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Students dig unusual learning experience

Archaeology professors David Small and Aaron Shugar will lead a small group of students back to Honduras this summer to continue excavations at the Rancho del Rio site. For the third consecutive summer, the pair of Lehigh professors will lead a “field school” of students in the excavation of the site during their annual five-and-a-half week trip.

Comprised mostly of Lehigh students, the field school has accepted students from other universities as well. In past years, students from St. Lawrence University and Boston University have participated. This year, Small and Shugar say they expect students from as far away as the Institute of Archaeology in London to attend.

Small says the field school is an excellent opportunity for students to get hands-on experience and participate in the workings of a real archaeological dig. Students also gain experience in survey techniques, lab skills, and recording. In addition, all have the opportunity to experience the local Honduran culture while living in the village of Pueblo Nuevo and taking weekend trips to the city of Copan.

This year’s group is expected to continue the work begun last spring by a crew of Lehigh students who unearthed the partial remains of a human body. Buried next to the foundation of a building, the remains date to 900-950 A.D., and include parts of a man’s torso and head.

From these bones, the group was able to determine that the man likely suffered from dietary deficiencies (evidenced by lesions in the bones caused by an iron-poor diet), had severe dental problems, and probably died in his mid-30s.

“The soil in this area was very acid-rich, very moist, and not very conducive to keeping human remains in good condition,” observes Shugar, adjunct professor of archaeology. “In fact, the conditions were perfect for the destruction of bones, so we felt that we were very fortunate to find what we did in such good condition.”

The peak of technology, circa 900 A.D.

The site of last year’s and this year’s exploration is Rancho del Rio, which lies in the lush Cacaulapa Valley. It is thought to have been a rural community, inhabited by a large, loosely connected kin group.

Small and Shugar are excavating the site in order to examine how this small rural community might have interacted with larger economic systems in the valley. So far, the team has found strong evidence of pottery production but little evidence of maize, which supports their theory that this was not a farming community after all.

Rather, the people of Rancho Del Rio were most likely traders, swapping pottery for food. This classifies the site as a resource-specialized community and indicates the interdependency between itself and surrounding communities.

“We found something that you don’t often find in a rural site, and that was evidence of highly specialized craft production,” says Small, professor of archaeology. “These people were making major ceramic vessels, and utilizing the sort of sophisticated techniques that represented the peak of technology at that time.”

Small and Shugar plan to use petrographic analysis to determine the exact composition of the pottery’s composition, then figure out where the inhabitants were gathering clay. They can then further piece together history and expand their excavations. At this point, the team plans to expand from their original excavation site in two years and then continue excavating in the Cacaulapa Valley for the next 10 to 15 years.

”Skills we can’t teach in class”

The excavation in the Cacaulapa Valley is unusual in that archaeological digs in rural locations are a fairly recent trend, the professors say. According to the team’s proposal to the National Science Foundation, excavation at Rancho del Rio will provide new data that will be integrated into the larger archaeological investigation of sites in Honduras, specifically in the Cacaulapa Valley. Rancho del Rio will also provide a clearer indication of how a resource-specialized community survived and interacted with its urban and rural counterparts.

“Physically, the conditions for this type of experience are trying,” Small says. “It is a very hot climate, and all the students live together in a rented house with only small beds or cots for sleeping. Only about 80 percent of the homes have water, and that is usually undrinkable and needs to be filtered. Only about 60 percent of the homes have electricity. It is very typical of Honduras, though—few paved streets, pigs and chickens walking about. It’s an atypical environment for these students.”

Yet, the professors agreed, the students who are willing to brave less-than-ideal living conditions gain a great deal from the experience in terms of both academic discovery and cultural enrichment.

“They interact a great deal with people in the town, and generally become very immersed in local culture,” Shugar says. “And any excavation is an excellent opportunity to provide a student with an understanding of field archaeology. They learn how to interact with people from other cultures, they learn how to conduct a proper field excavation. These are skills we simply can’t teach in class, and the students often come away from these excavations raving about the experience.”

Lehigh University and alumni donations usually provide the bulk of the necessary funds to support this program, and the professors often seek additional funding through the NSF. Lehigh’s Study Abroad program also provides partial support to make the experience accessible to more students.

For more information about the upcoming excavation in Honduras, please call David Small at (610) 758-3787, or e-mail him at dbs6@lehigh.edu. Shugar may be reached at (610) 758-4701, or by e-mail at a.shugar@lehigh.edu.

To check out the website devoted to this project, click here.

--Carl J. Heim
and
--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, February 25, 2004

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