Saturday, 3 October 2015

Casma ('s) bull

Tello’s 1937 expedition to explore the Upper Marañon river basin and Peru’s northern coastal valleys was aimed at uncovering evidence that the Andean Chavín culture had spread to the coastal plain and influenced later civilizations there.

An enormous mound, Sechín Alto, in the Casma Valley just over 300km north of Lima had always been visible from the roadway. But an unexpected discovery close by was to lead Tello and his team to stay far longer in the valley than originally planned.

fig. 1

The locals led them to a place they knew as el Indio Bravo, so called because of a human face carved on a large rock there. As it turned out this face was only part of a stone that was still three quarters buried underground. Tello was eventually to discover over ninety more, and the Cerro Sechín temple is now famous for the monolithic façade that he uncovered and Hernan sketched.  

The huge stones depict warrior like figures carrying clubs or staffs, surrounded by naked victims and their severed body parts. The Sechín complex forms today one of the largest and most ancient monumental sites in Peru.  

Local tomb raiders as always played their part in the discoveries. Tello seems to have taken a pragmatic approach to these huaqueros. He understood that, whilst he fought against the destruction they wrought, he was also reliant on them to lead him to new sites.

But the relationship didn’t always yield results.

Casma (’s) bull
In which an enterprising huaquero excites some interest

We had been in Casma for several weeks, and by now a large amount of monoliths had been discovered in the Temple of Sechín that we had unearthed. Tello, worked from six to six, and had filled four volumes of notes on these remarkable discoveries. One day, as we were about to start work, it was evident he was itching to share some potentially exciting news with me.

“You know this Rudecindo?” he said, referring to a local huaquero who was working with us on the excavations.

“Well he tells me that behind those hills is an enormous bull made of stone.”

He pointed north

“An enormous bull?” I replied.

Tello laughed


He knew as well as I that this animal had never existed in ancient Peru.

“He tells me that there’s a large bull out there on the pampa. I must confess, I can't quite fathom it. But the news is interesting. The way he describes the stones seems a bit strange. And the location is certainly not what you might expect….. 

What is that figure doing there, on such a great expanse of sandy ground, totally enclosed on all sides? But you never know. Is it possible we could find a cemetery, or a canal, or maybe even another whole buried temple complex? “You have to remember that at the beginning here we could only see the very tip of the stones, when we uncovered the Indio Bravo.
fig. 2

And you know, by the way he’s describing the form, it reminds me of the stone serpent near Chimbote. It’s huge, made of different coloured stones, coming down the mountain to drink from an ancient aqueduct that runs past below. It’s a thing of true beauty. You can see it yourself when we go past there. It’s very well preserved and easily visible, even from a distance.

fig. 3

What I think in this case is that the bull may in fact be a gigantic puma. It only appears to be a bull to these people.

“You know yourself,” he said laughing and pointing his cane at the ornamental figures on the monolith I was working on “when they see the spear thrower the peasants think the ancients had guitars!”

“I’m thinking,” he continued after pausing for a while to consider “Best we attack this ‘bull’ head on as soon as possible. Next Sunday Collier, Pedro and you will stay here while Mejía and I go and investigate. If we find anything interesting we‘ll all return and do a proper excavation.”

Tello was basing his decision on a certain confidence he felt was due to Rudecindo. Although the huaquero had a reputation in Casma for having a big mouth, the archeologist credited him with some knowledge. He, more than any other of his tomb raider colleagues, was familiar with artefacts and ruins spread throughout the entire valley. So much so that he had his own little personal archeological ‘treasure troves’ stashed away where no one would find them.

On one occasion, Tello had been dumbfounded when he brought him a beautiful and extremely rare embroidered headdress decorated with glittering black cormorant feathers. 

So, without further ado, they set out on the following Sunday, guided by the faithful Rudecindo. The walk was long and arduous, all the more so for being over rough sandy ground. What’s more the sun became increasingly intense, so that before long they were drenched in their own sweat. After almost two hours of this, they spotted some stones apparently laid out in rows.

For Tello, it was the last straw when Rudecindo stammered, “there’s the bull, doctor”.

“That’s the bull?” he retorted.

He could already see clearly that it wasn’t his longed for puma but indeed a bull. And what a well designed bull it was, the stones laid out in succession to form its long horns and enormous balls.
monolith from the Sechín temple
“Yes doctor, that’s the bull,” replied the huaquero looking a little flustered now.

“And those are the stones that form the bull? Or are there maybe others buried” cut in Mejía Xesspe.

“No those are the stones that I told you about. They’re just on the top.”

A few steps more were enough to reveal the complete silhouette of the great bull that had so intrigued the archaeologist.

“Uh… but this bull has been made by schoolboys …” said Mejía Xesspe disheartened and not a little annoyed.

“Schoolboys! … What do you mean…?” Rudecindo was quick to cover his mistake with righteous indignation.

"I mean schoolboys,” Xesspe shot back at him irately. “Don’t you see those bits of copy book paper lying around all over the place? They’ve been out here on a lark.”

“Leave it Mejía,” interjected Tello calmly. “Never mind, it’s been a waste of time.”

They turned back and had been walking for about an hour in stony silence, when Mejía finally broke into a laugh.

“Doctor, this bull is another Timo from Casma.”

The archaeologist didn’t answer.  It was going to be a little longer before he was able to see the funny side of this particular escapade.

At least now we had another phrase to describe these kinds of fiascos.

“Here we go again … another load of Casma bull.”
fig. 4

fig. 1 discovery of the Indio Bravo monolith - Arqueología del Valle de Casma  p.105 
fig. 2 uncovering the western facade of the temple - as above  p.222 
fig. 3 the Chimbote serpent - Arqueología de Cajamarca: Expedición al Marañon  p.20
fig. 4 artists impression reconstructing Sechín Temple - Arqueología del Valle de Casma  p.288 

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