Friday, 17 July 2015

A matter of life and death

Paracas peninsula
photograph - Manuel Medir


In 1924 Julio C. Tello and the North American archaeologist Samuel Lothrop travelled to a secluded coastal peninsula a few hours south of Lima. There they found a landscape ravaged by looters. The ground was pitted with holes. Anything the tomb robbers had deemed to be of no value had been tossed aside. Human remains, pottery shards and scraps of textile lay strewn across the desert.

Tello and Lothrop carefully gathered up as much as they could salvage, piling it all into a truck bound for Lima. The return trip coincided with one of the heaviest rain deluges ever recorded in the area, turning the journey into a veritable adventure. The vehicle with its gruesome burden advanced slowly along roads which, at the best of times were rudimentary, but had now turned into a quagmire of sodden sand. This was to mark the beginning of one of the most important finds in Peruvian archaeology - the discovery of the Paracas culture.

A year later Tello was back, with his assistant Mejía Xesspe. Over the next four years excavations uncovered a series of bottle-shaped tombs, and a steep slope crowded with conical funerary bundles.  

fig 1

The discovery was extraordinary, eventually yielding up more than 400 funeral bundles - fardos. The textiles that wrapped the bundles were startling; finely woven and embroidered with complex designs representing geometric designs, humans and mythical animals. The colours were still brilliant, having been almost perfectly conserved in the desert environment.These textiles are now known as some of the finest ever produced in pre-Columbian societies.

The materials were all carefully logged before being packed in straw and jute sacks for transportation to Lima, where Tello, Hernan and the rest of the team began the immense and intricate task of opening and cataloging the bundles.

photo - MNAAHP

But there were scant resources to deal with this major find, and once the bundles had been removed from the dry desert environment that had kept them for so long, it was a battle against time. Tello was always fighting the system – struggling to get the funds and personnel he needed to effectively conserve and document the material.

In this story. Hernan describes how Tello had no qualms about going straight to the top to get a job done.  He’s not adverse to a little clever strategizing either, using his success at another site just outside Lima, Pachacámac, to lobby for funds.

Happily he was successful. This is just the beginning of the story, but the Paracas funeral bundles eventually became the flagship collection of what is today Peru’s National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History.

On my most recent visit to Pachacámac the earth moved for me (literally) but that's another story. Hernan is writing over half a century ago and he flags up an issue here which is increasingly relevant today. Pachacámac survives relatively intact, but many of Lima’s lesser known huacas have fallen foul of urban spread. Fragile sites have been lost forever to blatantly uncontrolled construction.

And the question of access looms large over Peru’s most famous monument Machu Picchu. How long before visitor numbers begin to cause serious issues for the site’s survival and integrity?

A matter of life or death
In which Tello goes in to bat with the big boys for his beloved museum

The museum needed more room. Of course we would never get as much as Tello wanted, but for sure we needed more than the new government building project would provide.
fig 2

We had more than three hundred Paracas mummies stored at the museum; many of which were extensively wrapped, and their beautiful cloaks, along with everything else, were slowly deteriorating in Lima’s humid conditions.  It was essential that we unwrap and study them as soon as possible.

Friday, 10 July 2015

The governor of Huantán

Great excitement and pride recently over Peru's impressive performance during the Copa America. 

And then an additional stirring moment when captain and Bayern Munich striker Claudio Pizarro became the first player in the tournament to tweet in Quechua.

Pizarro told El Comercio that he had to get help from the internet, his team mates and the team’s physio to post the messages. “I would have liked to have learned it in school, and have it. But it helps at least to get people excited and fired up. And at the same time we help keep it alive – not to lose this language that is ours.”

Quechua is one of Peru’s official languages, along with Spanish, and is still spoken by about 3.5 million people, mainly in the central and southern Andes. It’s only one of the country’s indigenous languages - there’s also Aymara from the southern plains of Puno and Lake Titicaca, and other lesser known languages from the Amazon region.

Although these languages are starting to be recognized more, they are struggling to survive as people move from the country to the larger cities and the coast where Spanish is dominant.

Tello’s knowledge of Quechua was a huge advantage in his work. It wasn’t only about uncovering artefacts. It was all about the people. There’s a strong sense of this in tio Hernan’s Anecdotes. For them the excitement was in the stories those treasures could tell about the past and how those stories resonate down the generations to form a living link in the indigenous populations.

Tello’s enthusiastic investigative approach was apparent from early on. Hernan describes the scientist’s first field trip as a young student

The governor of Huantán
In which three students excite considerable suspicion in Yauyos

The young Tello was twenty years old and in the second year of his studies when, under the guidance of his professor Sebastián Barranca, he organized his first anthropological field trip. He chose the province of Yauyos, so that he could study the cauqui language, along with the flora, fauna and folklore of the region.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Banquet at the Maury

As I write today temperatures are moving on up into the 30s here in Lisbon. Time for one of my all-time favourite summer cocktails - Chilcano de Pisco.

Pour a good large measure of Pisco (about 50ml) over plenty of ice cubes in a tall glass, add a squeeze of lime juice (about a tablespoon), a splash of Angostura bitters, and top it all up with ginger ale. Have fun playing around with the measurements if you like, but I have it on good authority that it’s all in the order of ingredients in the glass.

photo - El Comercio

Pisco Sour is the better known classic Peruvian cocktail, and some years ago I went to the bar at the Hotel Maury to research the lineage of this most cherished lovechild of Peruvian culture. 

If I’m honest it was a chance to just hang out in this coolest of cool bars in the heart of downtown Lima on a dusty Sunday afternoon. But I was also lucky enough to watch a master at work. Señor Eloy Cuadros Cordoba has worked at the Hotel Maury for more than half a century. The full interview, complete with Señor Cuadros' tips for the perfect Pisco Sour, is here

Señor Eloy Cuadros Cordoba doing what he does best behind the bar at the Maury
photo - el Comercio
fig. 1
It’s a Californian import, Victor Morris, who is widely credited as having invented the original Pisco Sour. He worked in the mines of Cerro de Pasco where he ran a gaming house. The story goes that with no whisky to hand to make whisky sours, he replaced it with Pisco. He later opened the Morris Bar in Lima. But Morris was a consummate gambler. He went bankrupt, had to close the bar, and some of his employees then moved to the Hotel Maury.

The Posada de Pedro Maury existed since the days of independence. General San Martin himself stayed there, as well as Miguel Grau. Later the posada was refurbished and modernized and in 1848 became Lima's first great illustrious hotel - the Hotel Maury.

Today it is a rather prosaic 1954 version of the original. Needless to say it has lost much of its former grandeur, but the bar is still splendid and proclaims to be the birthplace of the Pisco Sour as we know it. 

As Cuadros, the resident, charismatic barman will testify, his clientele is now a mixed bunch of professionals and tourists, although the Maury still sees the odd diplomat or two popping in from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just up the road.

photo - citiHeartBeat
I had also gone to the Maury because of this story that I found in the Anecdotes. 

Tio Hernan makes it clear that back in the day, the Maury had clout; home to a glittering array of politicians, business men, and the social elite. 

Peru’s devastating loss to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1884), and the country’s ensuing bankruptcy spawned a group of young intellectuals who questioned what had happened, what had gone wrong, and more importantly addressed the issue of what needed to happen now. How was Peru to emerge and develop and move forward?  They are known as la generación de los 900 (900 is short for 1900’s), and they were the emerging thinkers of the new twentieth century.

Victor Andrés Belaunde, Raul Porras Barrenechea, José de la Rivera Agüero, Francisco Garcia Calderón -the journalist, writer and diplomat who Hernan describes here returning to Peru after his postings abroad. These are all names that resonate in Peru still today.

They all gathered at the Maury and they were, as Hernan points out here, all white.

Banquet at the Maury
In which Tello appears on the radar of Lima's society elite

If all the anecdotes from the Hotel Maury could be compiled, we would have a fascinating record of the many subtle nuances of our nation's story. So many of the men, in so many diverse fields, who helped trace the route of our country's history have passed through those doors

On this occasion, none other than, the famous Peruvian philosopher and writer, Francisco Garcia Calderón had just arrived in Lima from Paris, and his friends wanted to organize a banquet in his honour. Naturally it would be in one of the city’s most luxurious and prestigious locales … the Maury.