Digging in the dirt important part of Sayre’s work



By Travis Gulbrandson


Last summer, USD’s Dr. Matthew Sayre took a group of seven students on a research trip to a 3,000-year-old Peruvian temple.

Now, he wants to make it a tradition, with a second trip for this summer now in the planning stages.

“It’s a really unique experience for the undergrads to not only go abroad and study … but also to be immersed in a local small-town culture,” said Sayre, an assistant professor of anthropology at USD.

With support from USD’s College of Arts & Sciences, the students went to the Chavin de Huantar, which is located in the Andes Mountains, and is known to be one of the oldest places in Peru.

“It’s certainly a privilege to work there, and when I was offered the chance when I first went to graduate school I immediately said yes,” Sayre said.

He started working there for his dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, continuing through post-doctoral work with Stanford University’s IHUM program.

When most people think of archaeology, their heads immediately become filled with images from the Indiana Jones series of films, but Sayre will be the first to tell you that the real thing bears little resemblance to the movies.

However, he said it is sometimes difficult not to make those comparisons at the Chavin de Huantar, with its many labyrinthine underground chambers.

“You walk right in there and go through these galleries and see things that we presume are images of (ancient Peruvians’) gods – large stone statues that are 10 feet high with elaborate carvings on them,” Sayre said.

“You have this really elaborate temple that we now know is constructed in a similar design of temples that were built on the coast of Peru in that same time period, so there appears to be connections between this temple and other civilizations at this period in time,” he said.

Part of Sayre’s work there involves studying an invasive species of grass whose roots extend 10 feet, which has led to concern about their protruding into the galleries of the temple and weakening its structure.

Some of Peru’s native species have roots of similar length, but at the time the temple was built, it would not have been covered in grass, Sayre said.

“We’ve started removing (the grass),” he said. “We figured out you can’t use pesticides, you can’t remove it by hand – it’ll come back – so the way we figured to do this was … to roll out big plastic tarps on top of it and leave them there for over a year.”

Sayre said work is now being done to cover the monument with other kinds of protection to keep the grass from returning.

In their trip to the site, the USD students helped in researching the invasive species.

“We were able to go down there and work for roughly a month on the field school,” Sayre said. “There were students from Stanford there, as well as from three Peruvian universities, and some people from Poland and other countries.

“It was really quite a large project, with over 50 students, professional excavators and probably 30 local contract laborers, who were predominantly local farmers,” he said.

He hopes that a group of USD students now can return each summer through a collaborative effort with Stanford and the Peruvian schools.

“A field school was quite different for many of them because it’s an example of moving away from just learning in lecture to learning by applied activity,” he said. “So, people were not just reading the textbook and learning how to document artifacts, but they’re also taking photographs and running them through photogramic software and creating 3D models of what we’ve excavated. …

“For a number of students, I think it was kind of refreshing for them to learn through doing rather than through receiving information,” he said.

A native of Iowa, Sayre spent much of his youth in Ohio. This is his second year at USD.

He said his path to archaeology was different from that of many in his profession.

“Most archaeologists knew from the age of six that they wanted to spend their life studying the pyramids, or digging in the dirt, or working on arrowheads,” he said. “I went to college thinking I’d major in either history or biology, and found anthropology to really be an area that combined the two of them.

“Both archaeology and anthropology are very diverse in that they allow people to be both humanistic and scientific,” he said.

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