Pyramids, Plazas, and Plant Materials: Experiences Volunteering at the Huaca Pucllana
This semester, I decided to volunteer at the Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Inca archaeological site in Miraflores. The word “huaca” is a Quechua word meaning “sacred.” While working at the huaca, I’ve spent time with graduate students from other universities in Lima, in large part the University of San Marcos (the most prestigious public university in the city), and I have gotten a chance to sort through and categorize real archaeological materials and get a more in-depth view of this incredibly interesting and important site.
Background: History of the Huaca Puclllana
The Huaca Pucllana is a pre-Inca site based in Miraflores. It was one of the important religious and administrative centers of the Lima culture, a civilization which lived and built cities in the area in and surrounding the current city of Lima between 200 and 700 AD. It was later inhabited and used, primarily as a cemetery, by the Huari culture which lived and gained control in this area between 500 and 900 AD. The current day archaeological site contains a great pyramid, which was used by the spiritual leaders and elites of the Lima culture, the central plaza, which was used for ceremonies, usually conducted in honor of the shark, who was worshipped as a god by the Lima. The site also contains areas in which both the elite and commoner class people lived, giving archaeologists an important look into the ways in which the people in these two levels of society lived.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Lima were most likely a matriarchal society. The elite women buried in the Huaca Pucllana are found with many more grave goods and offerings than the men buried of the same status, showing that the political rulers, spiritual leaders, and most important people in this society were women. However, the Lima culture still, like many other cultures in the Americas at this time, practiced human sacrifice. Elite mothers specifically were sacrificed, likely as part of a ritual which took place during the transfer of power from one queen to another.
Another important aspect of the Huaca Pucllana is that all the buildings in the site built by the Lima are earthquake resistant. Lima, as a city built very close to a major fault line, is prone to earthquakes, the majority small, but some devastatingly large, like the 8.0 level earthquake which hit the coast of Peru in August 2007, causing damages, injuries, and deaths throughout the cities of Lima, Ica, and Pisco, among others. According to archaeologists working at the Huaca Pucllana however, the original construction of the site was unharmed during the earthquake. The only sections of the site which suffered any damages were the areas of restoration done by modern archaeologists. This shows that the Lima culture both knew about earthquakes, and spent time designing earthquake-resistant structures which could hold up against even very powerful ones.
After the Lima culture abandoned the huaca in 500 AD, the Huari culture moved in and took control over the area. The Huari primarily used it as a cemetery, and many important Huari people are buried on the top of the great pyramid in the site. The site began to be excavated in 1981, but not until after building projects destroyed many of the other sectors of what used to be a large city built in this area. Even so, the current day Huaca Pucllana is still in the process of being excavated; archaeologists estimate they have more than 30 years more of work to do to finish the site.
Volunteering at the Huaca: Experiences Working Here
The work at the Huaca Pucllana is divided into two categories: lab work and excavation. Lab work is conducted during the summer and early fall, when the temperature in Lima makes it too hot to excavate. Excavation takes place in the late fall and winter. Since my semester in Lima began in the summer through the early fall, the work I’ve been doing has been primarily lab work.
While working at the huaca I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with archaeology graduate students as well as some other undergraduate students. As a volunteer I help the graduate students with whatever it is that they’re doing on a given day, and I learn by example or by trial and error how to get things right.
Mostly, lab work involves categorizing, cataloguing, separating and organizing the material dug up during the last winter’s excavations. I’ve worked with many different types of material, from bones to vegetable and biological material to painted ceramics. Working with bone, vegetable, and biological material usually involves very carefully analyzing and separating the specimens based on species, so that the archaeologists later can analyze the foods eaten by the Lima people.
When working with painted ceramics, however, the goal is different. In important rituals, the Lima would destroy beautifully decorated ceramic vessels, as a way of offering something valuable to the gods. When these pieces of smashed ceramics are found, the volunteers help to reconnect the pieces and reconstruct it.
Working at the Huaca Pucllana is a fascinating way to learn more about the history and culture of the city of Lima! As a history major, working at the huaca has given me the chance to learn more about a very interesting and important early Peruvian civilization, as well as giving me some practical skills that I can use in future research if I decide to continue academic study in history or archaeology. The skills I’ve learned will also be an excellent addition to research skills on a resume. I’d recommend anyone with an interest in archaeology, culture, or history to spend some time volunteering at this important site.
Kate Iida is a history major at Barnard College and studied abroad with IFSA at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Lima in Spring 2018. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study program.