Thursday, November 1, 2012

The "mysterious" ruins of Machu Picchu

Why do the media insist on claiming that all ancient cities were "mysterious"? Last night I watched a TV program on PBS called "The Ghosts of Machu Picchu." This was a "Nova - National Geographic Special." Most television shows about ancient cities are full of nonsense and I generally avoid them. But with one or two exceptions, the PBS series Nova does a good job explaining archaeology and ancient topics like cities. They usually take an objective, scientific viewpoint. Most research shown on Nova is driven by questions and problems that scientists solve with objective methods. National Geographic television programs, on the other hand, usually take a sensationalist approach that combines good research and known facts with an overblown dramatic perspective. For NGS, research is driven more by dramatic discoveries made by intrepid explorers than by testing models based on research questions. For NGS, ancient ruins are inherently mysterious.

"The Ghosts of Machu Picchu," as might be expected, combines these two approaches. A number of major experts were interviewed and shown at the site and in the lab. These individual segments were fine. I particularly liked John Verano talking about the skeletal material and Kenneth Wright on the fascinating hydrology of the site. Seeing Fernando Astete (the archaeologist in charge of the site) at Machu Picchu and nearby sites was great. But I got really tired of the constant barrage of statements by the narrator (NOT by the experts!) about how mysterious the site is. A few examples:

  • Machu Picchu is "a ruin that defies explanation."
  • "Who were the mysterious people who built it?"
  • "How could a people without iron tools or the wheel have produced such a masterpiece?"
  • The site is "beautiful and baffling"
  • Scholars have "no written clues" about the site. [not true].

Yale explorer Hiram Bingham "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911. He was mystified at this towering complex site on top of a mountain, but his research team made a number of errors and as a result the site got the "mysterious" label. Why was this site built? Who built it? Why is is to strange? Given the scanty knowledge available before 1990, perhaps the "mysterious" label made sense. But then John Rowe (1990) located a Spanish early colonial document that basically explained what Machu Piccu was: an estate of the Inca emperor Pachakuti. The Inca kings built a series of royal retreats down the Urubamba Valley from their capital, Cuzco, and this site was built for Pachakuti.

These Inca estates are a kind of settlement different from regular cities that were administrative centers of the empire. The diagram (from Susan Niles 1993) shows how this was organized. Sites like Huanuca Pampa were political capitals, and sites like Machu Piccho, Ollantaytambo, and others, were the royal estates. These were attached directly to the kings, rather than run by the empire. Niles (1993) explains this well.

So there is little that is mysterious or baffling about the site, any more than one can say that ANY ancient cities is mysterious only because we have limited evidence. The only expert in the show who even suggested that there was a "mystery" about Machu Picchu was Johan Reinhard, an explorer/archaeologists who works for the National Geographic Society. The show did not mention Rowe's insights, although they did finally mention the document.

Major segments of the modern media seem to feel they have to claim that ancient cities are "mysterious" in order for people to pay attention to their stories or shows. But rather than building up false mysteries about sites like Machu Picchu, wouldn't it be better if they played up the truly interesting and important things about these cities? In its hybrid approach, "Ghosts of Machu Picchu" did this to some extent. The hydrology is incredibly fascinating. Major efforts were put into channeling water both to, and away from, the terraces at the site. This was an engineering marvel. The show never went anywhere with its question, "How could a people without iron tools or the wheel have produced such a masterpiece?" On one level, this question is silly. The Inca clearly did build the site without iron or the wheel. Many other ancient civilizations did similar things. But on another level, this is a great question, one that could provide an entry into Inca architecture and construction. But the show only talked a bit about that topic, which was not a major focus.

Machu Picchu has lots of lessons for our understanding of processes of urbanism around the world. It shows how an urban society can have two very different types of state-built cities, each for different purposes. It shows how the urban expressions of royalty could be different from the urban expressions of imperial administration. It shows the nature of limited-purpose cities. It shows how standard patterns of stoneworking, buildings, and urban planning concepts were adapted to the individual particularities of a spectacular and precarious setting. (I was waiting for a comparison of the layout of Machu Picchu to that of Patallakta, the agricultural town shown in the show. Such a comparison is very revealing of Inca urban planning practices). Machu Picchu shows how urbanism looks in a society that has a noncommercial economy (no money, no markets, no merchants; this was a command economy). This site has many lessons for the Wide Urban World, only a few of which were touched on in "Ghosts of Machu Picchu." These are interesting topics for research, but they aren't "mysteries."

In addition to Niles and Rowe, two recent monographs have good information about Machu Picchu:

Burger, Richard L. and Lucy C. Salazar (editors)
2003    The 1912 Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition Collections from Machu Picchu: Human and Animal Remains. Yale University Publications in Anthropology. Yale University, New Haven.

Niles, Susan
1993    The Provinces in the Heartland: Stylistic Variation and Architectural Innovation Near Inca Cuzco. In Provincial Inca:  Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Assessment of the Impact of the Inca State, edited by Michael A. Malpass, pp. 145-176. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.

Reinhard, Johan
2007    Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center. Monograph. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Rowe, John H.
1990    Machu Picchu en la luz de documentos del siglo XVI. Histórica (Lima) 14(1):139-154.

One more thing: If you ever wondered about that rope bridge in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," it is an Inca bridge, built for the film by the descendants of the Incas, who still use these bridges today.

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