Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The sorcerer

Tello the archaeologist didn’t start out on that path. He initially wanted to be a doctor, and studied medicine at San Marcos University.

In 1908 he presented his thesis on the antiquity of syphilis in Peru to great acclaim. Indeed according to tio Hernan, it was the first time in the history of Peruvian medicine that a student had graduated with such high distinction.

It was this scientific grounding that later inspired in him the methodological approach to archaeology which he became famous for.  And it was obvious even at this stage that this young man from the mountains was destined for success.

But not to everyone …..

fig 1

The sorcerer
In which the upstanding residents of Comesebo Street become convinced they are harbouring a dangerous psychopath

The tenants in the alley just off Comesebo Street were adjusting to the presence of their rather strange new neighbour. The young man had not made friends with any of them and so no-one knew anything of his occupation or his pursuits. All they knew was that he left very early in the morning and arrived late at night. And they noticed that he was always carrying a load of books under his arm. It was the books that most exasperated some of the local Limeños, who were of the opinion that this serrano was trying to get ahead of himself.

And then something happened that led them to the conclusion that he wasn’t a student at all.

 It became obvious that all those heavy books were full of black magic spells and incantations! Someone managed to climb up and take a peek through the dusty skylight of his room. What they saw there horrified them. There were hundreds of skulls – probably nearly a thousand in all – carefully piled up on top of boxes.  To sleep like this, surrounded by mounds of skulls, could mean only one thing. He was a recalcitrant wizard, the strangest sorcerer for sure that they had ever seen.

Brains Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection
photo by Queenie & the Dew
What’s more, one day another young man arrived in the alleyway carrying several large parcels, all of them soaking wet. The strangest thing was that they stank to high heaven and it was precisely this that aroused the further suspicion of the whole alley.  One youngster in particular was especially curious, and was determined to find out what was in these packages that had been delivered to their bizarre neighbour.

Contrary to his usual habit, the sorcerer now didn’t go out for several days, and so the boy wasn’t able to climb up on to the roof to get a good look through the skylight. Instead he put his eye to the keyhole. What a sight greeted him.  The sorcerer was there, talking to a skull he held up in his hand! From time to time he pointed to the bony forehead and turned to gesture to the other skulls ranged around the room. What had it come to now? Babbling to skulls?

Petrified, the little boy raced off as fast as he could to tell his parents.  The parents, along with everyone else, had already formed an opinion that the neighbour was a wizard, and didn’t attach too much importance to this new development. Talking to skulls was, after all, presumably what wizards did wasn’t it? Nevertheless the neighbourhood was soon in for another shock.

One morning, the wizard arrived in the company of a driver and together they both took away several crates, doubtless full of skulls. Everybody assumed that their resident sorcerer was moving to other lodgings, but as they all stood around gossiping, the same curious young boy began to get more and more worked up. Guessing that Tello wouldn’t be arriving home any time soon, he sneaked up unnoticed on to the roof and looked down again through the skylight.

Aaaaagh… this time the poor boy nearly fainted with shock. There, on the table, was a decomposing cadaver!

The ‘dead body’ was of course nothing more than one of the mummies that had gotten wet in the rain on the journey to Lima. But the news tore through the whole quarter, and before long all the neighbours were gathered in front of the door, jostling to get a decent view of the horrible scene through the keyhole or any other crack they could find.

Of course; why hadn’t they seen it before? It was obvious now, the young man was not a sorcerer, he was a cold blooded serial killer and this barbarous pile of skulls he had collected was all that was left of the grisly remains of his victims. There was not a single person who was not horrified by the macabre case. Now they knew why he hadn’t made the acquaintance of any of them; it was so that he shouldn’t be found out. 

A silence fell over the crowd as they all started to wonder how such a fiend could’ve won over the landlady of the house, who to all intents and purposes appeared to treat him like a gentleman ….. and with him being a serrano!

Distressed and by now fully convinced that there was a monster living amongst them, Comesebo Street went into action, making their way over to the nearest police station to denounce the criminal. The police, who were rapidly persuaded of the seriousness of the accusation, set about to trap the sorcerer without him suspecting that they were on to him. They staked out his room throughout the night until dawn, but strangely he didn’t return.

Meanwhile the story began to take on a life of its own, the latest version of events circulating being that the criminal had somehow got wind of their investigations, and was at this very minute a fugitive, most probably hastily escaping back into the mountains from where he came.

Some restless hours later, the neighbours were surprised to see that the monitoring of the house was quite abruptly called off. What could be the meaning of this? Had the fiend been apprehended? Had some gruesome accident fallen upon him during his flight? Maybe he had taken his own life?

The explanation was, in fact, far simpler. The police, by virtue of a single newspaper headline, now knew why the ‘killer’ had not come home to sleep that night.

On 17th November 1908, under the headline Remarkable Grade, El Commercio ran the following story:

The basis of Mr Tello's thesis is founded on a collection of nearly one thousand skulls that he personally extracted from pre-incaica dwellings and tombs found presently in the province of Huarochirí. Amongst these skulls the section of trepanned units alone is superior in number and merit to the best of any museum in Europe or America. The units that display syphilitic injuries have an unquestionable importance, because up until now, never have there been gathered so many examples presenting so definitively, the tracks left by the syphilitic process.

Mr Tello well deserves his unprecedented rare distinction. For two hours he sustained discussion on the outstanding points of his work, during which time he was questioned thoroughly by Doctors Avendaño, Lavoreria and Gastañeta. The Dean of the Faculty, Doctor Manuel C. Barrios, then requested that the thesis should be approved with distinction. Doctor Lavoreria who, along with many of the other university professors has studied the collection of skulls at great length, said that bearing in mind its incontestable superiority to any other known collection, negotiations should be entered into with the government for it to be acquired officially by the School of Medicine. 

Several other professors agreed and the Dean offered to take the matter in hand. Doctors Avendaño and Gastañeta requested also that the work should not only be logged in the university archives but that a special edition should be prepared to be presented to the scientific world.

The ‘killer’ had not been home to sleep that night because for the first time in his life he had been out on the town with his friends and fellow students, reveling in a whirlwind of praise and festivities. His greatest dream had come true. He had made history at the university.

Patio de Letras at San Marcos University Lima
photo by Alvaro Moreno Gómez

At the very moment that his gossiping neighbours had been crammed round the keyhole of the door to his room, Tello himself had been totally oblivious to all the fuss. 

He was busy delivering his medical thesis, surrounded by his many skulls, all showing the lesions made by syphilis, demonstrating incontrovertibly that the scourge of this disease could be found in Peru's very first inhabitants.

This was his thesis and so brilliantly did he present his case that it was the first time in the history of Peruvian medicine that a student graduated with such high distinction, receiving such warm acclamation from the members of the academic jury.

This of course was why he had been seen days previously, shut up in his room, declaiming to a syphilitic skull. What the little kid had witnessed through the keyhole was him practicing for his academic presentation.  For sure it was that same little kid that all the neighbours blamed when the ‘sorcerer’ Tello eventually did return.

Hanging their heads in guilty silence, they couldn’t face him for shame at having made themselves look so ridiculous.

fig. 1   detail from a Paracas textile held in the MNAA Lima. It shows a beheaded man carrying his head in one hand and a knife in the other.
Picture taken from : La cultura Paracas - treinta siglos de arte textil

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