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.

Of course this required numerous personnel. Each funeral bundle could contain as many as ten to fifteen embroidered mantles, the majority of which needing years of careful restoration. Then there was the great number of boxes necessary for all our specimens as well as display cabinets; the list went on.
photo - MNAAHP

With this in mind, Tello presented his budget for the following year based on the necessity for at least twenty more staff. And that was a cautious estimate, not accounting for any increases in salary for existing personnel.
He requested an increase in funds for expeditions, publications, the seeking out and apprehension of tomb robbers, additional equipment for the museum and a long list of other things. In short, he requested a large increase in the budget, in the hope that when the proposal had suffered the inevitable pruning, at least there would remain a reasonable amount.
Unfortunately it suffered more than a ‘pruning’. The budget proposal came back with all increases rejected outright. Apparently there was no money for museums.
Tello exploded.
“Right” he said. “If they are going to refuse me even one cent, then the Minister and every one of them is going to see just exactly what I do. The time for talking is over now – this is a matter of life and death.”
His first step was to request an audience with the president, who was at that time Don Manuel Prado.  After the meeting had taken place he told us.
“OK boys, Sunday at nine in the morning we will be having a visit from the President of the Republic. He wants to see the state that we are in. Wipe all the dust from the mummies so that you can smell them better and he can see just what damage this damp is causing.”

photo - Janine Costa

He continued, “But first we’ll take him to Pachacámac, I want to show him everything that we have uncovered there and all the damage that the road those louts have proposed will cause if it’s allowed to go ahead. Because I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the day that I die, with me out of the way, they’ll try to reinstate it. The place will be destroyed if they do; if thousands of people can traipse up to the top in their cars, before long there’ll be very little left. What we need is a permanent guard there to stop any vehicles passing.

True to his word, at nine in the morning the following Sunday, the President was on his way to Pachacámac, accompanied by Tello. No other president would have taken the time of day to worry about the museum, much less go to an actual site, the location of which implied a long walk almost drowning in dirt and sand.
fig 3

The visit, however, was so comprehensive that they didn’t arrive back at the museum until almost midday, and the President made a meticulous tour there too until well after one in the afternoon. Days later the archaeologist was beaming. The President, who now had a personal appreciation of the importance of the work in the museum, had instructed that the archaeologist’s budget proposal should be accepted exactly as it was; no amendments, no reductions.
Unfortunately Tello’s anxiety over Pachacámac has proved well founded. To tell just a part of it, the Temple of the Sun that was restored for the Congress of Americanists in 1938 has suffered so much that there are whole parts that have already disappeared totally. Tello’s solution would, in my opinion, have been simple and effective. If vehicles had to remain at the entrance, only the most dedicated of tourists would arrive at the top, and they would arrive there with no desire to climb all over the place or inscribe their names on the walls. We wouldn’t suffer the thousands of visitors who tramp carelessly through the ruins each month, destroying them piece by piece.

fig. 1  Tello and his team uncovering a mummy bundle - taken from the book Paracas, published by  MNAAHP (p. 85)
fig. 2  Paracas materials in storage at the museum  - as above (p.81)
fig. 3  President Manuel Prado visits Pachacámac - taken from Sucedió en el Perú : Julio Cesar Tello  TV Perú, Televisión Peruana


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