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Archaeology, Ambiguity, and the Production of Knowledge in Northwest Argentina

Written by a pioneer of archaeological theory, this account of an Early Formative village in Northwest Argentina offers a new model for the site report that illustrates how the fieldwork experience shapes the production of archaeological knowledge.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment, Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

November 2015
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396 pages | 6 x 9 | 109 b&w photos, 10 b&w illustrations, and 17 maps |

Around 400 BCE, inhabitants of the Southern Andes took up a sedentary lifestyle that included the practice of agriculture. Settlements were generally solitary or clustered structures with walled agricultural fields and animal corrals, and the first small villages appeared in some regions. Surprisingly, people were also producing and circulating exotic goods: polychrome ceramics, copper and gold ornaments, bronze bracelets and bells. To investigate the apparent contradiction between a lack of social complexity and the broad circulation of elaborated goods, archaeologist Joan Gero co-directed a binational project to excavate the site of Yutopian, an unusually well-preserved Early Formative village in the mountains of Northwest Argentina.

In Yutopian, Gero describes how archaeologists from the United States and Argentina worked with local residents to uncover the lifeways of the earliest sedentary people of the region. Gero foregounds many experiential aspects of archaeological fieldwork that are usually omitted in the archaeological literature: the tedious labor and constraints of time and personnel, the emotional landscape, the intimate ethnographic settings and Andean people, the socio-politics, the difficult decisions and, especially, the role that ambiguity plays in determining archaeological meanings. Gero’s unique approach offers a new model for the site report as she masterfully demonstrates how the decisions made in conducting any scientific undertaking play a fundamental role in shaping the knowledge produced in that project.


List of Figures

List of Tables



1. Introduction

2. Framework: Knowledge production at Yutopian

3. Framework: Ambiguity and the lust for certitude

Project Context

4. Narrative: Project origins in a British steak dinner

5. Socio-politics: Finding Northwest Argentina

6. Narrative: Archaeologists and lugareños meet at Yutopian

7. Backstory: Chronology in Northwest Argentina

8. Argument: Ceramic sequences and social processes

9. Narrative: Why excavate at Yutopian?

10. Socio-politics: Should North American archaeologists dig in Argentina?

Starting to Dig

11. Argument: The positionality of practice

12. Episode: Digging test pits

13. Raw data: What the test pits told us

14. Narrative: The incredible Pozo de Prueba 18

15. Episode: Extending test pit excavations

16. Andean ways: Inadvertent human remains

17. Episode: Opening Estructura Uno

18. Raw data: Inventory of artifact counts and special finds from Units 300, 301 and 302

19. Narrative: Emotional moments

20. Andean ways: The rodeo

21. Argument: Excavation forms

Estructura Dos

22. Narrative: Coming and going

23. Episode: Expectations and excavations in Estructura Dos

24. Narrative: Los Hermanos

25. Raw data: Inventory of special finds from Estructura Dos

26. Narrative: Why was Estructura Dos disappointing?

27. Backstory: Why live in a semi-subterranean house?

Estructura Uno

28. Episode: Excavating Estructura Uno

29. Descriptive data: A tour of the occupation floor of Estructura Uno

30. Raw data: Inventory of special and general finds from Estructura Uno, Units 303–306

31. Major ambiguity: Metallurgy in the house?

32. Argument: How the gendered household works

33. Andean ways: Buy the cage and get the chicken

34. Episode: Analysis in the field

Estructura Tres

35. Narrative: Arrivals, decisions, decisions!

36. Backstory: Andean ethnobotany and flotation at Yutopian

37. Episode: Excavating Estructura Tres

38. Raw data: Inventory of special finds from Estructura Tres

39. Narrative: The peculiar pits of Estructura Tres

40. Andean ways: Honoring Pachamama

Interpreting Núcleo Uno

41. Episode: Exploring Núcleo Uno's shared patio

42. Descriptive data: The square feature in the round patio

43. Descriptive data: The entranceways of Núcleo Uno

44. Narrative: The life history of Núcleo Uno

45. Cooking data: Changing patterns of lithic consumption in Núcleo Uno: Chalcedony and obsidian

46. Narrative: How unique is Núcleo Uno at Yutopian?

47. Backstory: How unique is Núcleo Uno in the world?

Estructura Once and the Issue of Remodeling Houses

48. Episode: The call of Estructura Once

49. Andean ways: Eating quirquincho (armadillo)

50. Raw data: Diagnostic ceramics by level from Estructura Once

51. Descriptive data: Remodeling and repositioning the doorways

52. Narrative: What did we learn from Estructura Once?

53. Backstory: What about the saucer-shaped house floors?

54. Episode: Pozos de Prueba 12 and 12a

Estructura Cuatro

55. Episode: Opening up Estructura Cuatro (1996)

56. Data in two modalities: The tri-lobate hearth

57. Descriptive data: The hearth occupation level in Estructura Cuatro

58. Narrative: Last day fervor in Estructura Cuatro

59. Socio-politics: Good-byes

60. Episode: Estructura Cuatro excavations in 1998: The lower occupation

61. Raw data: Inventory of special finds from Estructura Cuatro

62. Descriptive data: The cache pit

63. Andean ways: Chañar drinks

Looking for Núcleo Dos

64. Narrative: Where was Estructura Cuatro's entranceway?

65. Episode: Searching for Cinco and Núcleo Dos

66. Raw Data: Inventory of special finds from Estructura Cinco

67. Narrative: Radical remodeling in Núcleo Dos

68. Argument: Ritual and quotidian

69. Narrative: A lab for all reasons

70. Socio-politics: Yutopian in the community

Understanding Yutopian as an Early Formative Settlement

71. Raw data: Comparative characteristics of Yutopian structures

72. Raw data: Radiocarbon chronology

73. Narrative: The Formative settlement at Yutopian

74. Backstory: Plazas and a "public"

75. Argument: Yutopian's boundaries and the site map

76. Socio-politics: Why Yutopian has so little Formative context

77. Narrative: Entranceway ideologies

78. Andean ways: Water management at Yutopian

Data from the Experts

79. Data from the experts: Agricultural practices at Yutopian (with Jack Rossen)

80. Data from the experts: Plants and diet, now and then (with Jack Rossen)

81. Data from the experts: Phytolith facts

82. Data from the experts: Faunal remains (with Andrés Izeta)

83. Data from the experts: Ceramic forms and designs (with M. Fabiana Bugliani)

84. Cooking data: Chalcedony and obsidian, part 2

85. Data: Stone tools from other angles

86. Data: Cross-mends and what they tell us

87. Data: Beads and spindle whorls

Cardonal by Comparison

88. Narrative: The "other" Early Formative site: Cardonal

89. Argument: Testing archaeology and its methods

90. Socio-politics: Traveling to Cardonal

91. Episode: A short field season testing Cardonal house structures

92. Raw data: Special finds from the 2004 Cardonal field season

93. Socio-politics: North-South collaborations in archaeology

94. Backstory: Grinding stones (conanas, cutanas, morteros) and the holes in them

95. Episode: Later work at Cardonal

96. Andean ways: Llama caravans and long-distance exchange

97. Narrative: Cardonal and Yutopian

Wrap-Ups and Postscripts

98. Wrap-up: Putting the project to bed

99. Postscript: Early Formative society: Where's the monumental?

100. Follow-through: References cited


A pioneer of archaeological theory, Joan M. Gero was Professor Emerita of Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, and Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. She coedited The Socio-politics of Archaeology and Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory and was head series editor of One World Archaeology books.


“...Gero has produced a fascinating and highly original volume…”
Latin American Antiquity

“Unlike any monograph I have ever read, it is truly interesting beyond its summary of findings. Each time I pick it up, I find it hard to put down….It is entirely unique.”
Vice-president of World Archaeological Congress (WAC)

“A beautifully written, honest, and intriguing account . . . [that] presents the totality, the all of an archaeological experience, as much as is possible in a written text.”
Benjamin Alberti, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Framingham State University

“A necessary reference for everyone interested in the pre-Hispanic history of the Southern Andes . . . [and] an original and important contribution to archaeological theory and practice in general.”
Axel Nielsen, Investigador Principal, CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas), Argentina


The Vice-president of the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), Anne Pyburn, and President, Koji Mizoguchi, deliver a final announcement, the creation of the Joan Gero Book Award, and closing comments to the WAC-8.