The Skeletons of Olmos, Part IV: Soccer Club—1, Archaeologists—0

One of the Olmos skeletons, cleaned and awaiting examination. Photo: H. Klaus
One of the Olmos skeletons lies cleaned and awaiting examination. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

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. Here, he concludes the tale, picking up after his team has been bumped from their hotel rooms by a traveling soccer club.

Searching for a New Home

Just like that, the students, Raul, and I had nowhere to live as the work in Olmos had reached a critical make-or-break phase. When working in another country far from home, flexibility is crucial. One must be an adaptable problem solver, able to compensate for and overcome circumstances that you can hardly anticipate. As such, a good field archaeologist always has a “Plan B,” “Plan C,” “Plan D,” in their back pocket. But I was not planning on facing homelessness in the field, being unceremoniously kicked out of our hotel by a visiting soccer team. We literally had hours to find a new place to crash.

If something didn’t work out in Olmos, I started to realize that the situation did not present much of a Plan B. It was late in the day, and public transportation to the south was shutting down. The next nearest possible place to stay was a hotel about two hours south, and getting out of town with five people and a ton of gear was looking more improbable by the minute. I try to have a cool demeanor, but my internal anxiety levels started to rise. I can sleep anywhere, but my responsibility was to my crew and to my students. The buck truly stops with me when it comes to keeping them safe, housed, healthy, and well-fed thousands of miles from home.

Raul and I set out to solve this problem, visiting all the decent hotels in Olmos. The story was the same, hotel to hotel: “We’re so sorry señor, but no vacancies for the next few weeks…” Rooms were so scarce thanks to the sheer number of construction workers and engineers working on the many public works projects. Tension deepened. We began to expand the search to the more outlying parts of Olmos. One hotel looked promising from a distance, but as we got closer, it was dedicated to ‘matrimonial suites’ charging room rates by the hour. Positively not for us. In front of another hotel, two very territorial German Shepherds were eyeing Raul and me as trespassers. Scratch that place off the list, too.

Finally, as we walked the muddy streets in the late afternoon, we had swung around to the block behind the field lab. Incidentally, Raul’s maternal aunt and a few uncles resided on this street (it is a small world, after all!) They mentioned a place down the road that we hadn’t heard of. And just like that, eureka! This hotel turned out to be our new home. It was far more comfortable, cozy, and quiet than where we had been before. We dodged a major bullet and barely missed a beat with the skeletal analysis.

Wrapping Up the Project

At the end of our third week in the lab, the work was coming to a close. All the hard work had paid off as we came to study the remains of the last individuals from the storeroom in the back of the field lab.

Ana Cuddihy observes one of the skeletons. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)
Butch, Jenna, Raul, and Ana wrapping up their paperwork at the end of a long day in the lab.  Photo: H. Klaus.
Butch, Jenna, Raul, and Ana wrap up their paperwork at the end of a long day in the lab. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

Visiting the Site

We visited the excavation site called Huaca Juliana, where the dig had been concluded a few months earlier. The area had been both farmed and looted for centuries, and people, dogs, cows, donkeys, and chickens had now made their homes atop the ruins. Still, we could make out the badly preserved remains of a principle adobe brick pyramid. The skeletons came from a cemetery just to the pyramid’s side.

The site of Huaca Juliana, today appearing very ordinary with only tell-tale traces of it's remarkable past.  1,000 years ago, a major pyramid complex existed on this spot. Photo: H. Klaus.
The site of Huaca Juliana might not look like much today, but there are many tell-tale traces of its remarkable past. A thousand years ago, there was a major pyramid complex on this spot. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

The ancient people of Olmos had clearly created a very impressive pre-Hispanic monumental center. There was once a lot of large-scale architecture here. The Ministry of Culture recently granted protected status to the site, and perhaps one day, it will be the focus for a new generation of archaeologists. As I described in earlier posts, Olmos has been archaeologically almost unstudied. I wondered what future generations of archaeologists will one day find here.

The site has now been recognized and and hopefully now better protected by the Ministry of Culture. Photo: H. Klaus.
The site has now been recognized and is better protected by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. (Photo by Haagen Klaus)

Saying Goodbye

And then, we were done. The last of the white cotton shrouds was replaced over the skeletal remains. Workstations were cleared, cleaned, and packed up. We said our goodbyes with Luis and the ASE team, with whom new friendships had grown. As we drove south leaving Olmos, I recall feeling a strong sense of accomplishment, but also, melancholy. For all its isolation and the challenges of working there, Olmos had truly grown on me.

On our last day, we took a group photo before packing up. From left to right: Raul Saavedra, Anastasia Cuddihy, Jenna Hurtubise, Butch Maheney, and Haagen Klaus.
On our last day, we took a group photo before packing up. From left to right: Raul Saavedra, Anastasia Cuddihy, Jenna Hurtubise, Butch Maheney, and Haagen Klaus. (Photo courtesy Haagen Klaus)

For the next several days, we worked on our field notes, paperwork, and even a little data analysis before we made the trip back to Lima and then home to Washington, D.C.

Of course, the bioarchaeological process is only 25 percent fieldwork. The work follows an archaeologist home—big time. By the spring of 2015, the paleoepidemiological data that we gathered during our weeks in Olmos were finalized. We recently presented these findings at the 84th annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists held in St. Louis, Missouri.

I’ll tell all about it in our final post.

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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.