Trip to Andes uncovers symbols of Peruvian worship for UW-Whitewater archaeologist

January 12, 2010

Buried beneath the dirt at ancient sites in Pisanay, Peru, are painted stones. University of Wisconsin- Whitewater anthropologist Jo Ellen Burkholder is exploring what these painted stones and other artifacts reveal about ancient Peru.

Burkholder recently returned from six weeks of fieldwork in the Andes in Peru. Her trip was made possible by a $45,000 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities.

"The trip was very much a success," Burkholder said. "Even if part of the success came as a surprising twist in my research."

Burkholder originally went to Pisany, Peru to study change over time by excavating artifacts like pottery and textiles to better understand how materials come together and influence cultural traditions. She was hoping the sites in which she studied would date back to first millennium B.C. but discovered they were only about 1,000 years old.

She also found flattened stones painted with mineral pigments. "They were not very interesting to look at -- just plain smooth stones with traces of red and sometimes yellow or green paint," Burkholder said.

At first, she didn't know the significance behind these rocks, but later came to realize the stones were part of ancient rituals of worship to the goddess Pachamama. "It wasn't until after I got back to Whitewater that the pieces all came together for me," said Burkholder. She was looking through photos from the trip that showed the offerings she had made to the Peruvian deity Pachamama.

The most important ritual to Pachamama is the pago, or payments. "The people of Peru cannot begin any major project without first making an offering to Pachamama," said Burkholder.

"I was explaining to someone what the photos were all about and it occurred to me that the act of gathering 'pretty' things and powerful symbols and then placing them in the ground for Pachamama was very much like the collection of painted stones from Pisanay I had found," said Burkholder. She then began further studying Pachamama and the deep history of Peruvian worship.

Her research is important for not only historical reasons, but for gender reasons. "In the Western world, all our images of the divine are male and we presume that everyone sees the world as we do," said Burkholder. As she studied more artifacts she began to recognize a lot more female symbols and images.

"The Andes turned out to be an ideal place for me to study," Burkholder said. "I have always been fascinated by the blending of religious traditions, striking graphic representations and iconography and the construction of architecture in landscapes, and these are all very evident in the ancient Andes." Peru also has an exceptional record for preserving ancient buried treasures like pottery and textiles. "I am very impressed by knowledge or sensation of holding or touching something that is very old," she said.

Burkholder plans to return to Peru to identify and document sites in the valley of Pisanay. She plans to keep her eyes open for signs of Pachamama to better understand her social and historical context.

For more information, contact Burkholder at 262-472-5776 or


Sara Kuhl