Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The endless paragraph

The fertile Casma river valley cuts across the coastal desert plain about 320 kilometres north of Lima. Today the valley's main activity is agriculture. 

Alongside the passion fruit, mango and asparagus fields, it is also home to some of Peru's most important archaeological sites.  In the 1930s Tello was the first to explore them. 

Although some people nowadays may question his academic standards, undoubtedly one of Tello's greatest gifts was his method. He initially trained as a medical doctor and he was a scientist at heart. 

It was his insistence on a rigorous methodical approach that was so important at a time when home-grown Peruvian archaeology was in its infancy and plagued by formidable obstacles: no organised institutions, a shortage of national researchers, widespread looting and vandalism, a dismal lack of state funding and general government apathy.

Tello's background as a social scientist - he held an MA in Anthropology from Harvard University - gave him a vital understanding of the importance of context. Sites were meticulously mapped and exact measurements noted. Findings were all lovingly observed and recorded. The team came back from the 1937 expedition to the Marañon river basin alone with eight large dossiers filled with a total of more than 1, 200 handwritten pages of notes. There were also several hundred illustrations, and over a thousand photographic negatives. For three months, the team spread out over the Casma valley which, after an unpromising start, proved to yield up a wealth of archaeological gems, including the magnificent Cerro Sechín site, famous for its granite monoliths engraved with gruesome scenes of death and human mutilation.  Much more recent work on the valley sites has uncovered what is possibly one of the oldest structures in the Americas.

As well as being a detailed log of  the discoveries, the extensive reports Tello dictated to Hernan also included ethnographic, linguistic and geographical information. And of course there are the illustrations: beautiful pen and ink drawings, diagrams and watercolours which are not only a valuable source of documentary information, but also, in and of themselves, artistic. 

The drawing came easy to Hernan, the writing was another story.

The endless paragraph
In which the effects of an unusually large lunch get the better of our young artist

During our stay in Mojeque, each time Tello looked out onto the nearby hills, he declared that on the eve of our departure we would climb up to a certain rock – he pointed to a large crag. And from there, we – he always spoke in the plural – would construct a long report describing the whole of the Casma valley. 

the Casma valley photo taken from the Karikuy blog
On the upper part of the cliff that he pointed to there was a kind of triangular outcrop which formed a small platform from which it was clear that there would be a splendid panoramic view of the vast valley.  Well, we had only a few days left now. The time was fast approaching when we would have to do it, and as the ox is faithful to the shaft, so is man faithful to his word. Sure enough the day came for our report.