Clemson professor Melissa Vogel, second from the right, and members of her team gather measurements from the archaeological dig El Purgatorio in Peru. Vogel spends every summer on site with a team of locals and Clemson students.

Clemson professor Melissa Vogel, second from the right, and members of her team gather measurements from the archaeological dig El Purgatorio in Peru. Vogel spends every summer on site with a team of locals and Clemson students.

Melissa Vogel radiates passion for archaeology. It covers her surroundings — her office walls are plastered with maps and vibrant posters, and her shelves hold reproductions of Peruvian artifacts and pictures of trips. Her eyes light up as she talks excitedly about her time in Peru, as if her words to describe the place cannot come fast enough.

Her enthusiasm for Peru dates back to her sophomore year in college. Studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, she was lucky enough to see an exhibit on the Royal Tombs of Sipan, the wealthiest tombs ever found in the New World. Its powerful impact on Vogel as a young coed led her to devote her life to archaeology.

Vogel is helping to influence the growth of Clemson’s anthropology program through her involvement with students. Almost every summer since 2004, the assistant professor of anthropology — defined as the study of humanity’s past, present and future — has conducted a field studies course in the Casma Valley of Peru.

The valley’s unique aspects captured Vogel’s attention. While the site of the excavation, called El Purgatorio, is “truly a city,” Vogel said, “no one has devoted much energy to this culture.” Everything the group discovers is significant and new. While most would balk at such a large undertaking, Vogel embraces the excitement of being the “first to get my hands on the site.”

Vogel excavates some remains on her archaeological dig site in Peru's Casma Valley.

Vogel excavates some remains on her archaeological dig site in Peru’s Casma Valley.

El Purgatorio is huge, measuring about three square miles. There are few examples of urban life in the Andes Mountains, where El Purgatorio is located, making the site a valuable resource. The city is the proposed capital of the Casma polity, and it is estimated that a minimum of 40,000 people lived at the site at one time. Vogel and her group are interested in urbanism and the development of the ancient city.

Vogel is adamant about the importance of bringing students on her trips. While excavating the site, they are putting to use what they learned in the classroom. Upon returning to Clemson, students are able to bring their knowledge from the field back to the classroom.

The knowledge these students gain applies to more than archaeology. Students are thrown into the local community, interacting with citizens as they work on the archaeological dig. Living in a developing country is an invaluable experience for students. By being pushed out of their comfort levels, they develop language and cross-cultural skills that are vital advantages when applying for jobs and internship opportunities.

Students aren’t the only ones benefiting from Vogel’s digs abroad. Project El Purgatorio is somewhat unique in that it takes a public interest approach to archaeology. Because of the close proximity of the town to the site, Vogel and her team strive to take a proactive approach to teaching local citizens the importance of their work. The group reaches out to community leaders by holding public meetings and educating citizens on the work being done on the site. Tours are given, and in recent years a team member has donated his time to teaching English classes on the weekends.

Vogel is bringing an electrifying energy to the Casma Valley, catching the attention of and uniting students, experts and local citizens. And each fall she returns to Clemson with an even stronger passion for Peru.