Digging World History

UAlbany students (from left to right) Caroline Tang, Haylie Gray, Danielle Duguid, Morgan Marx and Jay Oxman in excavation trench at Las Mercedes, Costa Rica.

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 25, 2017) – Exploring ancient ruins and examining prehistoric artifacts may sound like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. For students taking part in the Las Mercedes Archaeological Field School in Costa Rica, perception meets reality.

“The project is part of an international collaboration between UAlbany and the National Museum of Costa Rica,” said Associate Professor of Anthropology Robert Rosenswig, who has directed students on archaeological excavations at the Las Mercedes site since 2009.

Archaeological field schools offer students the chance to acquire skills in setting up excavation units, recording elevations and selecting excavation strategies and areas to test. They learn to fill out field records, make field observations, and draw plan, profile, and site maps. Students also spend time in the laboratory processing the artifacts that are discovered.

Las Mercedes Project UAlbany Costa Rica
A bit of fun at Las Mercedes, Costa Rica.

Las Mercedes was first discovered in the late 19th century when the United Fruit Company built a railway through the site to bring bananas to the coast to be shipped up to New York. Sometime later, artifacts from the site were brought to the U.S. and are now displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (which was of course setting for another scientific-themed movie in Night at the Museum).

Rosenswig’s partner on the project is alum Ricardo Vazquez, a state archaeologist at the National Museum of Costa Rica who received his Ph.D. from UAlbany in 2014.

The project is also entering a new phase – literally taking to the air to advance our understanding of the site. UAlbany Assistant Professor of Geography and Planning Alexander Buyantuev is using drones with lidar and multispectral sensors to map archaeological features, with the goal of painting a better picture of the size and scope of Las Mercedes.

The project is important enough that Costa Rica is currently investigating getting Las Mercedes designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not bad for the pre-Columbian community, which was occupied from A.D. 1000 to 1500. When it was occupied, Las Mercedes served the center of a large chiefdom the likes of which early Spanish explorers reported from their ships while within sight of the coast of present-day Panama.

For Rosenswig and UAlbany students, the work will continue next year thanks in part to a National Geographic Society research grant funding the field school for 2018.

“The Las Mercedes Archaeological Project field school carries on a UAlbany tradition of providing undergraduate and graduate training in archaeological field methods,” said Rosenswig. “During the past decade, over 170 undergraduate and 50 graduate students have participated in the Costa Rica project and previous field schools in Belize, giving them the chance to directly take part in archaeological discovery and the recovery of primary scientific data about prehistoric society.”

For undergraduate students, the field school is a chance to learn basic scientific skills essential for archaeological excavation. They practice a variety of methodological approaches appropriate to a full range of research objectives. These skills provide the credentials needed for employment with private archaeology companies once they return to the U.S. A field school is also the first step in professional training of students who pursue archaeology in an academic setting.

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