High-altitude Archaeolgy - August 2017

Latest update October 16, 2017 Started on February 16, 2017
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Our August 2017 expedition plans to conduct an expanded archaeological survey, including a series of dives at extreme elevation, to investigate, map, and document pre-Incan/Incan ruins and artifacts in and around Laguna Sibinacocha located at 16,000 ft in the Peruvian Andes. Our expedition will utilize an OpenROV remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to document ruins and artifacts that we have already discovered in the lake, and to investigate and document new underwater sites, including those too deep for diving at such extreme altitudes. The ROV will also help target new dive sites, conserving the limited diving gas we’ll have at this remote location. An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will be used to facilitate pedestrian surveys and to map the terrestrial findings and the surrounding landscape features.

February 16, 2017
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In The Field

One of our primary goals for this expedition was to retrieve offering pots that we discovered on the lakebed in 2012. Sibinacocha’s water level has been dropping in the last few years due to climate change and more recently, from lake water being piped to downstream villages. Subsequently, many of the ruin structures and the pots surrounding them are in shallower water, which allows more light penetration and therefore, more algae and aquatic plant growth. Features that were easily recognizable when I discovered them in 2011 are now completely covered with aquatic vegetation. This not only makes the structures and their surrounding offerings difficult to study, the vegetation growing on the pots also damages their surface. In 2015 our underwater archaeologists realized that the submerged cultural features were being covered and so they stabilized the one pot that we could still locate at that time. The pot was surrounded by sandbags to prevent algae growth on its surface and a buoy was placed next to it to ensure that it could be relocated. It’s also conceivable that the structures and pots could be out of the water in the very near future, which will make them more vulnerable to damage and looting. Therefore, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture granted the Peruvian Center for Maritime and Underwater Archaeology (CPAMS) team an emergency action permit to recover the pots that we could still locate.


Underwater archaeology is a relatively new discipline and that is especially true in Peru. The CPAMS underwater archaeology team is the first of its kind in Peru and we were all quite honored to be included in their effort. In fact, I’m told that this underwater artifact recovery was also a first in Peru, which is shocking considering the country’s rich cultural history. The CPAMS archaeologists believe that there must be more submerged sites like this in the Peruvian highlands, they just haven’t been discovered yet (we hope to change that soon!)…

Once the gases in our bodies safely equilibrated to the altitude, our dive team made a reconnaissance dive to inspect the state of the stabilized pot and to conduct systematic searches for the other pots. Dense vegetation thwarted our efforts to relocate the missing pots so we focused on recovering the stabilized pot. In recent years strong winds and storms have become more frequent in August, and that pattern was looking the same for this expedition. Concerned that bad weather might prevent us from safely recovering the pot, we chose to recover it with our first good weather window.

The day that I had waited years for had finally arrived. On August 20 the dive team entered the water to retrieve the pot. Under the supervision of CPAMS, we rehearsed the recovery effort on land to help ensure that the plan was executed smoothly. Every team member was assigned a specific task — both above and below the water. We were supervised by CPAMS archaeologist, Martin Polo, and artifact conservation specialist, Alexandra Sponza.

As I carefully removed the sandbags surrounding it, I was relieved to find the pot was intact and just as we’d left it two years before. We photographically documented its condition and then enacted the plan that we’d rehearsed. One diver removed the vegetation and sediment around the pot until we could tell if the bottom was intact and we were sure that it could be safely removed according to the plan. A sturdy, plastic crate was rigged with strong, kevlar cord and placed next to the pot. On cue, each diver executed their task until we passed the crate to waiting team members on the shoreline (check out the attached video. Password: Sibina). The pot was quickly transported to one of our expedition tents and Alexandra took over.

At that altitude, temperatures quickly drop to below freezing after sundown and we had a very old artifact filled with water. If that water were allowed to freeze, the pot could shatter. Alexandra set up a makeshift lab in the tent and a stove was lit inside to stave off the cold. She immediately siphoned off the water in the pot until only a thick layer of loose sediment remained. As the layers were removed we sat tense with anticipation as to what might be at the bottom of the pot. Suddenly she cracked a smile and said, “there’s something here…”

We all wondered what, if any, offering would be found inside, but one thing was in the back of everyone’s mind… gold. Golden figurines wouldn’t be too surprising for such a location and the precious metal is certainly the stuff of adventurous dreams. After a few more layers were removed, Alexandra knew that it was something hard and not seeds, coca leaves, or the remnants of cloth, which wouldn’t be too surprising either. She cleared enough of the sediment away from the objects to reveal their shape and photograph their configurations. Then, finally, she reached in and removed one of the objects. I could tell by her expression, it wasn’t gold. The weight of gold is unmistakable.

She placed the mud-covered objects on a plastic tray, just as they were positioned in the pot. They were clearly made of stone or some mineral. After a moment she sheepishly said, “what does that look like to you…?” Laughter erupted. The three stones were perfectly placed so that they looked like… well, look at the attached photo. They may have been meant as a fertility offering, and that wouldn’t be too surprising considering the potential significance of where we were. Regardless of what the stones were meant to represent, finding stones in such an offering was a first for all of the Peruvian archaeologists that we work with — just another ‘first’ for Sibinacocha. Alexandra still had more work to do to ensure that the pot was stabilized and conserved for future study, so the next day, we had a truck meet her back at the end of the road and she returned to Cusco to work in the lab that we’d set up there.

All of the sediment from the pot will be analyzed by Neal Michelutti, a paleolimnologist from Queen’s University. Since the pot acted as a catchment basin for sedi