Despite having no luck finding anything during a dig in Peru, Harvard archaeology student Caroline Coolidge kept on brushing away dirt. And her persistence paid off because she soon found a 1,000-year-old figurine that is having an impact on history and her own life.
In a dusty location at San José de Moro, Peru last month, Coolidge started to wonder if she would ever find anything while participating in a dig during the summer archaeology program offered by Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Perú.
“I hadn’t really found anything where I had been working,” she said. “I was excited but feeling a little bit discouraged because I wondered if I was doing this wrong.”
Archaeology is not as it is portrayed in the Indiana Jones films. It can be exciting, but it can also be boring at times and researchers don’t always find something at the places they excavate. Sometimes this can dampen a student’s enthusiasm for the field, but it’s important to realize that with so many sites that are being excavated and thousands that have yet to be explored, someone who works long and hard enough is bound to find something.
According to archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who developed a satellite imagery program that anyone can use to help detect potential sites from space, thousands of potential sites exist in Peru alone.
“We’ve had about 90,000 users find almost 20,000 previously unrecorded potential sites there, 700 of which we think are of major archaeological importance,” she said.
So even if Coolidge did not find anything, there’s plenty of opportunities to do so elsewhere.
As it just so happens, however, Coolidge’s determination to keep digging resulted in a major find.
“I honestly at first just thought I was imagining it because I just wanted to find something so bad,” Coolidge told the Harvard Gazette. “I thought, ‘This can’t be this intact piece of pottery.’ But I just kept brushing away. I was honestly speechless when I saw what it was.”
What she found is a figurine presumably made by the Moche, a pre-Columbian civilization that lived along the northern coast of Peru between the first and eighth centuries AD, or the Lambayeque, which lived in the same area around the same time.
And what makes the find even more significant is that Coolidge found it in pristine condition.
While on a Peruvian dig this summer, Harvard student Caroline Coolidge unearthed a figurine, likely from the transitional period between the Moche and Lambayeque cultures and approximately 1,000 years old: https://t.co/rrwwf7Plav pic.twitter.com/hS7OWCn7qZ
— Harvard University (@Harvard) July 24, 2019
The details of the figurine are truly spectacular for a figurine of this age being buried under the ground for so long. Now an analysis must be performed to determine “its cultural significance and where it fits within the region’s chronology.”
“Typically, this type of artifact would be included in a burial,” Coolidge said, “but there were no burials found near it.”
But it’s also possible the figurine is a fertility offering, according to archaeologists working at the site.
— Harvard Alumni Association (@HarvardAlumni) July 26, 2019
“It’s an extraordinary piece, one of the most complete and beautiful figurines we have brought up from here in several years,” Gary Urton, Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies said before going on to explain why it’s important to find artifacts like it.
“We are trying to understand another culture by looking at their material remains,” he said.
“All of these Peruvian civilizations did not have writing so we don’t have their own words.”
“What we do have is what they lived with, what they made, what they used in their day-to-day lives. So what we try to do then with the students is have this balance between the real physical excitement of working in the field and the intellectual challenge of thinking about what it all means.”
It certainly means a lot of Coolidge. She had been weighing her educational and career choices prior to finding the figurine. Now her find has breathed new life into her love of archaeology, which is why she intends to make it her primary field of study or at the very least keep it as a secondary field.
“I knew it was going to be amazing,” she said. “But I didn’t realize it was going to be this amazing.”
All it takes is one find to provide the experience that keeps many archaeologists digging day after day, month after month, year after year. Even the smallest discovery, such as a piece of Roman glass at the site of a former villa in Britain can be enough to get the imagination going and make us want to learn more.
If Coolidge continues pursuing archaeology, she can expect to continue finding things in the dirt, and just like she did during this dig in Peru, she can expect to keep finding herself as well.
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