Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Don Timo's turtle

fig. 1
Julio C. Tello was convinced that pre-hispanic Andean cultures were much older than his contemporaries believed. Up until then scholars such as Max Uhl had focused primarily on Peru´s coastal civilizations. Tello developed a revolutionary theory that flew in the face of accepted scientific thinking. 

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, Chavín de Huantar is located on a tributary of the Marañón River, east of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, near the Callejón de Huáylas. 

An important political and religious centre, at over 3,200 metres above sea level, it occupies a strategic mountain intersection where many of the major early routes linking Peru’s tropical rainforests and its desert coast came together.

In 1919 Tello was the first archaeologist to make a detailed scientific study of Chavín de Huantar and its people. He looked upon Chavín as a kind of ‘mother culture’; an ancient Peruvian civilisation that grew and spread from this centre in the mountains, sophisticated enough to migrate downwards to the coastal regions and influence subsequent cultures there.

He later searched all over the coastal regions of Peru for the signs of Chavín that would validate his theory.
When in 1937 the expedition team arrived in a coastal valley just over 300km north of Lima, Tello‘s instincts were on high alert. And they were not wrong. The Casma Valley is home to one of the largest and most ancient monumental sites in Peru, including the Cerro Sechín temple, now best known for the macabre monolithic stone frieze that Tello eventually uncovered and Hernan recorded.

But you have to kiss a lot of frogs……. 

Don Timo’s turtle
In which our enthusiastic explorers set out on what proves to be a wild goose chase, or in this case a wild turtle chase

Just before Mejía Xesspe discovered the Sechín Temple in Sechín Bajo on the Corrales Mountain, Tello was already excited about the possibility of an impending discovery. He had seen the Chavinesque stone that was currently in the possession of a certain Señor Juan Reyna, and although Reyna, along with everyone else involved, had no idea as to its provenance, Tello believed the small monolith could only have come from the Casma Valley.

All the more reason then for his delight when an Indian sharecropper from the San Diego Hacienda, Timoteo Reyes, came to him with some information that seemed to provide a trail leading to more discoveries. According to Don Timo he knew a place where there was a stone turtle complete with engravings on its shell. 

Without a minute’s delay, the archaeologist arranged for him to take him there.  The place he indicated was up in the hills near the port of Casma, and so he asked Don Timo to procure for him five saddled horses. It was agreed that the exploratory group would consist of himself, Mejía Xesspe, Honour McCreary, Barbara Loomis and Donald Collier.  We illustrators didn’t go because we already had so much work to do, tracing the designs off the huge amount of ceremonial objects selected from Señor Reyna’s collection.

fig. 2

“But hear me well Reyes,” said Tello before closing the deal, “we will be ready to leave aprecisely eight o’clock in the morning – not a minute more, not a minute less, do you understand?”

“Very well, doctor,” replied the farmer. 

The next day eight o'clock arrived and there was no sign of Don Timo. Tello was so punctual you could set your watch by him and he was growing very impatient. Finally the farmer appeared, an hour late. He was looking rather sheepish and dejected and was empty handed but for a shabby, frayed set of reins.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

“The horses have run off into the mountains doctor, we couldn’t catch them, not a single one.”

“Well we’ll just have to walk then,” snapped Tello.

To make matters worse, the sun by this time had reached a fierce intensity.   The tramp across the dusty fields and sand dunes was exhausting. Finally at the foot of a hill, there it was; the sacred turtle!

The archaeologists’ enthusiasm went up in a puff of smoke. They had set out hoping to find the place from where the Reyna stone had been extracted, but the closer they came to the turtle, the less ‘archaeological’ it seemed.  It was nothing more than a lot of concentric circles laid down in stones obviously by some boys who had been playing around there.

Don Timo protested lamely.  Surely it was a valuable antiquity. He swore that he had inspected it closely and had seen the form of a turtle.

The thing that angered Tello most was not so much that their hopes had been shattered but more seriously the whole day had been a complete waste of time.  From then on we coined a new phrase to describe the myriad false leads and disappointments that were an inevitable occurrence during our adventures. Whenever someone led us up the garden path, it was always…  ‘This one’s another Timo from Casma.’


fig. 1 Hernan's illustration of the Chavínesque stone found at the home of Juan Reyna in Casma

fig. 2 illustrations of  pottery pieces and fragments in the Juan Reyna collection

all taken from  Arqueologia del Valle de Casma, Julio C Tello    

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