14 December 2015
I visited the Machu Picchu Museum here in Cuzco, el Museo de Machu Picchu. This is located in a gorgeous old hacienda or mansion built by the Spanish atop Incan ruins - which makes sense, that's what much of Cuzco is like. Actually, the brochure from the museum states that the structure was "built during the colonial era on the site of Puka Marka, residence of the royal lineage of Tupac Inka Yupanqui." And they have a glass covered excavation pit revealing the Inca floor.
The artefacts housed in this museum are from the collection that was previously exhibited at the Peabody Museum at Yale, the objects smuggled out by the famous, or infamous, Hiram Bingham. Yes, the artefacts finally were returned to Peru, and are exhibited here in Cuzco. However, scholars from a number of universities in the US and other parts of the world have studied these items and have contributed their part to understanding Machu Picchu, limited as our current understanding might be.
The current school of thought, based on scientific research, is that Machu Picchu was the summer home of the Sapa Inca, the Inca king. Most researchers believe the powerful king, Pachacutep, had Machu Picchu built in the mid 1400s.
However, other scientists consider the location of the site, the number of roads heading here, the alignment of Machu Picchu with a series of other important Inca sites, and the fact that a series of windows and corridors at all these sites align with the first ray of sun at the winter and summer solstices - and they believe Machu Picchu was a sacred site to the Incas, perhaps a place of pilgrimage.
At any rate, the museum was interesting. The building itself was wonderful, and the items displayed really remarkable. Silver, bronze, gold items, stone implements, beautiful ceramics, even some woven fabric from five hundred or so years ago! Just fascinating! Absolutely worth a visit: http://www.museomachupicchu.com/
There was film that described much of the research into Machu Picchu, and one of those fabulous scale models of the site. (I always thought it would be fun to have that job, making scale models of historic sites for display in museums. Look at the details of the model!)
Okay - so for the rest of the blog, I'd like to share some of the information that was posted at the museum, those information placards. Some of the info got very scientific, so I've abbreviated some things. But it was just so interesting and informative, I thought it made more sense to just copy than for me to try to paraphrase everything.
Also, the photos are mostly just views of how beautiful Cuzco is on a sunny day. We've had several days of sunshine, and the buildings just glow!
So I'm considering this all background research before we visit Machu Picchu. Because part of the site's fascination is the mystery that surrounds it, something like the constant mist from being in the cloud forest. The place is shrouded in mystery and clouds and mythology and supposition.
Here is what is known thus far.
“The Incas had a three-pronged Golden Rule, still widely repeated in the Andes: ama sua, ama llula, ama checklla. Translated, it means “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy.”
The royal estate of Machu Picchu in its heyday held a thriving community of up to six hundred inhabitants during the dry season (May to September). The palace royalty were members of the Inca ethnic group from the Cuzco Valley, but the artisans and household servants belonged to many other ethnic groups and came from throughout Tahuantinsuyu [the Inca name for their empire]. The retainers devoted their days to mundane activities – cooking, brewing corn beer, cleaning, weaving, and producing metal objects – while the elite dedicated their time to feasting, hunting, and religious worship. Thanks to the Inca custom of burying individuals with their personal possessions, the objects recovered during the 1912 expedition from the cave burials of the retainers provide us with a vision of the identity and daily lives of these women, men, and children. Other objects that were lost or discarded in the main architectural complex shed light on the activities of the elite. A broad selection of these materials are exhibited here for the first time since Bingham’s excavations.
The Inca state promoted the worship of a creator god (Wiracocha), the sun god (Inti), the moon goddess (Mamaquilla), the thunder god (Illapa), the earth mother (Pacha Mama), and a host of other supernaturals. Many of these were worshipped at Koricancha, the main Inca temple of Cuzco, but hundreds of rocks, springs, and other sacred features known as huacas dotted the landscape of Cuzco and beyond. From the Inca perspective, humans shared this world with gods, ancestors, and the spirits of the landscape. To ensure the health and prosperity of human communities, relationships had to be maintained with these supernatural forces through repeated gifts of food, corn beer, and other things of value.
Many items now considered Inca art, such as the dressed gold and silver figurines, we fashioned as gifts to the deities. Other items include ritual tools such as the ceremonial knives (tumis) used to sacrifice animals, or the carved stone llama or bird conopas used to hold offerings. Elaborate ceramic vessels pacchas were produced to make offerings of corn beer during religious rituals.
The myriad ceremonial activities seem to have been organized on two calendars, one based on the sun’s yearly cycle and the other based on the cycles of the moon and stars. So important were these calendars and the agricultural cycle that depended on them that the Incas had specialists devoted to making celestial observations. Their methods were poorly understood by the Spaniards; only recently have modern scholars, through the study of archaeoastronomy, clarified some of these ancient practices and reconstructed the astronomical knowledge upon which they were based.
A 1,189 page letter to the King of Spain written before 1615 was discovered in the Royal Library of Denmark in 1908. The author, Felipe Gauman Poma de Ayala, was of full-blooded indigenous descent. The four hundred annotated illustrations included in Guaman Poma’s manuscript provide us with a unique source of visual material on the Andean world before and after the arrival of the Spaniards. Some of the types of objects recovered at Machu Picchu and other Inca sites are illustrated in Guaman Poma’s drawings of everyday life in the provinces and the Inca court. They are reproduced throughout this exhibition as an aid in visualizing and interpreting Inca culture.
For the Incas, textiles were the world’s most precious items, more valuable than gold or silver. Because of their great value, textiles were frequently used as offerings to the gods and the ancestors. The Sapa Inca, the king, presented textiles as gifts to outstanding officials, successful generals, allies, and the leaders of newly conquered groups as part of his imperial political strategy.
The finest weavings (cumbi) were usually produced from alpaca wool and cotton by The Chosen Women (aclla) and other specialized weavers. Clothing was emblematic of social status and political rank; the Sapa Inca and his kin wore special tunics decorated with rows of distinctive geometric designs knows as tocapu or made of special materials, such as vicuña wool. Spanish chronicles related that the use of tocapu motifs and vicuña fiber was strictly limited by government regulations. Many of the textiles produces under imperial supervision were standardized, and their designs had symbolic meanings related to prestige, cosmology, and ethnic identity.
The quipu was a knotted-string device used for record keepin in the Inca Empire; its name signifies “knot” in Quechua. Made of cotton or camelid fibers, the principal structural components of a quipu were a main, or primary cord to which were attached a variable number of so-called pendant strings. Subsidiary strings were often attached to the pendant strings. Information was recorded on quipus by a variety of techniques, including the color (both natural and dyed hues), the differences in the directionality of spinning and plying of strings, by attaching strings to the main cord, and by tying knots into the strings. On most quipus, knots were tied individually or in clusters on different levels to signify numerical values in the Inca decimal place system of numeration. The information that was recorded on these devices included statistical data from censuses and tribute records, as well as information from which histories, genealogies, and other such narrative accounts were constructed and read by Inca administrators and specialized record keepers.
Today, the terraces in the Machu Picchu Sanctuary are covered with kikuyo, an African grass that my appeal to the Western taste for lawns, but is considered a bothersome weed where terraces are still in agricultural production. To understand the role of terraces in Machu Picchu’s economy, one must imagine them filled instead with food-producing plants. Once, fourteen acres of terraces occupied Machu Picchu’s steep slopes, partially provisioning the country palace.
Inca civilization expanded the art of terrace agriculture. The Inca love of highland landscapes helps explain this, but there were important tangible benefits too: terraces helped prevent landslides, stabilized fertile soil, and created the conditions for a highly fruitful annual harvest of maize, a prestige crop for the Incas. Machu Picchu’s terraces illustrate both Inca technological sophistication and the enormous investment in labor it took to turn the Andes into a breadbasket. To rearrange the materials of the Andean terrain required both hard work and advanced construction skills. Excavations have revealed sturdy retaining walls containing loose strata of assorted grainy materials, carefully layered to permit both subsurface drainage and the retention of topsoil. Analysis of pollen from these terraces show that maize, potatoes, and beans were cultivated there. Thanks to Machu Picchu’s ample rainfall and mild temperatures, irrigation was unnecessary; it was a feature, however, at Pisac and most other Inca terracing complexes.
Written in our bones and teeth is the record of much of our life history: injuries, joint problems, dental health, disease markers – even our diet. The human skeletal remains of Machu Picchu reveal telling details about the daily lives and health of those who lived and were buried there, details unobtainable any other way. Healed broken bones and arthritis provide clues as the the workload and risk of fracture and other injuries borne by the resident population; from the evidence, their lives appear to have been relatively free of hard labor or violent events.
Thanks to the evidence of dental disease and bone chemistry, we know their diet was high in carbohydrates, including corn. Lesions on the bones of some individuals document the presence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, still a serious health problem in Peru, and also of occasional nutritional problems, such as iron deficiency anemia.
Careful examination of the Machu Picchu skeletons, supplemented by x-rays and other laboratory techniques, reveals to us that the tombs surrounding Machu Picchu were not principally those of Inca “Chosen Women” or “Sacred Virgins” as Hiram Bingham believed. On the contrary, interred there were infants, children, teenagers, and adults of both sexes. Indeed, the Machu Piccu burials provide some of the best support for the current understanding of Machu Picchu as a royal retreat sustained by a community of retainers, many brought to the Andes from the far corners of the Inca’s vast domains.
The generally good health of Machu Picchu’s inhabitants suggest a nutritious diet, but poor preservation of organic materials at the site has posed an obstacle to learning about foodways. Maize was often represented in Inca religious art, and rituals commemorating its planting and harvesting were particularly prominent. Spanish chronicles give more attention for corn than any other crop. But how important was maize in the daily diet at Machu Picchu?
The analysis of human bone from the burial caves allows scientists to answer this question. The chemistry of human bone collagen reflects the foods consumed during an individual’s lifetime. [Then they go into a scientific description of various carbon isotopes found in human bones, especially the difference between people who have eaten mostly corn versus having eaten mostly potatoes.] Laboratory analyses reveal that the retainers at Machu Picchu were eating large quantities of maize; in fact, for most people it constituted about 65% of their diet.
Although metal tools were widespread in the Inca empire, stone items continued to be used. The 1912 expedition recovered seven simple cutting tools of obsidian within the palace complex and a deposit of 32 obsidian pebbles was encountered near the gateway into the royal estate. Obsidian is a volcanic glass [sic] produced on rare occasions by the rapid cooling of lava and there are no local deposits of the stone. How can modern science help determine the source of the obsidian pebbles and the raw materials for the tools?
Because obsidian is formed when magma, a liquid, hardens, most obsidian deposits are homogeneous in their composition. The chemistry of each obsidian source is unique and can be recognized as a chemical signature or fingerprint. In the laboratory, neutron activation and x-ray fluorescence were used to measure the minor or trace elements of the obsidian found at Machu Picchu and these measurements were then compared to the fingerprints of obsidian deposits known to have been used in antiquity.
Of the seven obsidian cutting tools, five came from Alca, the source closest to Cuzco but still 155 miles to the southwest. The remaining tools came from two different sources, both more than 170 miles west of Machu Picchu in the Department of Ayacucho. Analysis of samples from the pebble cache indicate that they had been transported from a still more distant fourth source, a volcanic area 275 miles away in the Colca Valley. These intriguing laboratory results have revealed previously unknown links between Machu Picchu and highland areas outside the Cuzco heartland.
Analytical methods developed by biologists, physicists, chemists, and engineers within the last three decades now allow us to ask – and often answer – questions that could not even be posed in Bingham’s time. New laboratory techniques present us with opportunities to look at old collections in new ways. As a result, our knowledge of diet, health, metallurgical techniques, long-distance linkages, and other aspects of everyday life at Machu Picchu has gone far beyond Bingham’s work.
The ongoing field research at Machu Picchu has likewise shed light on once poorly understood aspects of the site, such as its hydrological and terracing system. Forty years from now, the scientific tools available will reveal even more about Machu Picchu, the Incas, and their lives, possibly superseding our current understanding in the process.
Metal working under the sponsorship of the Sapa Inca and his royal corporation (panaca) was an important activity at Machu Picchu. Retainers from the Peru’s north coast and other areas with advanced metallurgical traditions were brought to Machu Picchu to produce metal objects that could be distributed as gifts to reinforce the panaca’s prestige and power. The 1912 investigations recovered metal stock, works in progress, and waste materials left over from metal working, as well as the tools used in the production of metal objects. Excavations at Machu Picchu in the 1990s unearthed evidence of a bronze mace head abandoned in the process of being cast.
Most of the evidence recovered at Machu Picchu relates to the creation of objects from tin bronze, an alloy of copper associated with the Inca State, but objects were fashioned of precious metal as well. In the [display], a metal worker begins the process of transforming an irregular silver ingot into the thin sheet metal used in the production of tweezers, rings, and other items. He is shown hammering the silver with a polished hammer stone. The artisan is dressed in a simple black tunic, sandals of llama leather, and a wool sling that doubles as a hair band.
Even as the past recedes in time, thanks to modern techniques our view of the past nevertheless comes into sharper focus. Today we have a better idea of Machu Picchu’s purpose and who built it than ever before, but there is still much more to learn. While we have made great strides in what we know, scientists continue to make valuable discoveries and important contributions to our understanding.