Machu Picchu: Cradle of Gold

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Exactly 100 years ago, the explorer Hiram Bingham found Machu Picchu on the eastern slopes of Peru’s soaring Andes mountains. He was not the first to see it since the Incas left centuries before: local farmers were living on the land, and the site appeared on several maps – including that published in 1910 by Inca expert Sir Clements Markham. But he was the first to bring it to the attention of the world. Historian and author Christopher Heaney recounts the events of Hiram Bingham’s expedition that reclaimed Machu Picchu from the jungle.

The next day, 24 July 1911, dawned cold and rainy, and low clouds hid the ridge from view. Arteaga, Bingham, and Carrasco began to climb: the river’s noise dropped to a dull roar, orchids and hummingbirds broke the green darkness of liana-choked trees, and the path grew steep and muddy. ‘A good part of the distance we went on all fours, sometimes holding on by our fingernails,’ Bingham wrote. After an hour and a half of exertion, they collapsed into a peaceful clearing. And there, Bingham got a surprise: a single hut. Staring out of it, shocked at the intrusion, was a family of Indian farmers.

These were the Richartes: 24-year-old Torvis and his family. They knew Arteaga, but Bingham must have been a strange sight: probably the tallest person they had ever seen, his long alien legs tucked into tall leather boots, wrapped with cloth and ballooning into khaki jodhpurs. He was panting from the climb, and his hunting jacket and gray cardigan were likely tucked under his arm. A strange, rifle-like device was strapped to his back. Beneath a beaten and misshapen grey hat and a head of hair that was lightening in the sunshine, the gringo flashed his tight-lipped smile.

Arteaga explained in Quechua that this foreigner wanted to see the ruins. Richarte’s barefoot son, no older than eight, led the way down the path toward Huayna Picchu. The trail led onto a series of old terraces that the boy’s family had reclaimed; then, finally rounding a promontory, the boy gestured, and Bingham looked up. His eyes caught the peak of Huayna Picchu, large and impressive. But his gaze drifted down and then he saw it: ‘a jungle-covered maze of small and large walls, the ruins of buildings made of blocks of white granite, most carefully cut and beautifully fitted together without cement. Surprise followed surprise until there came the realization that we were in the midst of as wonderful ruins as any ever found in Peru.’

Covered by a foam of ‘trees and moss and the growth of centuries’, the temples, fountains, and palace buildings seemed to rise and fall along the ridge until they crashed upon the base of Huayna Picchu like a wave. In one thicket, the boy showed him the day’s first architectural wonder: a cave shaped, carved, and lined with beautiful, interlocking stones. A stone carved with four graceful steps edged its triangular entrance. An hourglass of blocks linked the cave’s outer lip to an adjacent boulder. The inside of the cave was lined with yet more carefully worked stones. Mysterious pegs protruded from the walls. Beneath them were ‘very large niches, the best and tallest that I have ever seen’, wrote Bingham. The Incas had once placed their golden icons and, more importantly, the mallquis, or mummies of their dead emperors, in niches like these. Had this been a royal tomb, where emperors sat forever in state, their leathery skin still clad in the brightly coloured tunics of Inca royalty, their ears still hanging with massive gold earplugs, their brows covered with the royal red fringe?

The boy pointed above the cave, where the stone thrust up into a curved, tower-like structure. Rounded walls were rare in Inca architecture and were often features of sun temples. Bingham followed the boy up a set of stairs and saw that the structure flowed into an even more stunning wall, made of regular, finely grained ashlars of pure white granite.
‘Clearly, it was the work of a master artist,’ he later wrote.

‘The interior surface of the wall was broken by niches and square stone-pegs. The exterior surface was perfectly simple and unadorned. The lower courses, of particularly large ashlars, gave it a look of solidity. The upper courses, diminishing in size towards the top, lent grace and delicacy to the structure. The flowing lines, the symmetrical arrangement of the ashlars, and the gradual gradation of the courses, combined to produce a wonderful effect, softer and more pleasing than that of the marble temples of the Old World. Owing to the absence of mortar, there were no ugly spaces between the rocks. They might have grown together. On account of the beauty of the white granite, this structure surpassed in attractiveness the best Inca walls in Cusco. Dimly, I began to realize that this wall and its adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world. It fairly took my breath away.’

The boy pulled Bingham up a stairway, past a series of dried-up fountains, and into an open space that suggested it was the site’s ceremonial heart, its sacred plaza. The boy’s family had cleared it for a vegetable garden, and on its western side, the slope fell away, yielding a view of the Urubamba River. The plaza’s other three sides bore stone buildings. On the plaza’s northern side was a ‘truly megalithic’ temple. It lacked a southern wall, but its other three sides were made of huge blocks of white granite, quarried from the mountain itself and ‘fitted together as a glass stopper is fitted to a bottle’. The largest block was over 14ft long, and was carved like an altar. Here, an Inca priest might once have lifted gifts to the sun and then stepped inside the temple to spread them upon the altar.

On the plaza’s eastern edge was its most enchanting temple. It was wider than the others, and its main wall had three large, beautiful windows, 3ft wide, over 4ft high. The three windows overlooked a more public plaza, where the site’s attendants may have worshipped, and then beyond, to the ‘tumbled mass of gigantic forest-clad mountains, rising to snow-capped peaks’ to the east. Bingham set up his camera and began to take pictures. The boy motioned for him to follow, and the explorer carried the tripod up a steep set of stairs to the ruins’ highest point. A large boulder was carved into a two-tiered table, its smooth grey surface broken by a tall rectangular column, like the pommel on a saddle. It was an intihuatana – a sundial to mark the passage of seasons, harvests, and holy days. No other intihuatana had survived intact. Could it be that the Spanish never sacked the site? Had they even known about it? Hiram had gone in search of the last cities of the Incas – but had he found something even older? Five days out of Cusco, and Hiram had already discovered the great mystery of his life: the identity and purpose of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu revealed

Bingham was to return with his Yale Peruvian Expedition the following year, 1912. ‘M P ruins as fine as ever, very impressive, especially the Sacred Plazaand the view,’ he scrawled in his journal.

For the first few days, the ridge crackled with the sound of nearly 400 years of jungle growth burning away. Perhaps anxious about his discoverer’s claim, Bingham had the ‘crude charcoal autographs’ of prior Peruvian visitors cleaned from the stonework. Finally, on 22 July, the expedition began to dig in earnest while Bingham took photos. They started with the sacred plaza, where Bingham hoped Machu Picchuwas hiding a fine treasure or burial of some sort.

In the foundations of the temple of the three windows they found a bottle-shaped grave, but it was empty. While the ruins were being cleared, Bingham targetted the site’s machays, or burial caves, under the care of the osteologist George Eaton. On 24 July, one year to the day after Richarte’s son led Bingham into Machu Picchu, Richarte led Bingham and Eaton to eight burial sites below the ruins to the north-east. The growth was thick and they had to ‘wriggle snake-like through the jungle when the rank vegetation was not so dense as to require vigorous use of machetes’.  Beneath a large, irregular boulder was a small, wedge-shaped wall, 4ft long and 2ft high, made of small, rough stones. The Americans got down on their knees and began to pull the rocks away. Slowly, the interior came into view: a few broken pots and their first glimpse of Machu Picchu’s old inhabitants – a skull and a few other bones – sitting upright with the knees pulled up to the chest in the manner of most Andean burials. In a second cave, Bingham found the fragments of two human skulls. In a third, Eaton recovered a body with an oblong skull – an example of pre-Columbian cranial modification. From another grave, Eaton pulled a small skeleton and a single, perfect, two-handled red ceramic pot. Yet another yielded six fragmentary skulls. Bingham opened one more burial cave, yielding two human skulls and a broken pot.

Bingham was disappointed by the lack of ‘treasure’ but Eaton, a scientist through and through, saw in these graves the humble remains of an entire people. As he examined skull after skull, he surmised that they belonged to the site’s attendants. He also struck on an explanation for the jumbled bones that went beyond grave-robbing: they had been removed and venerated by the deceased’s descendants.

One morning, the expedition’s guides took Eaton 1,000ft above the southernmost sector of the ruins on a finely built ceremonial terrace. Here, they showed him a grave that yielded one of the year’s most evocative funerary finds. It contained two perfect bottle-shaped pots and one broken dish with a foot, several copper pins, a needle, a curious copper disc with a handle, a pair of copper tweezers, and the remains of a dog. But at the grave’s centre was a nearly complete human skeleton, sitting upright with its knees pressed to its chest. It seemed to be female; across its shoulders was a coarse shawl, once held in place by a tupu, a shawl pin with a flat, round head. At her feet were delicate blackened curlicues of leather footwear, which the Indians maintained were very ancient. Eaton decided the woman was a ‘priestess’, and that the terrace ‘must have offered an ideal resting place for the Inca and his royal consorts during their visits to Machu Picchu, or at other times for the resident Priests and Priestesses of the Sun and the Mother Superior of the Acclahuasi or House of the Virgins of the Sun’.

Bingham believed that Machu Picchu was the last refuge of the Incas’ ‘sun virgins’, based on George Eaton’s claim that the vast majority of the site’s skeletons belonged to women. In the 1980s, however, Yale archaeologists Richard L Burger and Lucy Salazar commissioned a new series of studies of Machu Picchu’s material that showed there was a relatively even ratio of women to men. The graves belonged to lower-status servants, not pampered virgins. Their joints were worn and their backs were wrecked with lives of hard labour.

Enduring legacy

Hiram Bingham remains the man who made Machu Picchu internationally famous, even if his title as ‘discoverer’, ‘scientific discoverer’, ‘re-discoverer’, or ‘the first tourist to the ruins’ is up for debate. Machu Picchu has been the 20th and 21st centuries’ great engine of identity and prosperity for Cusco, today bringing over 800,000 visitors a year to the Inca citadel in the sky. Bingham is honoured for being the foreigner who recognised the site’s beauty and its future importance for Peru. Within a year of its revelation,Peru’s intellectuals hailed the site as a symbol not only of the Peruvian nation, but also of what indigenous peoples accomplished before the arrival of Europeans.Machu Picchu is regarded as the best of all Inca sites, the realisation of their architectural and religious ideals – to worship the sun by building towards it, aligning altars along its path; to honour mountains by building out of them, quarrying stone from the site itself; to glorify water with acequias, canals that fed burbling baths. In building Machu Picchu, it was as if the Incas and their workers reached into the Andes themselves, closed their fists and pulled up the elemental temples waiting within: stone turned inside out, light and water tamed into structure but still fierce and flowing like nature itself. Bingham’s final work, Lost City of the Incas, captures that achievement and remains in print to this day.

Bingham’s theory of what Machu Picchu actually was, however, has aged poorly. To his death the explorer remained convinced it was Tampu Tocco, the cradle of Inca civilisation, as well as Vilcabamba the Old, its grave. It was neither. Instead, it has been suggested that the great Inca emperor Pachacutec (‘Earth Shaker’) built Machu Picchu as a frontier citadel during his mid-15th-century push to expand his empire’s eastern and northern borders.  In the early 1980s, Peruvian scholars Luis Miguel Glave and MarÌa Isabel Remy published a 16th-century document in which descendants of Pachacutec described a site named Picho. A few years later, the great scholar of the Andes John Rowe confirmed the theory that Machu Picchuwas a symbol of Pachacutec’s conquest, while also recognising the site’s symbolic divinity.Machu Picchuis now understood as a site of regional and spiritual authority, as well as a royal estate whose upkeep was paid for by the familial cult that surrounded Pachacutec’s mummy. Tampu Tocco, the cave from which the first Inca emerged, remains associated with the site of Pacariqtambo, which lies to the south of Cusco. Pachacutec built this cave, and perhaps the entire site, as his mummy’s home, much like the Egyptian pharaohs built their pyramids, or the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang had himself buried surrounded by life-size terracotta warriors.

If Machu Picchu was one of Pachacutec’s resting places, its occupant disappeared long ago. After the conquest, the Spaniards took Pachacutec’s mummy from Cusco to Lima, where it was buried, lost or burnt.Machu Picchuis neither a cradle nor a grave, but a cenotaph: a monument in honour of an individual whose remains are lost or lie elsewhere.

Happily, Machu Picchu’s status as a larger, more modern cenotaph – lacking the human remains that Bingham and Eaton removed from the site’s burial caves – recently ended. In 2010, Yale agreed to send back the burials ofMachu Picchu. The builders and servants of the Inca will rest inCusco, at a collaborative research centre, in the land where they loved, worked, died and – through their legacy – inspire us today.

 This article can be found in Current World Archaeology Issue 48. Click here to subscribe

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