2019 Excavations at Cerro San Isidro

Excavations at Cerro San Isidro, June 2019

In June and July 2019, David Chicoine and Jeisen Navarro directed the first scientific excavations at the ancient complex of Cerro San Isidro located in the Moro region, Nepeña Valley, north-central Peru. With the financial support of the National Science Foundation (NSF award number No. 1853905) the field project, planned for three seasons between 2019 and 2021, aims at building data sets to integrate with those at the high Andean site of Pashash. This is to generate comparative insights into the rise of divine lordships in a small neighbouring basin located at a much lower altitude between 400 and 600 meters above sea level.

General view of Cerro San Isidro sector (looking Northeast)

Cerro San Isidro was chosen because of its strategic location in the middle of the Moro pocket, visibility from major fortified settlements and ceremonial monuments, and location near irrigation canals. Based on previous surface surveys by Donald Proulx, Richard Daggett and Hugo Ikehara, the size and stylistic diversity of cultural materials pointed to a long and sustained human presence going back to at least the middle of the first millennium BCE.

Over the course of nine weeks, a team composed of US and Peruvian archaeologists excavated 191 square meters, focusing their efforts on the San Isidro Sector: Jose Rios (archaeology student, Universidad Nacional de Trujillo), Carlos Ciriaco (archaeology student, Universidad Nacional Santiago Antunez de Mayolo), Audrey DeLuac (MA anthropology student, Louisiana State University), Monica Fenton (MA anthropology student, Louisiana State University), Christopher Nicosia (PhD anthropology student, Louisiana State University).

Jacob Bongers piloting a drone over Cerro San Isidro, June 2019

George Lau and Jacob Bongers visited the site and drone mapped a late rectangular stone enclosure, probably a Late Intermediate Period (~1000-1400 CE) structure. Here, stratigraphic excavations revealed a superimposition of at least three building phases, going back to the Late Formative Period (800-450 BCE). Based on preliminary stylistic analyses of pottery and lithics, the team hypothesises that Cerro San Isidro was occupied from at least 600 BCE until the 1400 CE, just prior to the Inka conquest of the region. The rich deposits yielded more than a metric ton of pottery and hundreds of lithic artifacts. Analyses are ongoing and should bring important new information regarding ancient technologies, trade networks, foodways, arts and crafts.

David Chicoine presenting on the Cerro San Isidro field research, SAAS meeting in Tuscaloosa (E. Cruzado)

David Chicoine presented preliminary results of those analyses and the 2019 excavations at the Sixth Biennial Meeting of the Society for Amazonian & Andean Studies held at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on October 5-6. David and Jeisen are currently preparing a report of the 2019 for Peru’s Ministry of Culture, as well as planning the second field season of the Cerro San Isidro project in 2020. Stay tuned!

Cerro San Isidro team at the end of backfilling, July 2019

David Chicoine


Wrapping up the 2019 field season

The 2019 field season for the ‘Rise of Divine Lordships in the Ancient Andes‘ project is winding up after a tremendously successful summer!

Seven units, including two large horizontal exposures, have been excavated across Pashash this season and some amazing discoveries have been made, including an array of decorated ceramics, figurines, beads and other offerings. Last week the team completed excavations and finished backfilling the units they worked on in early September.

The group have mapped the visible walls and produced a 3D model, orthomosaic, and digital elevation model (DEM) of the site. The archaeological survey recorded over 25 sites in the area around Cabana and the new settlement pattern data helps to locate Pashash in its broader regional, environmental and cultural landscape context.

The team also worked full-time on lab work this month, photographing artefacts, filling out field forms, and finalizing inventory. The work has involved cleaning, labelling materials, boxing and prepping for museum storage: over 50,000 fragments and 80 boxes of ceramics!

On September 12th, the PIARP team held a conference in Cabana to present the initial findings of the project. George Lau, Milton Luján, and Jacob Bongers gave presentations on their work at Pashash. At the end of the conference, project members were honoured with certificates of recognition from the municipality and school community. 

The ‘Rise of Divine Lordships in the Ancient Andes‘ project will continue back in UK and US now, as team members develop and write up their findings from the field, alongside planning the next stages of the project.

Excavation visits

The team have recently been hosting a number of visitor and school groups to the excavation sites, to inform the local community about field activities, the value of archaeology and archaeological heritage, and their role in the future. They have received over 200 visitors in the space of just a few days, hosting up to five groups a day!

With project finds and local members of the project team on hand, regional museums will also serve as key venues for additional outreach and presentations. In years 3-4 of the project, staff and local archaeology BA students will oversee temporary exhibitions and posters at the museums, to highlight the richness and potential of local archaeology.

The archaeological record is one of Peru’s greatest resources; and educating groups about its heritage value is a crucial first step in nurturing long-term protection and development strategies, especially for underdeveloped areas.

Drones and aerial surveillance

Dr Jacob Bongers using drone technology for site surveillance

Senior Research Associate Dr Jacob Bongers has recently been using a DJI Mavic Pro drone to capture aerial photographs for surveying the site at Pashash. Before joining the Sainsbury Research Unit at UEA, Jacob conducted archaeological fieldwork in Portugal, Chile, Ethiopia, Oman, and Peru. He brings his skills in archaeological excavation and survey, mapping, GIS, photogrammetry, aerial photography, and 3D modelling to the project.

Jacob flying the DJI Mavic Pro drone

Jacob has been using a program called Agisoft Photoscan Pro to process the aerial photographs and produce three kinds of output: 1) 3D models, 2) digital elevation models (DEMs), and 3) orthomosaics. Digital elevation models are 2D representations of elevation values across the photographed area. Orthomosaics are geometrically corrected images of the photographed area, composed of several “stitched” photos.

The drone work has been nothing short of a great success. Jacob has been able to produce a full model of Pashash with over 900 photos! The results are very informative for the project because they highlight certain platforms at the site that may have served ceremonial functions. In addition, they have “digitally preserved” Pashash, thereby effectively producing a digital record of an important part of Peruvian cultural heritage.

The team look forward to sharing the full output of the drone site surveillance at a later date…. Stay tuned!

Carmelo and Manuel drone gazing

Stone carving and pottery at Pallasca

Pallasca’s stone carving and pottery were among the most accomplished in all of ancient Peru. Current evidence indicates that, by ca. AD 200, Pashash (Cabana) became its political and cultural centre. Impressive ruins extend across a steep ridgeline and its best-known part, ‘La Capilla,’ covers a major hilltop. Smaller sites occupying adjacent hilltops were part of Pashash’s multivillage cluster (a common settlement pattern for Recuay polities). Also nearby are extensive terraces, corrals, canals, and a large water reservoir.

La Capilla features four large wall-block constructions (15m tall x 30m wide). The rest of the terraced hilltop is covered with well-made masonry structures. Finely dressed stonework adorned the most important buildings, which probably had elite residential functions (administration, ritual, burials). Research in the 1970s (Grieder, Bueno) and early 2000s (government inspectors) discovered elite burials on La Capilla with impressive offerings, especially pottery and metalwork. Detailed mapping and project excavations in this sector will shed light on how these mortuary features were incorporated into the working facilities of a noble residence.

In the last couple of weeks, the team have been uncovering some fantastic remnants of Late Recuay pottery at Pashash. This unit 8 diagnostics haul offers evidence of a variety of polychrome painted vessels featuring zoomorphic and geometric imagery, as well as a snake relief carving (centre right).

Pottery shards include a fragment from a vessel depicting a large-beaked bird in a framed panel. Only two categories of birds were illustrated in Late Recuay pottery: those in which the large beak is the most important feature (as here), and those in which the large eyes are most important. Large-beaked birds likely include at least two types: the Andean condor and the alliguanga, a vulture native to the northern highlands of Peru.

Find of the day! (Unit 10) Low relief stone carving with whirling cross, with the negative impression left in the soil. This is one of a number of known examples of this type. The subject of rotation (as depicted here) was evidently symbolic of power and energy.

Project start: 2019 fieldwork underway!

The first summer of fieldwork has begun! Team members from the UK and USA headed out to northern Peru at the end of June to meet with colleagues and make preparations. Fieldwork in the Cabana and Moro districts is now well underway.

Morning light in Pashash
Dr David Chicoine with Lic. Jeisen Navarro and 2019 Cerro San Isidro team members in Moro fieldbase.
Mini rainbow