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An Archaeologist’s Determination for Discovery

June 18, 2019

“Archaeology is one of those things where you know immediately if you want to do it in the future or not,” Visiting Assistant Professor Rebecca Bria laughs. “Once I learned how archaeologists could go beyond the history books to reconstruct the lives and experiences of ancient people through the things they left behind, there were really no other options for me in terms of what I wanted to dedicate my career to.”

Her appreciation for archaeology started during her undergrad years when she attended a field school in Sicily, Italy, and has since grown through her years of field experience in the Midwest US, Belize, Argentina, Bolivia, the United Arab Emirates, and Peru, where she currently conducts research.

Bria founded the research and heritage outreach project Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash (PIARA) in highland Peru in 2011. PIARA will be partnering with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota this year.

Collaboration with PIARA

As director and principal investigator of PIARA, Bria works hard to instill a determination for discovery in students through events and excavations, including leading a field school this coming summer in highland Peru as part of helping to educate the next generation of archaeologists.  

PIARA hosts intensive learning experiences, such as an international field school, that provide training in practical field methods and welcome students from countries throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and beyond. Bria strives to make the program robust by engaging students in group projects that give them first-hand experience with the research process, from excavation to project design, data collection, and presentation. “We try to make it very comprehensive and collaborative,” Bria states.

This year, Bria brings the PIARA field school to the U of M, exposing students to genuine archaeological research in Peru.

Bria applies various digital techniques to the investigation and instruction of archaeology by designing custom mobile relational databases for data collection in the field and laboratory, creating 3D photogrammetry models for visualization, and analyzing spatial data with geographic information systems (GIS).

Personal Goals and Discoveries

As a student, Bria had always wanted to study pre-Colombian South America, so years ago, when one of her professors started a project in Peru, she jumped at the opportunity.

Bria’s research in South America analyzes aspects of inter-community life, such as the way people live together, how they bury their dead, and chiefly, how they labored to produce food and worship together.

“If you want to build terraces and redesign the landscape for intensifying food production, people need to work together in new ways. Equally, ritual events require people working together, and in ancient Peru, these events often involved large amounts of eating and drinking, which itself required a lot of planning. So, I am looking at how food production and ritual have together shaped a variety of major social  transformations throughout prehistory.” she says. To do this, she is excavating ritual compounds and terrace structures to track changes in plant remains and identify what people were growing and ritually eating at a particular time.

It is through involving students in this kind of research that Bria seeks to get students excited about archaeology. “Working with students is essential to my identity as a scholar,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching and knew I wanted that to be a part of my research practice.”

Taking a Big Responsibility Seriously

In her fieldwork, Bria focuses heavily on collaborating with the living community of the place where her research is being conducted in order to preserve and value their heritage: “A major thing that drives me is the  work that brings value to the ancient remains and histories of these places.” In pursuit of this, PIARA has adopted a “co-creative” approach to project selection. “When you are a scholar studying someone else’s heritage, there is a big responsibility to not only give back but to work with local people as collaborators alongside them.”

In 2019, students will spend five weeks examining monumental temple spaces and tombs at the ancient site of Hualcayán, Peru. During fieldwork, participants will live in a Quechua-speaking indigenous community, travel to museums and archaeological sites, and at the end of the experience, receive six credits from the University of Minnesota.

The PIARA-UMN field school provides experiences in excavation, bioarchaeology, artifact analysis, GIS, and 3D photogrammetry mapping, giving students a broad understanding of multiple techniques used in the archaeological field.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.