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Rising Stars - Christina Conlee

Christina Conlee

Archaeologist provides insight into ancient culture

By David King, University Marketing

They’ve been explained as everything from final landing instructions for alien pilots to walking routes for religious pilgrims to eye candy for the gods of an ancient civilization.

But the mysterious Nasca Lines — hundreds of remarkably long and straight lines, plus an amazing assortment of huge and complex images, visible only from high above 200 square miles of Peruvian desert — aren’t what piqued Dr. Christina Conlee’s interest in Nasca.

“A lot of archaeology has started to concentrate not on the lines, but on the people who made them,” says Conlee, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Texas State. “We’re working a lot on these issues, to get a better idea of the culture and how the lines fit into it.”

Her groundbreaking archaeological studies of the people of the Nasca — whose civilization lasted perhaps 1,000 years, beginning in 100 BC — were funded by the National Geographic Society, and they were the subject of a documentary on the National Geographic Channel and a feature in the magazine earlier this year.

A Different World

But thrive they did, creating a complex of towns and cities, temples and, yes, the mysterious figures in the desert, which were achieved by digging out two to four inches of the dark-colored rocks of the desert surface and revealing the light-colored soil underneath. The lines and figures have been preserved by the utter lack of rain — estimated at 20 minutes’ worth a year — and absence of wind in the desert, which is in southwestern Peru.

The first modern men to see the figures were pilots flying over the region in the 1920s, and the first archaeologist to study them called them “great Incan ceremonial artifacts.” They have been explained as everything from messages to UFOs (in the 1968 best-seller, Chariots of the Gods) to guides for studying the skies to giant dowsing rods, pointing to underground water flows.

Conlee and many other archaeologists now believe the figures were part of a series of religious practices designed to ensure the continued flow of the life-giving water. Those practices also were part of what turned out to be Conlee’s groundbreaking contribution to the study of the Nasca people.

The Discovery

The people of Nasca practiced decapitation and the ceremonial display of preserved skulls as part of their religion, Conlee says. Several hundred skulls have been found through the years, but no one had been able to determine if they were from vanquished enemies or other non-native peoples — or from the Nasca people themselves.

In 2004, Conlee unearthed a remarkably well-preserved skeleton in a region of the Nasca known as La Tiza. The headless body had been buried with a “head jar,” a piece of pottery decorated with images of a head and of plant life, indicating that the decapitation was indeed part of a fertility ritual.

“There were actually a couple of ‘aha’ moments,” Conlee says of her discovery. “The first came when we uncovered the jar and realized it was a head jar. This made me realize that this was likely a decapitated person, instead of someone whose head had been removed later, and that it was related to a ritual practice.”

The second came when the excavation team discovered evidence that the head indeed had been forcibly removed. And then came a third, thanks to a former classmate at Cal-Santa Barbara.

“Christina was excavating at La Tiza and found burials at places she didn’t expect,” said Dr. Michele Buzon, an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University. “She asked if I would join her as the project bioarchaeologist to study the human skeletal remains.”

Buzon, using a process called strontium isotope analysis, determined that the skeleton was of a young man from the local population. The revelation helped shed considerable light on the Nasca people’s rituals and helped further explain the lines and figures in the desert.

“We’re beginning to get a sense of the Nasca lines as places where people did rituals and made offerings to bring water,” Conlee says. “I think these so-called trophy heads are part of the same sort of religious and ritual practices.”

In San Marcos

Conlee brings her wealth of experiences in Nasca and elsewhere to her classes at Texas State, including her section of Introduction to Archaeology.

“Students like hearing first-hand accounts about people doing field work and seeing the images,” she says. “I think people have a lot of misconceptions of what archaeologists do — there’s that Indiana Jones idea. And there’s actually a little bit of that involved, and we do have some adventures. But a lot of it is sort of tedious and mundane work.

“Students really respond — somebody they see talking up there, their professor, and then what they do in the field, day-to-day stuff.”

Their curiosity this semester also extended to the making of the National Geographic Channel documentary, “Nasca Lines: The Buried Secrets,” which was spurred by discoveries made in the last 10 years about a civilization that disappeared 1,500 years ago.

“That was a whole new experience for me,” Conlee says of the video shoot, which took place during an actual excavation in Peru. The need to get the right shot for the video meant she sometimes had to do the same thing several times — picking up an artifact, holding it for the camera, making sure it was at the right angle. It was an enlightening experience, she says.

Not nearly as enlightening as the actual research, though.

“I didn’t go into graduate school to get a PhD and become Indiana Jones — I knew it wasn’t like that,” she says. “But there is that kind of puzzle to archaeology, that question, that mystery, that I think still kind of drives a lot of us into it. We want to find out more about putting these little pieces of the puzzle of the past together to figure out what they mean.”

Rising Stars

Christina Conlee file

Education: PhD from University of California-Santa Barbara

Currently: Associate professor, Department of Anthropology, teaches Introduction to Archaeology, Andean Civilizations, The Incas, Rise of Civilizations, and Analysis of Archaeological Materials

Of note: Her specialties are the archaeology of the Andean area of South America, the collapse of complex societies, social transformations and analysis of ceramics . . . she also has done research at the late prehispanic village of Pajonal Alto in Peru, the Channel Islands off the coast of California, and in northern Mexico, Germany, and on the mainland coast of southern California.

She said it: “These trophy heads weren’t necessarily trophies, but important symbols of fertility and life-hood of these people. In the art, you see these heads associated with images of plants. The head jar we found has vines coming out of the head, actually a tree coming out of the head. It kind of suggests these heads have something to do with fertility, with ensuring agricultural fertility.”