The Skeletons of Olmos, Part II: Racing Against the Storm

Haagen Klaus studies the ancient and mysterious remains of societies along Peru’s northern coastal areas. A recent project has seen him racing against the clock in the modern-day town of Olmos to rescue skeletons from a looming construction project and the scathing rains of El Niño.

Dark storm clouds to the east of Olmos, over the Andean foothills. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)
Dark storm clouds to the east of Olmos, over the Andean foothills. Such is rare in this part of the world. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

When we arrived in Olmos, Peru, we were homeless. Before beginning our work with the skeletons, we had to find a place to live. For the last few years, I had been renting a house in Ferreñafe as our base of operations, but that was a four-hour round-trip commute from the current research site. The next best thing was one of the recommended hotels in Olmos. I looked over the place very carefully, and it seemed okay. We moved into our rooms on a hot Sunday afternoon, ready to get to work in about 15 hours. Dark storm clouds were in the distance, just to our east over the Andean highlands. Massive anvil-shaped thunderheads were building, towering into the sky. As awe-inspiring as such cloud formations were, they made me very uneasy. Any rain in this desert could spell flooding, power outages, and rather widespread destruction of property—placing people’s lives in peril.

Ana Cuddihy, a senior from George Mason University.
Ana Cuddihy, a senior from George Mason University. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

Successful archaeological fieldwork often comes down to having the right people. The right combination of people and personalities is very important. You look for team members who are smart and hard workers, but who can also balance working on their own with being part of a team. Group living can be intense as one does not get much “alone time.” Add that to the pressures of working in a foreign country, working on a tight timeline, learning a new language, and dealing with the powerful pressures of culture shock and homesickness. Archaeological fieldwork can be a substantial test of one’s mental and physical fortitude.

Butch Maheney, a graduating senior from George Mason University. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)
Butch Maheney, a graduating senior from George Mason University. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

With me on this trip were two of my top undergraduate students from George Mason University. Anastasia (Ana) Cuddihy had just started her senior year, and Butch Maheney was just two months away from graduating in August. Both had been taking courses in skeletal anatomy and paleopathology with me over the last year. When it came time for me to seek help, I turned to them. Another important member of the team was Jenna Hurtubise, a master’s student at Louisiana State University. Jenna has been a member of my project every year since 2010 when she was a student at the University of Calgary. Jenna’s experience would be of great help to Ana and Butch when it came to learning about living in Peru and working in the lab.

Jenna Hurtubise, a master's student at Louisiana State University and vetran of the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project since 2010.  (Phot by Haagen Klaus)
Jenna Hurtubise, a master’s student at Louisiana State University and member of the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project since 2010. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

Another key member of the project was Raul Saavedra, my crew chief. Raul is from the nearby city of Chiclayo. Following a chance meeting, we’ve been working together since 2004. Raul is one of the most important contributors to our project. Raul often helps with local logistics and is an expert in all manners of problem solving. He’s one of the most intelligent and resourceful people I have ever encountered on this Earth.

Once, while working in the windswept desert of southern Lambayeque in 2010, he knew how to fashion windbreaks 30 feet long using cane poles, thatched cane mats, and guide wires that kept the wind at bay and allowed us to begin digging. In 2012, our truck broke down in the middle of nowhere at dusk, and Raul went into action, clearing a badly blocked fuel line without any trouble. These are just two of a thousand examples that reveal how Raul has the honed mind of an engineer.

I often say Raul is my “left brain and right hand.” But he has an artist’s touch, too. Raul has a natural gift when it comes to the delicate and precise process of excavating burials. A decade ago, he had watched me uncover a few skeletons, and intuitively understood the process. After that, Raul masterfully started excavating burials with us—often better than I can accomplish myself.

Field crew chief Raul Saavedra. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)
Field crew chief Raul Saavedra. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

So, that first Sunday afternoon in Olmos, Raul, Ana, Butch, and Jenna arrived at the hotel, but weren’t totally alone. Packed into the truck that dropped us off was my mobile bioarchaeology field lab. It contained a full reference library, many different osteometric tools, anatomical reference works, tooth casting materials, brushes, dental picks, a full photo studio, and many other tools useful for studying skeletons. It allowed us to work pretty much anywhere, if necessary.

We got right to work the next morning unpacking the field lab in a building on the edge of town that the archaeologists from ASE had previously rented as their field lab and who were generous enough to share with us. We were working directly with archaeologist Luis Peña and three of ASE’s lab techs.

The first two skeletons came out of the back room, still encased in blocks of sand that weighed in excess of 300 lbs. This took four very strong men, straining every step of the short 25-foot trip from the back room to the lab.

The Olmos skeletons were wrapped in protective cotton shrouds, but still l encased in blocks of earth.  Some of the heaviest were probably in excess of 300 pounds. (Photo: Haagen Klaus)
The Olmos skeletons were wrapped in protective cotton shrouds, but still encased in blocks of earth. Some of the heaviest weighed more than 300 pounds. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

First, the team had to precisely document each skeleton as we found it in the matrix, using a technique called digital photogrammetry. This makes a precise 3D record of each skeleton (by having computer software render a detailed three-dimensional image of the burial from many different two-dimensional images). After precisely documenting their current state, it was time to excavate the skeletons out of their blocks. This was necessary not only to completely study the remains, but also because the longer they remained in the salty matrix, the more damage any growing salt crystals could do to the bones.

We often use simple bamboo skewers for this work (the same ones you buy at the grocery stores for barbecuing your shish kabobs). Bamboo is not as hard as bone and will not damage bone easily, plus, pointy bamboo sticks are perfectly suited for the kinds of finely controlled digging one must do around a bone. Once the bones were freed, we cleaned each one so every last square centimeter would be precisely observed. Sometimes, a soft toothbrush is the right tool for this task. For more delicate bones, a soft cosmetic brush is ideal.

Jenna Hurtubise cleaning matrix away from the teeth of a child to reveal evidence of the their diet, metabolic history, and even genetic relationships. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

Then, attention fell to our data collection protocols. Each skeleton was assigned a packet of paperwork, 20 double-sided pages long. These protocols contain around 1,000 possible observations per skeleton, spanning age, sex, growth, disease, trauma, and more. These protocols are standardized in the field of bioarchaeology. With the use of the same descriptive terminology and standardized coding systems, skeletons studied by many different scholars can be comparable.

Butch Maheney and Raul Saavedra beginning to study a skeleton. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)
Raul and Butch beginning the painstaking process of cleaning one of the Olmos skeletons. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

A routine soon formed. A typical day would start around 5:30 a.m., when Raul and I would make a quick run to the local market and bakery for fruit and bread. We would meet up with the students at 7:00 a.m. in the little restaurant attached to our hotel. Breakfast would usually consist of el menu, or whatever the kitchen had to serve—usually bread, eggs, and some super-concentrated coffee called café puro. From there, Ana, Raul, Jenna, Butch, and I would walk to the lab, some five blocks to the north, and get to work around 8:00 a.m.

In the process of cleaning one the burials, Butch encountered an artifact un the the body called a spindle whorl. Ancient Peruvian weavers used spindle whorls in the process of textile manufacture. (Photo: Haagen Klaus)
In the process of cleaning one the burials, Butch encountered an artifact under the the body called a spindle whorl. Ancient Peruvian weavers used spindle whorls in the process of textile manufacture. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

We would work until about noon, and take an hour off for lunch. We found a cook of some local renown who would prepare for us traditional Peruvian food. She was not accustomed to cooking for North Americans, and the food was very rural-Peruvian in style…but was predictably delicious. She also had a type of aji pepper (which flavors most Peruvian food) that was quite unique and flavorful.

Then it was back to the lab until 6:00 p.m., when we would return to the hotel to complete our write-ups and lab notes. Dinner was around 7:30 p.m. By the time the daily chores were done, it could be as late as 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. We would return to our rooms and hit the sack, and to get ready and do it all over again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that…

Jenna and Butch at work recording  the developmental stages of a child's dentition. From that, they can estimate their age with an accuracy of about 6-12 months.  (Photo by Haagen Klaus)
Jenna and Butch recording the developmental stages of a child’s dentition. From even these fragments, they can estimate the child’s age with an accuracy of about 6–12 months. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

In the lab, we worked in two teams of two people each, alternating responsibilities on every other skeleton (for instance, one team member would observe a skeleton, while the other double-checked their observations and was also responsible for the paperwork, and on the next skeleton they would switch responsibilities). At this rate, the team could excavate, clean, and document the remains of at least four individuals per day. Given that there were some 80 skeletons and we had just under three weeks to get the work done, we would need to be much more productive and put in a lot more effort than usual.

On Friday afternoon of our first week, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, a remarkable sight emerged in the eastern skies. Storm clouds over the Andes, darker and more violent than I have ever seen in Peru, were creeping towards the coast, and right towards us. An exquisite double rainbow formed out in front of the clouds, and then was gone.

Raul and Jenna pondering a unique sight in the sky...
Raul and Jenna pondering a unique sight in the sky… afternoon rainbows in the desert. Not a good sign. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)
The ominous rainbow. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

The rainbows turned out to be a meteorological omen. At about 3:00 a.m. the next morning, I awoke to the sound of torrential rains outside. In 14 years of working in coastal Peru, this was a first. The rains were here. In the distance, the sound of an exploding transformer was heard, and suddenly, everything went dark.

Stay tuned! In the next blog, I’ll pick up in the aftermath of this first rainstorm, and recount what happened when we were suddenly without a place to stay. In addition, I’ll share with you more about bioarchaeological science and just exactly what we were seeing—and what we unexpectedly found—among the ancient skeletons of Olmos, Peru.

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Meet the Author
A native of Long Island, New York, Dr. Haagen Klaus is an assistant professor of anthropology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from The Ohio State University in 2008, andMA in anthropology from Southern Illinois University in 2003, and a BA in anthropology with a double minors in archaeology and studio art from SUNY Plattsburgh in 2000. Since 2003, Klaus has directed the Lambayeque Valley Biohistory Project in northern Peru. He is an active member of the Society for American Archaeology, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the Paleopathology Association. Klaus is the author of more than two dozen journal articles and book chapters on bioarchaeology and the editor of three forthcoming books.