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Institute of Archaeology, UCL, Blog



An update from the Middle Orinoco

By Charlotte Frearson, on 1 May 2016

By Philip Riris, 21st March 2016

Dear all, I am happy to say that our team (PIs José Oliver, Franz Scaramelli, Institute PhD student Natalia Lozada Mendieta, and myself) have returned from a truly memorable season of fieldwork in the heart of Venezuela. This is a short update on our many activities.

We arrived in Puerto Ayacucho on the 29th of January, after travelling cross-country from Caracas through the central plains of Venezuela (the Llanos), and promptly set about assembling our kit and crew for the coming weeks. We were very fortunate to count on a crack team of local lads to help us out, some of whom we had worked with before in 2015, and who really are the true heroes of this research.


Our first impression of the Atures Rapids this year was how much they had changed since our last visit during the height of the wet season. Previously unnavigable, roiling cauldrons of water had turned into little trickles, the depth of the river reduced by some four metres or more. Individual islands had become connected archipelagos, or in some cases peninsulas, stretching into the middle course of the Orinoco River. A dramatic and abrupt alteration of topography that is rarely seen in Europe.

Within this landscape of granite inselbergs, gallery forests, and rushing water is a rich post- and pre-Columbian archaeological record waiting to be uncovered. Our main target this season, Isla Picure, is one of the largest islands in the Rapids, and can be considered a single, massive archaeological deposit from its surface archaeology alone. Its shores also host some of the most impressive and diverse engraved rock art in the region, as well as an extensive series of stone axe polishers and mortars carved directly into the bedrock. We spent many long days working on the island and several peaceful nights camping in hammocks under the stars.

Our excavations offered many happy surprises, yielding a full sequence of ceramic styles for Natalia to begin defining the occupation of the island, which includes some of the most ancient pottery dcoumented in the Orinoco (known as the Barrancoid series, after the lower Orinoco site of Barrancas). Another key class of artefact encountered were beads in exotic stones, many of which broke in the manufacturing process or were simply unfinished upon their entry into the material record. This type of evidence, together with the stylistic comparison of ceramics and rock art, will be crucial in helping the project locate the Atures Rapids within their (supra-)regional network through time and space.


In future fieldwork, we hope to explore the Colonial-period archaeology in the region by tracking down the Jesuit mission of San Juan de Nepomuceno along the banks of the Cataniapo River (itself host to extensive pre-Columbian sites). More rock art beckons from upstream, and our surveys hint at larger sites that have yet to be excavated. Until then, however, we have plenty to be getting on with, but we eagerly look forward to reuniting with our partners in Caracas and Puerto Ayacucho! Until next time,

The Cotua Island Entrepôt Team 

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