete

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A Rite of Passage 24 Years in the Making

Major life events such as baptisms, puberty, freshman year of high school, marriage, and death are all rites of passage or rituals that mark the transition of an individual from one status to another. The concept of rites of passage was masterfully explored by the French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) in his book The Rites of Passage, which documented the transition from childhood into adulthood among a wide variety of societies.

According to van Gennep, rites of passage have three stages: separation, transition, and reincorporation. In the first stage, individuals are removed from their previous status and they prepare to enter into their new social role. The second stage is a liminal period in which individuals are in a sort of social limbo. During the final stage, individuals assume their new status and are quite literally brought back into the fold through ceremony or ritual performance. Recently, I experienced my own rite of passage.

By Adam Marien--gutterpunch.com

By Adam Marien–gutterpunch.com


Dissertation defense. Word choice can seriously affect your perceptions and attitudes surrounding just about anything. On Monday, May 5, 2014 at 2:00 pm (CT) I began the most important talk of my life (thus far) and the final one of my graduate student career–the presentation of my doctoral dissertation, also known as my “defense.”

Merriam-Webster defines “defense” as the “act or action of defending” or “something that is used to protect yourself.” Given that connotation, it is difficult not to get anxious about it, and rightfully so. I spent the last two years scavenging for funding (over $40,000 in the end–thanks HARP Donors!), conducting original fieldwork far from home (in Peru), spending months in the laboratory, and staying up long nights composing a 700-page volume on 5,000-year-old ceremonial architecture in South America. Given the effort, investment, and sacrifice required to complete a dissertation it would be ridiculous not to feel at least somewhat attached to it.

I am not afraid of public speaking. I actually enjoy it. However, the idea of presenting my dissertation in front of professors, peers, friends, and the general public with the intent of not only sharing my research, but justifying it, is entirely different. My pre-presentation routine typically involves a brief review of my talking script and a quick flip through my PowerPoint slides to ensure that the animations and transitions achieve the desired effect. My dissertation defense officially started at 2:00 pm. I was in the room a whole hour early making sure the lighting was right, the chairs were straight, and my water was strategically placed at the corner of the podium within my reach. I was so restless that I played the Game of Thrones opening theme on a continual loop in order to keep my nerves in check.

As 2:00 pm approached the room slowly filled up and I simply sat off to the side in my suit–you know, that thing you wear for weddings, funerals, and college interviews. I did not realize it at the time, but I simply sat there, rigid as a board staring straight ahead while I waited. I did not utter a word to anyone. I was clearly anxious and feeling that separation.


It is customary for your adviser to introduce you to the audience. My adviser and committee chair was Dr. Jonathan Haas, a foremost expert on the archaeology of South America and the American Southwest. He can be an intimidating guy, at least if you are his student. Throughout our relationship he has pushed me intellectually and personally while always having my back and offering his support. I was in need of some of that support at 2:00 pm.

Before getting up to the podium he whispered to me that he would tell a story that he has never told anyone before. Now I won’t share what he told the audience, but it had them in stitches and things got a little bit easier for me from then on.

The presentation was the easy part for me, although a few of the audience members were a bit distraught when a black PowerPoint slide came up. I guess they didn’t expect the theatrical element of an empty slide to emphasize the period of abandonment at the site.

The 30 minute-talk was followed by the most brutal portion of the defense: the Q & A. I feel as though the questions are the hardest because there is just no way to prepare for them since you have no idea what may be asked. Someone told me going into the defense that you simply can’t worry, “because you’re the expert in the room on whatever you’re talking about.”

Regardless of the “expert status,” standing behind a podium at the front of the room while everyone watches to see how you react to intense questioning makes you want to run right out of there. Nevertheless, you have come that far and you are so close to leaving the world of graduate students to become a doctor (I hesitate to say “professor” because we all know about the tough job market) that you simply have to push through it all.Podium

I fully felt the transition during the closed door executive session following the public defense. After the questions, everyone left and it was simply me, my committee, and the data. It was a fantastic opportunity to groupthink about my research, to make publication plans, and to intensively analyze what I had done. The experience was incredibly productive and I am grateful for the chance to have such fine scholars help me work through some interpretative hangups that I may have had.


After the executive session I was excused from the room. As the door closed behind me I felt a quick burst of dread wondering if I had really done “enough.” What would they say when I wasn’t there? Those temporary fears were assuaged just 10 minutes later when I was invited back in to the room (Note: Those 10 minutes felt like an eternity to me). My adviser stood at the door with his hand held out for a handshake and he simply said “congratulations.” I replied with a hug.

I have been in school for 24 out of the 28 years that I have been on this planet. Although my formal education is over, going through this rite of passage has prepared me for a lifetime of informal learning. I could not have done it without the help of so many and I will gladly spend the rest of my lifetime giving it back.

Graduation Selfie

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Doctoral Dissertation Defense

Earning a Ph.D. is a whole bunch of work. For me, it has taken seven whole years! Fortunately I am finally approaching the finish line and next Monday, May 5 I will defend my doctoral dissertation. A defense is a rite of passage for academics whereby we present our research to a panel of experts (five in my case) and a public audience. Questions are asked and the committee determines whether or not I pass. The whole process takes about two hours, yet this has been a lifetime in the making. I will be defending in Chicago on campus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. If you’re around, feel free to stop by and provide support…or heckle. The flyer for the event is here: Piscitelli defense flyer_edited.

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Happy Holidays from HARP!

All I want for Christmas is…TO FINISH MY DISSERTATION! While there is considerable excitement and anxiety involved in organizing, preparing, and executing a successful archaeological field project it is nothing compared to writing up the results for a dissertation. Nevertheless, no matter how tedious and painful writing the dissertation can be, it is my biggest responsibility as a professional archaeologist. Remember, archaeology is a destructive process and if I don’t document what I find I will have destroyed priceless cultural heritage.

That being said, I’ve been a bit MIA recently because I have dedicated much of the last few months to writing my Ph.D. thesis. The results are coming together and there is much to report! I have already posted the results of many of the analyses including pollen and micromorphology on this website (see Results page). Over the next few weeks I will also make a more dedicated effort to blogging.  Until then I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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Floor Stains and Ancient Ales

What do floor stains and ancient ales have in common? Well, archaeologists use similar techniques when analyzing residues on ancient surfaces or reconstructing prehistoric beer recipes.

Recently I decided to do some exploratory data analysis using the leftover floor samples I had from the XRF analysis. The idea is to test the floors to see if I can identify some of the biological components of the burnt offerings (e.g. plant species, fish, shellfish, guinea pig–oh, the humanity!).

Enter Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometry. FTIR uses infrared spectroscopy to reveal how compounds adhere to artifacts or surfaces, including organic residues from plants and animals. These signatures can then be compared to known examples in order to identify what types of organic materials were associated with the artifacts or features.

For my exploratory experiment I dissolved 1 cc of a single floor sample in 1 cc each of  hexane, amyl acetate, xylene, and de-ionized water. I spun those in a centrifuge so that the homogeneous floor sample settled to the bottom of the test tube. I then piped out the solvent and put it on a depression of aluminum foil. The last step was the most exciting–I waited for the solvent to evaporate. It was literally like watching water dry. The first three solvents dissolved within 30 minutes, but the de-ionized water took much longer.

Solvents are used to dissolve the compounds. Here you see all of the materials used in the preliminary steps of FTIR analysis.

Solvents are used to dissolve the compounds. Here you see all of the materials used in the preliminary steps of FTIR analysis.

With the help of Field Museum conservator and science guru, JP Brown (he’s also largely responsible for the CT mummy scanning project), we identified a few particulates in the xylene mixture that may be something. At this point it is too difficult to tell. Unfortunately the amount of residue that remained is probably too small for FTIR but we may be able to use a powerful microscope to identify the material.

JP Brown looking at possible organic compounds under a microscope.

JP Brown looking at possible organic compounds under a microscope.

We’ve called in another expert who just so happens to be a volunteer at the Field Museum, Dick Bisbing. Dick served The McCrone Group for 25 years as Executive Vice President and Director of Services at McCrone Associates. He specializes in ultra-microanalysis and microscopy for a variety of real-world problems including criminal cases. In other words, he’s like a cross between Bill Nye the Science Guy and CSI.

Stay tuned…

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Using Modern Technology to Reconstruct Ancient Ritual

Ceremonial structures like the 5,000-year-old temples I have been investigating at Huaricanga are marvels to behold. Often such buildings are well-maintained and represent the dedicated effort of ancient individuals who invested considerable time and materials in their construction. Walls and doorways tend to have elaborate decorations as well. When discovered, temples and churches receive quite a bit of attention from public media. For the field archaeologist, however, ceremonial architecture can be a pain in the butt. By its very nature, religious structures tend to lack any evidence of the activities that took place within them. Consider, for example, a contemporary church. Indeed it would be quite unusual to see domestic trash inside the walls of a place of worship. Culturally specific norms of sacred purity tend to forbid the accumulation of “unclean” remains within holy spaces resulting in a lack of artifacts in ceremonial contexts. Unfortunately, archaeologists rely on trash to interpret the past. Therefore, archaeologists need unconventional methods to reconstruct ancient ritual activities.

It's not really as hard as it looks!

It’s not really as hard as it looks!

Modern scientific techniques available at the Field Museum can remedy the situation. The Huaricanga Archaeological Research Project (HARP) is one of the first projects in the Andes to utilize X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) to reconstruct ancient religious rituals. XRF involves the use of X-Rays to penetrate a substance and excite the electrons within it. This electron “excitement” can be measured in parts per million for individual elements. XRF is often used to source ceramics or volcanic glass as individual clay or obsidian sources will have their own particular elemental signatures. This technique of measuring signatures can also be applied to archaeological surfaces.

All human activities leave residues. Take, for example, a coffee stain. Although you may be able to wash out the chai latte from your shirt, that liquid still leaves a material trace, a change in the elemental composition of the shirt that cannot be erased. This trace, however, can be detected using XRF.

During my archaeological fieldwork last year, I sampled a variety of temple floors for XRF analysis. This involved systematically scrapping off the uppermost layers of each floor with a clean trowel every 50 cm. Samples were taken across a single surface and between surfaces in order to look at rituals synchronically and diachronically. The bits of floor were placed in small baggies, labeled, and exported to the U.S. for analysis.

All that collecting XRF samples from ceremonial floors in the sun seemed to have turned my skin as red as my t-shirt.

All that collecting XRF samples from ceremonial floors in the sun seemed to have turned my skin as red as my t-shirt.

With the help of Elise Blindauer (an undergraduate at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, see picture below), I was able to analyze over 200 samples using the XRF device at the Field Museum’s Elemental Analysis Facility. Raw results were statistically cleaned and then separated according to their sampling location on the floor (GPS coordinates were taken with a Total Station). Elemental enrichment levels were coupled with their locations and plotted using GIS to create maps per element.

Elise helping out with the XRF.

Elise helping out with the XRF.

While it is obvious that the elemental concentrations are not consistent across single surfaces or over time, what these maps ultimately mean is a bit tricky. Since this is a new technique, interpretation is difficult. In Aztec temples, for example, areas with a high concentration of iron suggest that animals were sacrificed there since iron is a major component of blood. Other archaeological projects have clearly associated phosphorous with the use of plant remains. At Huaricanga, such interpretations will take time, but such is the difficulty in using cutting edge technology. Please see the HARP Results page for more information and exciting new finds!

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