Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The endless paragraph

The fertile Casma river valley cuts across the coastal desert plain about 320 kilometres north of Lima. Today the valley's main activity is agriculture. 

Alongside the passion fruit, mango and asparagus fields, it is also home to some of Peru's most important archaeological sites.  In the 1930s Tello was the first to explore them. 

Although some people nowadays may question his academic standards, undoubtedly one of Tello's greatest gifts was his method. He initially trained as a medical doctor and he was a scientist at heart. 

It was his insistence on a rigorous methodical approach that was so important at a time when home-grown Peruvian archaeology was in its infancy and plagued by formidable obstacles: no organised institutions, a shortage of national researchers, widespread looting and vandalism, a dismal lack of state funding and general government apathy.

Tello's background as a social scientist - he held an MA in Anthropology from Harvard University - gave him a vital understanding of the importance of context. Sites were meticulously mapped and exact measurements noted. Findings were all lovingly observed and recorded. The team came back from the 1937 expedition to the Marañon river basin alone with eight large dossiers filled with a total of more than 1, 200 handwritten pages of notes. There were also several hundred illustrations, and over a thousand photographic negatives. For three months, the team spread out over the Casma valley which, after an unpromising start, proved to yield up a wealth of archaeological gems, including the magnificent Cerro Sechín site, famous for its granite monoliths engraved with gruesome scenes of death and human mutilation.  Much more recent work on the valley sites has uncovered what is possibly one of the oldest structures in the Americas.

As well as being a detailed log of  the discoveries, the extensive reports Tello dictated to Hernan also included ethnographic, linguistic and geographical information. And of course there are the illustrations: beautiful pen and ink drawings, diagrams and watercolours which are not only a valuable source of documentary information, but also, in and of themselves, artistic. 

The drawing came easy to Hernan, the writing was another story.

The endless paragraph
In which the effects of an unusually large lunch get the better of our young artist

During our stay in Mojeque, each time Tello looked out onto the nearby hills, he declared that on the eve of our departure we would climb up to a certain rock – he pointed to a large crag. And from there, we – he always spoke in the plural – would construct a long report describing the whole of the Casma valley. 

the Casma valley photo taken from the Karikuy blog
On the upper part of the cliff that he pointed to there was a kind of triangular outcrop which formed a small platform from which it was clear that there would be a splendid panoramic view of the vast valley.  Well, we had only a few days left now. The time was fast approaching when we would have to do it, and as the ox is faithful to the shaft, so is man faithful to his word. Sure enough the day came for our report. 

In order to build me up for the especially hard work that the afternoon promised, Tello generously insisted upon my eating a double ration for lunch, and as soon as the last mouthful disappeared we set off full to bursting and ready to attack the cliff that happily was only a relatively short distance away.

Tello was fifty seven years old then, but he scaled those rocks with all the agility and strength of a young boy. The heat was so extreme that drops of sweat fell from us, but it didn’t take us long to reach the platform. The space was small and narrow, and in order to see better, Tello placed himself near the edge whilst I sat behind him resting my back up against the cliff face. If he moved just one step forward or to the side he would fall into the abyss. If he stepped backwards he would tread on me. There was no room to manoeuvre whatsoever.  He indicated to me that I should get as comfortable as possible and fill my pen with ink. This was going to be a long job.

fig 1

Sketching in the travel log was easy for me, more like relaxation than hard work, but writing ... well that was something else. Before leaving Lima, Doctor Rebeca Carrión, one of Tello's colleagues, had warned me about his eccentricities; "Listen Hernan, you should know that the doctor ditctates very briskly, so you have to be quick. And he doesn't like to repeat himself. Be careful not to say 'what was that doctor?' or you will put him in a bad mood."

And it was true. What’s more he didn’t like ‘doctor’s script’. He demanded neat handwriting, which thankfully mine is. But consequently, always soon after we went into action, my arm began to ache, and unfortunately there was no way to stop him unless it was to insert an illustration.

On this particular day, I settled myself down as best I could so that we could begin. For September the sun was intense and suffocating. Tello stood, supported by his cane, for a few moments gazing out over the distant sandy hills of the narrow valley. Then he began to dictate with his usual swiftness. I raced along, trying to keep up, whilst still taking down each word legibly and correctly. 

fig 2

He had an absolute geographic understanding of the entire valley. He had already crossed it numerous times accompanied by a guide, repeatedly asking the local labourers and farmers for the names of the various broken hills and fissures, the haciendas and ranches, tracks and clearings. His geographical meticulousness astonished me just as much as his archeological expertise. He made some of those more famous desk bound archeologists look laughable. (One certain North American especially comes to mind, who entirely at random named a burial mound “Chicken Hawk”!)

fig 3 

And so I copied and copied, and when we came to the fourth page I thought we were almost done. However, as you will see later, we were far from finishing. After a while up on the cliff there in the turgid afternoon heat, right in the middle of the flow of this mammoth dictation, the ill-fated double portion of lunch began to take effect.  It lay so heavy on my stomach that it began, as you might imagine, to exert a rather, well …. soporific influence. No matter how much I bit my lips, no matter how hard I pinched myself, I just couldn’t keep awake.

fig 4 

I don’t know how long I fell asleep for. The thing is, when I woke up I got a terrible fright, Tello was still dictating into the air, to the parakeets and the curlews gliding over the cornfields. My body was drenched in sweat. I looked down at the notebook. The last letters were completely unintelligible, getting bigger and bigger until finally they snaked off in one single wavering line which sat there accusingly on the page.

I was horrified. I couldn’t think of any way to get out of this fix.   He was still there dictating to the four winds and I had no idea how to recapture the sense of what he was saying. I would have to endure his scolding for probably more than a month now, on top of the anger that my twenty days of idleness had already caused him. I didn’t dare say anything. I just pretended to clear my throat. The thought of his displeasure petrified me. There was simply nothing for it but to gamely try to follow on from where I had left off.

fig 5 

To those who might consider me irresponsible, I would like to put forward in my defence that I was still a minor. And you may be happy to know that I was, to some extent, granted a reprieve. In the end, as luck would have it, and as you can see in recent publications referring to this particular expedition, it fell to Tello’s favourite disciple Mejía Xesspe, who had been closely involved every step of the way with our work, to revise and edit all our material. It was left to him to make sense of the epic description of the Casma valley, complete with hieroglyphs. 

fig 1. 
Hernan takes dictation from Tello in situ in the Casma Valley - illustration by Hernan himself, taken from Arqueologia del Valle de Casma, pub 1956 Editorial San Marcos, Lima, Peru 
fig 2.  Types of adobe used in la Cantina temple in the Casma valley - as above (p. 74)
fig 3.  Mythical figures found on pottery from the Casma valley  -  as above (p. 311)
fig 4.  Section from an engraved monolith from the Cerro Sechín temple - as above (p.207)
fig 5. Casma valley pottery - as above (p. 313)

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