Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Kasia Szremski Researching Interactions and Agriculture in Peru

Kasia Szremski Excavating a camelid
mandible (photo: Jordan Farfan Lopez)
Kasia Szremski is an archaeologist completing her PhD research on ancient agricultural societies who lived on the slopes of the Peruvian Andes.  She is studying at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and as she moves into the final phase of her studies, she has set up a crowdfunding initiative to cover the costs of some important radiocarbon dates and publishing fees.  I asked Kasia about her research, the evolution of her project and crowdfunding...

Plans and Profiles #18: Kasia Szremski, Interaction and Agriculture in the Ancient Andes

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

My project focuses on understanding the interactions between coastal, highland, and local mid-valley (chaupiyungino) groups who all lived in the Huanangue Valley on the western slopes of the Central Andes during the Late Intermediate Period (1100-1470 CE). Specifically, I am interested in how interactions between these groups affected agricultural production, and vice versa, how agricultural production affected inter-group interactions. I began investigating these matters in 2008 and 2009 by conducting survey in the Huanangue Valley as the valley had not yet been studied archaeologically. During survey, we documented evidence for occupation from the Late Archaic Period (3000 – 1800 BCE) to the Late Horizon (1470 – 1532 CE). Furthermore, for the time period that I am interested in, the Late Intermediate Period, we were able to document the presence of four different groups: the coastal Chancay, probable Atavillos from the highlands, local mid-valley groups, and a fourth group whose cultural affiliation is still unclear. In order to better understand the dynamics of interaction between these groups, I excavated at a site occupied by local mid-valley people (Campo Libre) and a site occupied by the coastal Chancay (Salitre).

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

One of the things that I am really interested in is how social identities are formed and maintained/transformed over time. Since Barth, we have known that interaction between groups is an important part of identity formation and there have been several interesting archaeological studies, particularly in the Classical world, looking at how interaction between different groups lead to the formation of Greek and Roman identities (for example, see Knapp and Van Dommelen 2010). The Andes are also a great place to study the impact of intergroup interaction on identity, because it is a region that has extreme ethnic and ecological diversity and many different groups had to interact with each other in order to gain access to different natural resources. However, while many researchers studied interaction between expansive groups such as the Inka or the Wari and the groups that they respectively conquered, less attention has been paid to interaction between small-scale, non-state groups. I feel that studying interaction between these smaller groups is important because it can provide important insight into what local geopolitics were like before expansive groups come into the area as well as to better understand how local geopolitics affected larger regional processes.

Cerro Blanco
I settled on the Huanangue Valley kind of by accident. Originally, I wanted to do my dissertation at a site called San Jose de Cañas, which is a big Chancay administrative center in the lower part of the Huaura Drainage. However, the land that the site is on was illegally sold to the president of a local sugar processing plant and he made it impossible for me to access the site. As such, I bought air photos for the middle part of the Huaura drainage and began exploring the northern branch (also known as the Huaura River). I wasn’t really having any luck with the northern branch, and I starting looking at the small section of the southern branch that appeared in my air photos and saw this huge site (Cerro Blanco- this is where I hope to do my post-doc work) and thought, hmmm, maybe I should go check that valley out.

3) Why did you choose crowdfunding as a means to support your research?

Kasia (right) excavating in a pit near a wall
 (Photo: Luisa Hinostroza)
I chose crowdfunding because, I think that it is an interesting way for scientists and the public to interact. Based on conversations that I have had with people outside of science, it seems clear that the public at large don’t have a clear idea of exactly what it is that scientists do, or how scientists use their grant money. This becomes particularly obvious when one looks at the comment section at the end of articles on scientific discoveries in media, or when one watches Fox News “report” on things like climate change or the infamous duck penis study. Crowdfunding is one way to help bridge this gap by getting the public to be actively involved in scientific research. For example, on Microryza, the crowdfunding platform that I am using, not only do you have to explain your project and justify your budget, but you provide your backers with periodic updates about your research, which gives the donors an insider’s view of how discoveries are actually made. You can see my page here, as an example.  Furthermore, I think that crowdfunding may become an important source of funding for small, seed projects, especially for younger researchers since the competition for traditional grants has become exceptionally fierce.

4) If you could ask the people who lived at your site(s) one question what would it be?

Campo Libre
I would ask the people at Campo Libre why they liked building crooked walls! Mapping that site was so frustrating sometimes because none of the walls are straight, and buildings rarely had walls that met at right angles. Also, when building rooms, they really like to make one long wall that would curve around at the corner in order to form two sides of the room, and then they would build two shorter walls to close off the structure. I really want to know why they did that, because it seems like such an unusual way to build, at least for the region.

5) Why did you choose Vanderbilt University?

After I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, I knew that I wanted to pursue a PhD in Andean archaeology but was unsure of where to apply. As much as I loved Chicago, I knew was that I couldn’t stand another Chicago winter! I consulted with one of my professors, and he suggested that I check out Vanderbilt, so I did some online research and was immediately impressed by what the department had to offer and I also really like the theoretical approach taken by many members of the faculty. Overall, my time at Vanderbilt has been great, we have a very small student to faculty ratio and the faculty is very supportive of student research initiatives. We also have a really tight knit graduate community, so overall the experience there has been really great.

6) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

I am an avid runner and find that running is the best way to unwind and relax after a long day. While we were excavating, I became really well known in Sayan, where our field house was, because I would run every evening after getting back from the field. This proved to be quite the attraction for the local kids, who would track me down every afternoon in order to find out what time I was planning to run that day so that they could join me. Since starting grad school, I have competed in 5 marathons, and right now am getting ready for my 6th!

7) If you could give your younger self advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

I think I would tell my younger self to slow down and relax a little bit and not to worry so much about the little stuff.

8) What archaeological discovery or project do you wish you could have been part of?

Oh, there are so many! I have always been fascinated by Egyptian archaeology and I think it would have been amazing to have worked on some of the early expeditions in the 20’s and 30’s. In terms of more modern projects, I would love the chance to work at Cahokia or at Teotihuacan, which are my two favorite non-Andean sites. I finally got the chance to visit Cahokia last year and it was amazing. I hope to make it to Teotihuacan soon.

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

Unfortunately, the region where I work is badly understudied and there aren’t very many publications, yet. However, there are a bunch of projects that have started in the Huaura drainage over the last 5 years, so hopefully this will change soon! The best source of information about the Chancay culture is Estudios sobre la Cultural Chancay, edited by Andrej Kranowski. Also, Maria Rostworowski’s Señorios Indigenas de Lima y Canta has some interesting information about the political organization of Huaura valley groups during the early part of the Colonial Period. The literature on Interaction Theory is extensive, but I think that Bernard Knapp gives a good overview of the dominate themes in Prehistoric and Protohistoric Cyprus.

You can follow and support Kasia's research on the crowdfunding website Microryza: How did feasting promote cooperation between cultures in the ancient Andes?


Do you have a research project that you would like to see profiled here or know of a student, colleague or mentor whose work should be highlighted? Drop me a note and let me know:

Photo Credits:
Kasia Szremski, unless otherwise noted in the captions
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White

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