Sorting through the fragments of history

January 29, 2016

Honours research takes anthropology major out of the classroom and into a Peruvian village

During his lectures, Lidio Valdez Cardenas paints a passionate image of Peru and of his archaeological research. So when it came time for Alex Despins to begin her anthropology honours research, she knew it had to involve something connected to the home country of the faculty member who inspired her throughout the program.

Lidio needed a student who could study the iconography of artifacts and collect data to determine their archaeological style. “I said, ‘I’m your student—whatever you need, I’ll do it,” says Alex.

After a very long journey to South America, Alex spent 21 days in the small village of Acari. “Two years ago, I went on a field school to Japan, and that was five weeks long,” she says, “so Peru was not my first experience in the field. But it was certainly my first experience doing it alone.”

She had the full support of her family, faculty supervisors and the people they connected her with in Acari, “but I wasn’t going with a group of students where we’re all trying to figure it out together. It was just me.”

Immersive experience

IMAGE-story-Peru_Alex_fragmentsIt wasn’t just her for very long. Alex stayed in a hostel owned by people Lidio knew, and made friends with some of the local residents. And though she arrived knowing only very basic Spanish, she began to improve throughout her stay.

“I would have full-blown conversations, but then I came home and I still don’t know Spanish,” she says, marveling at the power of immersion.

The language wasn’t the only thing she immersed herself in. She was, largely on her own, doing the work of an archaeologist—something she had imagined back in elementary school. By working in Peru, she was able to get her hands on the actual artifacts she needed to study to complete her honours thesis.

“I’m supposed to make observations of the ceramics to determine if they were created by the Wari,” says Alex. “Luckily Dr. Valdez is an expert and knows lots of other experts who have been able to look at a handful of photos and know from the style that it’s the Wari”—an ancient civilization that at one time inhabited the region.

“It’s going to take me a year and a half to be able to do what the experts do in a matter of 10 minutes. So I’m learning from the best and I’m learning something very valuable in my career to be able to do this.”

Beyond the classroom

IMAGE-story-Peru_Alex_sandboardAlex is back at MacEwan and working on her thesis. Even though her travel plans didn’t always work out—and she was forced to overcome a few moments of terrified inaction—she encourages other students to visit another country and live among its people. “It gives you the strength to take on challenges more readily than maybe you would have before.”

On her final day, she joined some new friends to try sandboarding. The hike up to the sand dune was exhausting. Along the way, she saw a giant cross, erected long ago when Spanish conquerors told the indigenous people, who worshipped the mountain, that they could only worship one god.

“They put the cross on the top of the mountain so that the cross was being worshipped,” she says. “It was cool because I learned this in a textbook, in a classroom, and then I travelled to South America where I saw it. It’s not just something I memorized for a test. This exists and has meaning.”

Want more research? Check out Student Research Week, January 25 to 29.

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