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.