Digital Heritage and the Archaeology of Afro-Peruvian Slavery

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The Haciendas of Nasca Archaeological Project (Proyecto Arqueológico Haciendas de Nasca, or PAHN) was established in 2009 as an historical and archaeological project designed to study the Spanish colonial institution of the hacienda in Peru’s Nasca region on the south coast.

Haciendas were rural agricultural estates, and in Nasca’s Ingenio Valley they were worked primarily by enslaved African-descendants and specialized in viti-vinicultural production, making wine and grape brandy (often called pisco today). PAHN was the first archaeological project in Peru focused on the material culture of the Afro-descendant population, and has endeavored to engage both the academic public and descendant communities.

Hacienda San Joseph de la Nasca

Excavation at the community of San José, the site of the Hacienda San Joseph de la Nasca

Our work with PAHN concerns the historical and archaeological documentation of the haciendas of the region, and endeavors to approximate the daily lived experience of the workers and residents of these estates, the vast majority of whom during the Spanish colonial period were enslaved and primarily of African origin. The descendant communities, and Afro-Peruvians generally, have been historically marginalized in Peru and their cultures and histories have been historically obscured through institutional processes of erasure, silencing, and national whitening projects. Thus, PAHN’s partnership with Afro-Nascan communities offers an important avenue for exploring these histories and the emergence of Afro-Peruvian culture through the archaeology of everyday life on the haciendas of the region. Digital technologies such as 3D photogrammetry provide us with new opportunities to engage descendant communities as well as reach new audiences in Peru and internationally, elevating awareness and visibility of Afro-Peruvian heritage.

afro-nascan community peru

The Afro-Nascan community of La Banda, Nasca, Peru, during the feast of the Virgin of Carmen

Archaeology at the Jesuit Vineyards of Nasca

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the most prominent of the haciendas in the Nasca region were the vineyards of San Joseph de la Nasca (today, San José, District of El Ingenio) and San Francisco Xavier de la Nasca (San Javier, District of Changuillo) owned by the Roman Catholic priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). During this time, these two haciendas were the largest and most productive vineyards in the entire viceroyalty of Peru.

The Jesuits used profits from haciendas to fund their colleges and universities in the Spanish colonies. In order to support their school in Cuzco, Peru, the Jesuits purchased the Hacienda El Ingenio, which they renamed San Joseph, in 1619. That same year, the Jesuit college in Lima, Peru purchased the Vineyard of San Pablo de la Nasca, later to be demoted to an annex of San Xavier when the larger estate was purchased in 1657. Both the Lima and Cuzco Jesuits continued to annex properties to their Nasca haciendas until 1767, when the Society of Jesus was expelled from the Spanish Empire and the Spanish Crown expropriated all of the order’s properties, including the Nasca vineyard haciendas.

The region was an important seat for the development of Afro-Peruvian culture, and San Joseph and San Xavier, were the richest and most important vineyards owned by the Society of Jesus in the Viceroyalty of Peru, having had a combined enslaved population of about 600 people of African descent. Today, the former haciendas have become modern-day towns occupied by the descendants of the former hacienda population. These towns also possess many archaeological resources just below the surface, as well as hacienda architecture such as the hacienda great houses and 18th-century Jesuit chapels.

In 2012 and 2013, PAHN carried out an archaeological pedestrian survey of the main haciendas and their annexes in the region, accompanied by archaeogeophysical survey at the sites of San Joseph and San Xavier. Excavations were also carried out at productive and domestic cores of these sites, targeting living spaces, domestic trash deposits (middens), workshops, and ceramic kilns where wine jars, called botijas, were produced for transporting the wine and brandy. In 2017, PAHN began to employ UAV (drone) technology to re-map the archaeological sites and produce three-dimensional models of the landscape and extant architectural remains using Agisoft Photoscan (now Metashape). Since 2018, we have initiated excavations at the distillery complex (aguardentera) of San Joseph’s 18th-century annex of the Hacienda La Ventilla. Photogrammetry is useful not only in drone mapping or modeling recovered artifacts, but also in documenting excavated spaces.

DEM from UAV photography

Making a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) from UAV photography at the site of the Hacienda La Ventilla

Our archaeological analysis has led to a number of professional publications exploring themes such as Afro-Peruvian historical foodways, hacienda provisioning patterns, the hacienda built environment, and the relationships between gender, race, and slavery in colonial labor. Our project has also explored how the modern descendant communities remember their own past and the role of material culture and architectural reminders of the age of the haciendas and slavery. Because the archaeological components of these former hacienda sites are located in a desert region prone to earthquakes, mudslides, and accidental incursion by the modern communities, it is essential that we are able to document the archaeological resources quickly and frequently in order to document their state of preservation. Photogrammetry is often the best tool we have in our historical preservation arsenal.

peru excavation

Excavation of the distillery at the Hacienda La Ventilla

Three-dimensional Photogrammetric Artifact Documentation

Initially, we began photogrammetric documentation in the field to digitize material culture that, for one reason or another, could not be brought back to our archaeological field lab in Palpa, Peru. In many cases, these objects included architectural elements, or artifacts that could not be moved because of their size and were required by law to remain in situ, such as the large wine fermentation vessels, known as tinajas, at the site of San Xavier. Depending on the limitations of the research permits issued to us by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, we could make surface collections, but not in all instances. In some cases, photogrammetry has allowed us to document surface finds that would otherwise have been inaccessible to us beyond photographs and rudimentary field measurements.

Beginning with the 2018 season of excavations we have started to flag sets of artifacts for photogrammetric processing as part of our standard process of artifact analysis. The 2018 assemblage included an 18th-century Afro-Peruvian musical instrument recovered from the area near the botija workshops at the site of San Joseph. This instrument belongs to a family of dried gourd rasping instruments known as güiros, played by rasping a stick along the perforations, and it suggests that music was an important part of the work carried out around the kilns. Because of its complete, but fragile nature it was an ideal candidate for photogrammetric documentation. Additionally, the artifact’s status as the oldest known Afro-Peruvian musical instrument, and a unique find in the region, also increased our desire to preserve the güiro as a digital model.


Botijas are a type of wheel-thrown coarse earthenware amphora jar that was used to contain and transport a variety of liquid and dry goods. Their cylindrical shape made them ideal for shipping wine and brandy in the hulls of ships or in mule carts for overland transport. These amphorae came in two main sizes, a full-sized botija that held about 23 liters and was the common vessel for transporting wine, and the botija media or botija perulera, which held up to 12 liters and typically transported brandy.

Photogrammetry allows us to document the shape of the vessels and how they changed over time from the 16th through 19th centuries, as well as calculate their volume. Certain parts of the vessels, such as the pointed bases or rims and mouths, had variable morphology at any given time period, and photogrammetry captures the nuances of these ceramic expressions.

Botija base
Botija rim sherd

The botija shape was designed for optimal transportation overland in mule carts or by sea in the hulls of ships; botijas do not have a flat base and require additional support to be positioned upright. The same enslaved potters who made tools also made the setters used to keep botijas upright. A collection of 22 setters from the site of the Hacienda La Ventilla exhibit a range of individuality in their deployment of African ceramic aesthetics, including cord roulette impressions, combing, and finger impressions. Photogrammetry of this collection of setters allows for detailed metric and qualitative analysis, both of which are important in understanding how individual potters engaged with aesthetics of Iberian and African origins.

Botija setter with finger impressions
Botija setter with roulette impressions

Tools and Workflow

In our field lab we employ the photogrammetric techniques described by Samantha Thi Porter, Morgan Roussel, and Marie Soressi (2016) in Advances in Archaeological Practice (Vol. 4, Issue 1). We built a photogrammetric backdrop using a set of foam floor tiles over which we draped black velvet. We also use a turntable (lazy Susan) painted black, and labeled with degree markers and covered with black velvet. We use four light sources surrounding the target object, as well as an overhead light source clipped to the foam backdrop.

Our Canon EOS Rebel T6 is placed on a tripod and we photograph using manual settings that maximize the field of focus and exposure timing for close-range photography by setting the ISO very low while avoiding low F-stops. Using a remote or a delay also helps to avoid camera vibrations resulting in blurry photographs. Our artifacts are also scaled using a set of photographic scale bars sold by Cultural Heritage Imaging. The three-dimensional workflow and rendering are completed in Agisoft Metashape Professional.

Photogrammetry rig

Photogrammetry rig

Digital Archaeology as Heritage

While we started using photogrammetric techniques in our fieldwork in 2012, it was not until more recently that our project learned the value of photogrammetry for public engagement with the descendant communities and beyond. Sharing the 3D models of the material culture of enslaved Afro-Peruvians allows those who do not have direct access to the artifacts to, although imperfectly, experience the materiality of objects produced or used long ago by Afro-Nascan ancestors. For the descendant communities, this is a very important way of knowing how their foremothers and forefathers lived. For those not directly related to this population, the digital stand-ins for this set of material culture bear witness to the lives of the enslaved, and present an engaging way of raising the profile of Afro-Peruvian heritage.

Our project has opened a museum exposition in partnership with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, the Regional Government of the Department of Ica, and the Stanford Archaeology Center at the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Ica (National Regional Cultural Museum of Ica) on the occasion of the 165th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Peru (December 3, 1854). The exhibit, “The Archaeology of Slavery at the Haciendas of Nasca: Commemorating 165 years of freedom [1854-2019],” features 22 groups of artifacts related to the everyday life of enslaved people who lived and worked in the Jesuit vineyards of Nasca, recovered archaeologically by our project, as well as text and photos contextualizing the pieces. We have also elected to include QR codes linked to some of our Sketchfab models, which visitors can use to gain new perspectives on the museum pieces, as well as objects not included in the physical displays.

The Haciendas of Nasca Archaeological Project works very closely with the descendant communities of the Ingenio Valley of Nasca and we affirm that the artifacts we work with and the 3D models that we produce from these objects remain first and foremost the cultural heritage of the Afro-Nascan community. Therefore, including this community in discussions about what happens to the models and how they are disseminated and shared is of utmost importance. This community is exceedingly heterogeneous, and its diversity must also be respected. While on the one hand, we acknowledge that in some way this past shared with all Peruvians, and all of humanity by extension, on the other hand we must recognize that decisions about Afro-Nascan heritage must be made in close collaboration with those who are most related to these ancestors. At present, a selection of models are available to the public, but are currently not downloadable. As we gaze into the future of digital cultural heritage, we encourage other researchers and 3D enthusiasts to consider whose heritage they are working with and carefully weigh the social dimensions of sharing their content.

Many of Dr. Weaver’s publications can be found at his profile. More information about the Haciendas of Nasca Archaeological Project can be found on its Facebook page.


About the author

Brendan Weaver

Director of the Haciendas of Nasca Archaeological Project (PAHN) and Postdoctoral Scholar at the Stanford Archaeology Center at Stanford University

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