The Beads of Las Orquídeas
Eric Dyrdahl, an archaeology graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, was a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016. His dissertation research focuses on craft production in the Late Formative period (about 800–400 BCE) in the Imbabura region of Ecuador. In addition to working in Ecuador, he has conducted obsidian characterization research in central Mexico.
Dyrdahl’s research report detailed the history of the Las Orquídeas site and his work excavating it. In the course of his research, Dyrdahl has unearthed countless beads, ceramics, and ornaments made from animal bones and shells in different stages of production—evidence of a complex and systematic approach to the creation of craft items that Dyrdahl intends to study in greater depth.
A Brief Q&A with Eric Dyrhdahl
In your research, you work with fragments—beads, ceramics, and so on. What are the other sources you’re using to make sense of this welter of crafts?
So, beyond artifactual remains? Well, it’s about two thousand years later, but there are ethnohistoric accounts of traders in Ecuador, especially in the area where I work. So I’m certainly looking at those models, and thinking archaeologically, “How would these appear? What kind of evidence are we going to have depending on this model?” And I’m testing those against the actual evidence that I have to see which seems most plausible.
But otherwise . . . well, in some of the other research reports we’ve seen recently, the fellows have analyzed codices and other things. I don’t really have anything like that to bring to bear. What I’m working with is a little too old.
In your talk you mentioned recognizing craft items that have shown up in other regions after what was probably a laborious process of transference. How do you trace these crafts? What makes them unique and identifiable?
It’s the form, primarily. One of the things that I need to do going forward, which I haven’t been able to do as much of as I would like, is to actually see these materials from other areas in person and compare production techniques, to see if they’re using the same methods for perforating beads and forming edges and so on. That would be the best indicator of shared production.
But the unfortunate truth is that, for so many of these types of artifacts, we know so little about their origins and the full spread of production. Las Orquídeas is one area where these things are being produced, but there could be a lot of other sites that we simply haven’t found yet. So there’s a lot of network analysis that needs to be done before we can understand the connections between the sites that have been studied from this period. From there it would be much easier to look at forms and production techniques and begin to connect the dots.
You mentioned that your site contains a lot of different artifacts at different stages of production, that there’s a fair bit of standardization to the process of production. But you also discussed a whalebone artifact, which is a bit of an anomalous material. How did the artisans react to working with this strange material? How did it fit into the process of production?
One of the nice things about studying the process is that there are a number of tasks that actually overlap. So if you know how to work shell, and you can perforate shell, you can perforate stone. Similarly, if you know how to work with animal bone—and they’re making animal bone tools— you can work with this whale ivory. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking a more holistic approach in thinking about the whole range of artifacts, versus just picking out the Spondylus beads, for instance. Once we take this broader perspective we start to see the great overlap between a lot of these tasks, and that a lot of these crafts aren’t actually indicators of some kind of specialization—the idea that, well, this person knows how to work whale ivory, and so only this person can do it.
One of the things I do is experimental archaeology, so I try to replicate some of the things I find. I’m not the best artisan in the world, that’s for certain, but you begin to understand that even though these things are important and impressive, they wouldn’t necessarily have required much specialized knowledge. Working with these materials, even though it would have been tedious and difficult, does not necessarily mean that the process of producing these artifacts was complex.