ROM Research Colloquium: Justin Jennings

Posted: January 23, 2013 - 10:31 , by Ryan Dodge
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Figure 1. The site of La Real as it looked in 1995 when archaeologists first arrived — the circus was in town (photo courtesy of Marko Lopez)

Name: Justin Jennings

Title: Associate Curate of New World Archaeology

On February 8th from 9:15am to 6:30pm ROM experts deliver fascinating 15-minute presentations on the latest research in the arts, archaeology and pure and applied sciences. Free (Museum admission not included). 

One of the questions that archaeologist are often asked is why did they choose to work on a particular site.  Sometimes, the answer seems like a higher calling  — they just wanted to work at Palenque; and sometimes the answer comes from a soundly argued methodology directed at a specific research question. Why though did I choose to work on the La Real collections? My answer: Willy.

There were no archaeologists present when a bulldozer operator in 1995 accidently opened up a cave filled of broken up and burnt mummy bundles in a small village of La Real.  The archaeologists, a group put together by the Peruvian government, came a couple of days later to this small coastal village to conduct 4 months of excavations.  They loaded up box after box full with bones, textiles, pots, plant remains, wooden tools, and leather goods from the Middle Horizon period (600-1000 AD), and then sent all these boxes to gather dust in a warehouse for a dozen years. 

I was just finishing university in 1995, and did not hear about the La Real boxes until I started working in southern Peru in 1999 with Willy Yépez, who had dug at La Real as a student.  I work on the Middle Horizon period, and I am particularly interested in how the influence of the Wari culture spread during this period.  There were lots of Wari style objects found at La Real and so Willy urged me to create a join project with him to study the collection.  Yet I hesitated.  Getting access to the collection was a hot potato issue and I though that it would be impossible to get permission to do the work. I urged Willy instead to work with me on a new excavation project nearby and he reluctantly agreed.  For the next nine years, though, Willy would talk incessantly about La Real, and each time I would tell him to forget about it since no one would ever see that stuff again.  Then one day in 2008, he e-mailed to let me know that all the boxes were now piled up in his house.  

How Willy got the La Real material still remains a bit of a mystery to me — though it involved a combination of persistence and legal gymnastics. Yet, once he got the stuff in his house I signed on to bring as many resources as the Royal Ontario Museum could bear on the material in those boxes.  We worked closely with a group of scholars that included a bioarchaeologist, chemist, ornithologist, geologist to study as many aspects of the collection that we could.  More than anything else, we wanted to understand why the mummy bundles had been torn apart and burned during the Middle Horizon.  Our burning question — Why would people spend countless hours preparing these bundles if they were destined for destruction?  You want the answer to this question, then come to the research colloquium!

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