Transformative Architectures: An archaeology of building practices in the Atacama Desert

Estefanía Vidal Montero

My dissertation examines the process of village formation through an archaeological investigation of building practices in the hyper-arid core of the Atacama Desert (northern Chile). Centering on the construction of architectural spaces, my research tracks long-term networks of human and technological entanglements to provide insights into everyday lives, ordinary practices, and the material histories of pre-Hispanic communities living in this arid region between 800 BCE and 500 AD--what is known regionally as the Formative Period. I use a multi-scalar approach that combines archaeometric techniques, archaeological approaches, and spatial analysis to discern the gradual emergence of “places”, understood as sites that gather people and things through time and space. In the absence of centralized institutions that drive production and labor, my dissertation argues that architecture itself has the capacity to constitute the very collective engaged in its creation.


Since 2014 I have been conducting fieldwork in the Atacama Desert as part of a research team led by archaeologists from two Chilean universities and different local research institutions. Through this collaborative program I have conducted extensive surveys, excavations and mapping of a desert valley that is the location of the earliest manifestations of permanent architecture in the region. These archaeological sites, which have been investigated since the 1960’s, are known for their architectural complexity and their association with intricate irrigation networks, agricultural fields, cemeteries, and caravan routes. Through this ongoing research, we have discovered more than 45 new archaeological sites in the area, obtained a new set of radiocarbon dates that solidly place these pre-Hispanic occupations between 500 BCE and 500 AD, and conducted different types of material analyses that have come to question common conceptions about how these places were constructed and used. Our surveys and excavations have demonstrated that this valley was a node in long-distance trade networks and a site for the production of ceramics, a diversity of foodstuff--including quinoa, gourds, beans, and corn--, textiles, and wood-carved objects that circulated widely throughout the region. 


Thanks to the generous support of the Orin William Fund, I was able to travel back to Chile to attend the XXI Conference of Chilean Archaeology in December of 2018. This was an opportunity to reconnect with collaborators without whom my dissertation fieldwork would not have been possible, and to share partial results of my research with specialists and scholars whose feedback proved to be critical for the development of my work. The paper I presented at the conference is part of the third chapter of my dissertation, titled “Architectural narratives of settled life”, which investigates the archaeology of early villages in the region and offers material evidence that problematizes traditional assumptions about the transition from mobile lifestyles based on hunting and gathering, to sedentary communities of food producers.


Estefanía Vidal Montero is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology