Dr. Nicola Sharratt

Dr. Nicola Sharratt, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

After receiving her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2011, Dr. Sharratt held post-doctoral fellowships at the Field Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History/Bard Graduate Center. She joined the anthropology department at Georgia State University in 2014. Her ongoing archaeological project examines the aftermath of state collapse and how local communities are affected by and respond to political upheaval. She has directed a series of excavations at a site in the Moquegua Valley in southern Peru that was first established circa AD 1000 as the Tiwanaku state disintegrated. Her doctoral work examined funerary practices to understand how community members renegotiated identity and define themselves as groups and individuals as the overarching political entity fragmented. In more recent excavation seasons, she has focused on domestic contexts to investigate the impact of state collapse on household economies, craft production, subsistence practices, community organization and long distance networks of trade and exchange.

I am an anthropological archaeologist, so I am trained to ask big questions about human societies through the material record people left behind – people’s trash is a treasure trove for archaeologists! My ongoing research examines how people are affected by major changes to the social and political organizations they live in. Many archaeologists have asked this question in the context of colonization or imperial expansion – how, for instance, was your life affected if your community was conquered by the Roman Empire. That’s important of course but I’m interested in the flip side of that – how does the collapse of a political organization, especially a political state, affect its members? If you’re a regular person, living your daily life, and the state you live under breaks down, does that have an impact on you and if it does how do you and your community respond?

I try to answer that question by taking a case study – the collapse of the Tiwanaku state, one of the earliest states in Andean South America – and reconstructing what life was like for ordinary villagers who lived through a drawn out political breakdown around AD 1000. This collapse involved the violent destruction of temples and palaces and an overthrow of the state’s wealthy political class. My team has explored that question by excavating a village in southern Peru that was established by the regular folk in Tiwanaku society just as those people said they didn’t want to be under the authority of elites anymore. Through the excavation of houses, burials, ceremonial structures as well as detailed analyses of the materials recovered, the project has examined how the dramatic alteration to the overarching political structure affected all aspects of peoples’ lives – their health, their diet, their access to desired goods, the way they worshipped, who they considered themselves to be.

I grew up in the United Kingdom as it was joining the EU, and I think this really inspired my interest in how big changes in political organization (in that case becoming part of a bigger political system) affected people’s lives. While I haven’t personally lived through a political collapse, we do know that this is something that happens recurrently in human societies – there are numerous examples in the distant past (e.g. the Roman Empire) but also more recently (e.g. Somalia). Collapse will continue to happen and continue to impact people’s lives. Therefore, it’s a process that we need to understand, in part so we can anticipate how future collapses will play out.

Political breakdown is a topic of interest to scholars working in a range of disciplines. What archaeology gives us is a way to look at societal and political change over a very extended time period – in my work the collapse of the Tiwanaku state had ramifications that lasted for more than four centuries. Archaeologically, that’s a manageable time scale, so we can really begin to reconstruct long term dynamics – in our project in Peru we’ve looked at how one community was affected over half a millennium. The other critically important thing about an archaeological approach to collapse is it enables us to consider the people who often aren’t recorded in history - the ‘regular folk’, those who weren’t powerful or wealthy. Archaeology is in some ways a democratizing approach to humans – everyone is represented in the archaeological record because we all leave a material trace behind.

I regularly teach ‘Introduction to Anthropology’ (ANTH 1102). Anthropology is very rarely offered in high school so for most students this is the first exposure they’ve had to Anthropology. Many have never even heard of it before they take the class. So, we start with the fundamentals – that Anthropology is the study of humans. The scope of that class is huge! We examine human origins or where we come from, we consider how the way we organize our communities has changed through time and why that has led to the world we live in today, we look at major milestones in our past (like when our ancestors first started to create art or adorn their bodies with jewelry), and we talk about challenging issues – such as race, gender, class – that impact peoples’ experience of the world on a daily basis.

I really enjoy my upper division and graduate classes, but teaching an introductory class in Anthropology at GSU is a real privilege because our students have such diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. It’s hard to identify just one Aha moment, but what I love about that class, as well as Anthropology more broadly, and what I see students consistently take from ANTH 1102 is an understanding that by exploring our similarities and differences we can better understand ourselves and others. That sounds simple, but it is so important.

I have several chuspas on the wall in my office. My other professional side is as a Museum Anthropologist, and right before I joined GSU in 2014, I curated a museum exhibition of chuspas in New York City. These are small, woven bags about the size of a woman’s purse. Some are worn with a shoulder strap, some (like this one) around the waist. They have been made in Andean South America for at least 2,000 years. They are often highly elaborate, exquisite pieces of art that take an incredible level of skill to make. So, they really brighten up my office.

The particular style of each bag is partly a reflection of where and when it was made, but what they have in common is their purpose. Chuspas were (and still are sometimes) made to carry coca leaves. Coca is a controversial substance in the USA because people associate it with cocaine. But people living in Andean South America have chewed coca leaves for as much as 7,000 years. This has a harmless, temporary physiological effect – it helps the body deal with high altitude, fatigue, hard labor and minor illness. The leaves are also used in ritual practice, they are offered to friends and in important social settings. As an archaeologist I am fascinated by the way that one kind of object can endure so long and how a little bag opens up a world of cultural practice. This particular bag holds special meaning for me because it was made by a Peruvian friend who is an amazingly skilled weaver (and I like the colors!).

Admittedly, this memory is technically not on campus, but I still associate it with GSU. Archaeology is a team endeavor – it is a science that requires a group of people (excavators and specialists) work together. That means that I get to bring GSU students, undergraduate and graduate, to Peru to work on the project. Every field season since 2014, we’ve had a number of students from Atlanta participate. They work not just with each other but with collaborators from other universities in the USA, with professional archaeologists from Peru and Bolivia, with students from Peruvian universities and with archaeological technicians who live in the local area in southern Peru. This makes for a large, diverse, multi-lingual group of people who come from an extremely diverse range of backgrounds. As the project director, this can be challenging, but it’s also fun and an incredible learning experience for all. In 2016, at the suggestion of some of the local archaeological technicians, we held a pachamanca. This is a feast where an enormous amount of food is cooked in an earth oven – it is delicious and filling! One of my favorite memories since joining GSU was this event – a group of students from GSU sharing food and fun with Peruvian colleagues and local community members, and it’s something I hope we continue to do with future students.