Byron and Clementine remove backfill from a 2018 excavation that was continued in 2019 - Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí

Keep On Digging – Continued Student Involvement at the Archaeological Site of Cochasquí

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Ryan Hechler co-directed his fourth season of his archaeological project, Proyecto Arqueológico Cochasquí-Mojanda, in Ecuador between July and August 2019. Ryan used his award to offer archaeological training and experience to Ecuadorian undergraduate students and recent graduates from Quito. Ryan is an Anthropology Ph.D. student at Tulane University.


Modern state of Pyramid G preservation - Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí
Modern state of Pyramid G preservation – Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí


Revisiting the Archaeological Site of Cochasquí

Three years ago, my colleagues and friends Estanislao Pazmiño, William Pratt and I started an archaeological research project, Proyecto Arqueológico Cochasquí-Mojanda, at a late Pre-Columbian earthen pyramid site in Ecuador known as Cochasquí, which is frequently viewed by many within the country as the spiritual predecessor of the Ecuadorian nation-state. Cochasquí is one of dozens of monumental centers made by the Cara, a Barbacoan ethnic group north of Quito whose cultural development is tied to regional beginnings of monumentality. The site thrived from approximately AD 950-1500 and is known for its iconic quadrangular earthen platform mounds, locally called tolas or pyramids. Cochasquí is an important archaeological park in Ecuador and is managed by Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí under the provincial government of Pichincha.

While there have been two major archaeological projects conducted previously within what is now the Cochasquí park, one in 1932 and another between 1964 and 1965 – both of which largely targeted the pyramids and even burial mounds, we aimed to take things a step further than solely focusing on the monumentally visible. Over the years, we have selectively targeted spaces around, between, and well beyond the pyramids of Cochasquí, with the aid of our colleagues Dr. Chester Walker and Mark Willis – who implemented a mixture of remote sensing (i.e., ground-penetrating radar and magnetometer) and drone mapping. The ability to target anomalies for excavation was a conscientious means of respecting the park and its cultural resources’ structural integrity. Furthermore, we have focused on expanding open excavations from the 1960s as well as understanding layers of construction of monumental features that still have scars from looting in the 1930s and even impacts a result of infrastructural road widening and general construction, carefully and selectively cutting back these areas to better understand stages and methods of construction and monumental evolution.

We carefully strategized to perform the least intrusive approach possible to emphasize a controlled method for geolocating a hidden landscape as well as to demonstrate respect to a highly visited national treasure in which our own research is on constant public display to hundreds of visiting tourists almost daily. Cochasquí may be a Pre-Columbian site, but it is a dynamic landscape that people constantly interact with today, such as local dance groups practicing choreographed routines on site for special performances, or even local celebrations taking place within and around the park. Knowing the multivocal nature of the site, as well as the archaeological approaches we were performing, we thought involving university students from Quito to participate, learn, and view these approaches in real time was a prime means of furthering their abilities.

A local dance group practicing a routine at Cochasquí - Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí
A local dance group practicing a routine at Cochasquí – Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí


Involving Local University Students and Recent Graduates

Our primary project-imposed rule when incorporating local students and recent graduates is that we will only do so when their complete experience can be financially supported by us. We arrange transportation to and from the site as needed and we provide lodging, food, and the necessary archaeological equipment. We have been involving university students from Quito since 2016, with past students being from a mixture of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), where fellow co-director Estanislao completed his undergraduate degree years ago, Universidad Central del Ecuador, and Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

Pedro, Byron and Alejandro cleaning collected pottery sherds - Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí
Pedro, Byron and Alejandro cleaning collected pottery sherds – Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí

During summer 2019, we had four students volunteer from PUCE, three of the students returned from the previous year and were intimately involved with the organization of the project this year, one of which graduated during the field season. Additionally, we had three students from Universidad San Francisco de Quito participate this year, two of which graduated just prior to the start of the field season. As with any educational context in the world, it is good to encourage students from one university to work with students of another.

The recent graduate from PUCE, Andrea Chávez, has been working with us since 2016 and with her continued involvement and commitment to the project, we have seen her abilities grow and strengthen immensely. She also recently completed her undergraduate degree. This past summer she served as our Lab Manager and at the end of the field season, us directors decided to promote her to the position of Assistant Director for our next field season.

Andrea cleaning ceramics - Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí
Andrea cleaning ceramics – Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí


Future Goals

I was generously offered the Taylor Center’s Changemaker Catalyst Award for the second consecutive year, and with such continued support we were able to maintain a level of financial support for Ecuador’s young, beginning archaeologists that the Taylor Center helped make possible starting in 2018.

My future objective for archaeological research at my project is to maintain a sustainable educational and professional archaeological experience for Ecuadorian anthropology undergraduate students and recent graduates. We hope students continue to work in archaeology after the field season, or in the very least to pursue one of the four sub-fields of anthropology. Very much like in the United States, one’s university is reflective of presumed socio-economic access. Our goal is to try to be mindful of students that we have from each institution and to try to share the opportunities as best as we can with a good representation of Quito’s universities with archaeology programs. 

A very serious problem with archaeology in Latin America, particularly as narrated by North American academics, is a notion of community engagement – which, as opposed to the name sounds, often involves relying heavily on hired local community members, particularly indigenous communities, as laborers instead of active participants within archaeology. Much of practiced archaeological community engagement is, in reality, a notion of “job creators” masked as democratic involvement. While we have had several community members sporadically work with us over the years, our next step is to more actively and formally involve community members throughout the project season as they are able to commit and to better understand what surrounding local communities want to learn from the site of Cochasquí.


Final Thoughts

There is always room to improve research, thus we should pinpoint significant research holes while trying to correlate this with regional interests when possible – fully acknowledging and embracing the variety of stakeholders with the cultural heritage of Cochasquí. In a Brechtian sense, our fieldwork is a series of nonstop quotable gestures. Trying to breathe life into an archaeological moment in time by reconstructing its very last contextual moment of existence is a form of quoting, it is inherently interrupting its context – our research relies on interruption thus we should not be apprehensive of the array of potential interruptions to our own activities from interested external forces and actively embrace them. We had a series of government visits this year, with representatives from the Instituto Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural – a federal government entity, Consejo Provincial de Pichincha – a provincial government entity, Cantón Pedro Moncayo – a local government entity.

Local government officials visiting from Pedro Moncayo - Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí
Local government officials visiting from Pedro Moncayo – Parque Arqueológico Cochasquí

By continuing to target areas determined to possess a high probability of buried features, our summer 2019 excavations continued to prove there is much more to the regional archaeological landscape than the monumentally visible. Continued “ground-truthing” offers a more nuanced direction for our future archaeological research. The archaeological research that was completed within our field season was exceptionally important and to allow other students the opportunity to learn from and benefit from such methodologies is exceptionally important. We aim to involve more students next year, as well as to more formally incorporate community members.