An archeological field study trip to Costa Rica, led by Dr. Scott Palumbo, a College of Lake County anthropology instructor, recently took 15 students to Bolas, Costa Rica, an area considered one of the most important pre-Columbian sites in southern Central America. The group, which included nine CLC students and six others from St. Augustine, Fla.-based Flagler College, was in the country from May 20 to June 18, 2013.
The trip was significant for several reasons, according to Palumbo. "We're the first project in Costa Rica to consult with an indigenous group (the Cabagra tribe)," he said. The project was conducted under an agreement with Costa Rica's national archeological commission, the national museum and the U.S.-based Register of Professional Archaeologists.
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Initially, Palumbo said the local population was suspicious of the dig team because the area has a history of graves being looted for their golden ornaments. "The dead are considered sacred, and we had to sign a document promising that we wouldn't dig graves," he explained.
The CLC group unearthed pottery fragments and other artifacts belonging to the native Chibchan people and encountered large stone spheres, some up to five feet in diameter, which were carved between 250 B.C. and 1500 A.D.
The venture, known as an "archaeological field school," provided practical, hands-on experience for the students, some of whom are archeology majors. During the dig, students were looking for artifacts that might indicate if different social classes inhabited the site, according to Palumbo. A mixture of ceramic bowls--some finely decorated and others plain in appearance--would be a sign of different social classes, similar to today's fine china versus plain china. The group also looked at debris from the manufacture of stone tools. Palumbo said that bases on the artifacts found, the tentative conclusion is that social differences were not highly pronounced at the site.
CLC's last archeological trip was 10 years ago, when Wendy Brown, anthropology/sociology instructor, and Dr. Jeff Stomper, dean of the Social Sciences division, co-directed the Mayflower Archaeology Project in Belize. As Stomper sees it, these kinds of projects are win-win for the students and local populations. "They (the indigenous tribes) have been there for a long time," he said. "But most history begins with European contact. Indigenous history is practically non-existent. You empower them by helping them understand their origins."
The CLC group lived and worked out of a hotel in the city of Buenos Aires, and traveled by four-wheel drive SUVs for the hour-long trip over bumpy dirt roads to the Bolas site. Divided into four groups, the excavation team unearthed artifacts, while a mapping team created a topographic map of the site, including the diameter and size of burial mounds. A survey team looked for earthen mounds and other remnants of ancient garbage.
On selected days, a lab team stayed back at the hotel to wash, inventory and box up the artifacts, which were sent to Costa Rica's national museum in San Jose. Reaching out to the local community, Palumbo and the students gave a presentation on local pre-history, in which they showed the unearthed pottery and stone axe heads. The group also helped rebuild roofs that sheltered the landmark stone balls, an activity that the local residents appreciated.
Palumbo, who also has done field work in Peru, appreciated the chance to make a "seminal" contribution to archeology. "One thing that appealed to me about Costa Rica is that the (Bolas) site is relatively unknown," he said. "In a place such as Peru, you are generally putting the finishing touches on others' work. But in Costa Rica, the chance to work from the ground up had a stronger appeal." Palumbo will send a 60-page report, complete with photos and maps, to the Costa Rican national museum along with the unearthed pottery and stone tools.
One CLC student who found the trip rewarding was Gina Buckley. After graduating in 2007 from the University of South Dakota with a major in contemporary media and journalism, Buckley earned a post-baccalaureate certificate in anthropology from Northwestern University in 2012.
"Having the actual field experience is priceless," Buckley said. "Just by putting learned methods into practice, you gain so much more knowledge." She is now applying to graduate schools across the country, plans to earn an M.A and Ph.D. in archaeology and would like work in Mexico or Central America and teach at a university.