Excavating Tire Tracks

When I tell people I spend my summers on archaeological digs, eyebrows go up. Some ask if I've found any dinosaurs—nope, that's pale-ontology. Some ask if I get to keep the pots, bones, or beads I dig up—yikes, a double whammy, unethical and illegal. My favorite response is, "Oh, like Indiana Jones, right?" (For the record, I have never had to outrun a rolling boulder or a band of thieves.) At that point in the conversation, I give up—or I give in and tell a story of my adventures. The best one goes like this:

It was my first time leading an excavation. I was on the north coast of Peru with my adviser, Frances Hayashida, looking for prehistoric canals. These canals, we believed, allowed the desert to become the breadbasket of the Chimu empire—the people who ruled around 1200 A.D. before the legendary Inka. The Chimu controlled two-thirds of all agricultural land ever irrigated along the Pacific coast of South America. Control of the land led to the agricultural surplus that supported the Chimu and allowed their empire to expand. Large cities, like Chan Chan, the largest prehistoric city in the New World, about 200 kilometers to the south, proved our point. Fields like the ones we were surveying could have grown everything from cotton to corn to coca (the plant used centuries later to make cocaine) for the emperor in Chan Chan. Around 1460 A.D. the Inka, who may have been enticed by the productivity of these fields, conquered the Chimu. Understanding the canals, we believed, may lead to understanding the essence of the Chimu empire, its growth, and—the quintessential question of archaeology—its conquest (insert mystical flute music here).

As I watched Frances walk out of earshot that day last summer, I knew I was on my own with a crew of four Peruvian workmen to lead. Armed with my shaky Spanish and a clipboard to busy myself behind, I instruc-ted my crew. We could barely see the two parallel canals below the thigh-high vines and brush that had invaded after last year's El Niño rains. The brush had to be cleared, I told them.

Still, I could see the canals, so I excitedly began taking measurements—height, width, compass direction—collecting soil samples to test for pollen, and preparing sections of the canal for deeper excavation. I hardly noticed that the men had slowed their pace, looking at me between every stroke of their shovels. "Señorita— Máquina," someone said gently. I stopped. "Máquina? Máquina?" I turned the Spanish over in my head. Then I realized what he was trying to tell me. I had meticulously excavated tire tracks.

There was nothing to do but laugh. From that moment on, however, a young woman from America and four Peruvian workers had something in common. Máquina became the favorite word to tease with whenever someone seemed too confident in his or her canal search.

Of two months doing field research in Peru, that day sticks out in my mind. If it had been a test, I'd have failed. Because it was real research, it was a tremendous learning experience.

Now, as I watch other undergraduates engaged in research, that story comes to mind again and again. Maybe because undergraduates do "excavate tire tracks" sometimes. We're free to make mistakes or to completely change focus, because we have very little to lose and a lot more to gain by learning. Undergraduates involved in research projects go to the lab or into the field each day because they are curious. And when the goal is simply to learn, even tire tracks are discoveries.

Melissa Paugh served as the student editor for this issue of Research/Penn State. She graduated in May 2000 with a B.A. and honors in anthropology and a minor in English.

Last Updated September 01, 2000