Excavating remarkable Inca rituals

After incorporating the Acari Valley within their empire, the Incas established a new administrative complex. Excavations at the site have revealed traces of remarkable Inca rituals.

After the Acari Valley was absorbed by the Inca Empire, Tambo Viejo was founded to oversee its inhabitants. This imperial imposition seemingly resembled many others in the region, but excavation has exposed architectural and ritual oddities. Lidio M Valdez reveals what makes the site unique.

The fully fledged Inca Empire controlled a vast territory. This included a stretch of present-day Peru’s south coast, between the Chincha Valley – about 220km south of modern Lima – and the Acari Valley. These rivers flow west from the Andes and create narrow belts of fertile land in what is otherwise a forbidding desert environment. Within these verdant valleys, the Incas encountered numerous local groups. Some were already large and complex political entities, while others were much more modest affairs. It would be fair to say that the people populating the Acari Valley belonged to the latter category. When Inca officials marched into their domain, probably around the mid 15th century, they found its inhabitants scattered between a handful of settlements. Their limited numbers must have made resistance seem futile, so the most likely scenario is that they quickly came to an accord with their new masters. Indeed, Spanish chroniclers claimed that the Incas established alliances with the various south coast cultures, and so were able to incorporate them peacefully. In return, these groups were granted a measure of autonomy.

A female figurine found at Tambo Viejo. This artefact was discovered face down beside the base of a wall, together with corn cobs.

Once the Incas had acquired their empire, they needed to control it. To that end, they relied on a highway system that shadowed the coast, linking a series of new administrative centres. That founded in the Acari Valley is known as Tambo Viejo, which was placed where the foothills of the Andes dip into the desert. From this location, the Incas were able to ensure access to the agriculturally most-productive part of the valley. At first, Tambo Viejo lay just south-west of a notable local settlement known as Sahuacarí, which occupied the opposite bank of the river. Activity there seems to peter out, though, suggesting that its inhabitants moved to Tambo Viejo, although whether this was voluntary or came courtesy of a forced relocation by Inca officials is unclear.

Tambo Viejo

At first glance, the layout of Tambo Viejo fits the standard Inca pattern, with its buildings arranged around formal rectangular plazas. Here there are two such plazas: a larger, northern example, with its smaller counterpart lying a short distance to the south. The layout visible today is, though, the result of various modifications that followed the partial or total demolition of earlier structures. Even more intriguingly, when you look closely at Tambo Viejo, it becomes obvious the centre was built in a subtly different way to those established in adjacent valleys. Some of the classic hallmarks of Inca architecture, such as trapezoidal doorways and niches, are conspicuously absent. This raises the possibility that the architects responsible for Tambo Viejo were less familiar with Inca styles than might be expected. Could it be that the builders were local workers, who unwittingly exposed their ignorance of mainstream methods?

Walling at Tambo Viejo. The lower section was built of cobbles and mud mortar, with adobes laid on top. Note the tumbled pile of adobes in front of the cobblestone wall.

Regardless of who was responsible for the design quirks, establishing the new centre certainly testifies to an impressive effort by the Inca state. Most of the buildings were partially constructed out of cobblestones, and simply transporting them to the site would have required an enormous investment of energy and resources. These cobblestones were set in mud mortar to fashion the lower portions of walls, which were then topped with large, rectangular mudbricks known as adobes. The finished walls were plastered to create smooth surfaces, although whether these were painted remains unknown.

Because the desert conditions often ensure exceptionally well-preserved organic remains, Tambo Viejo has the potential to be a particularly significant site. Sadly, though, it is falling prey to destructive modern activities. As well as being looted for ancient artefacts, Tambo Viejo is regularly used as a handy quarry for building material destined for contemporary construction projects, severely diminishing the ancient ruins. In order to rescue information that was at risk of being lost, an archaeological excavation was recently carried out at Tambo Viejo. After surveying the ruins, two large structures were selected for further exploration. These lay next to the smaller of the two plazas, placing them beside a probable focus for public events. Indeed, there seemed a good chance that the structures themselves were the loci for some such activities. Our principal aim was to determine what was going on in these structures, and what that reveals about the role of Tambo Viejo within the Inca Empire.

Neatly tied bundles of coloured camelid hair were among the mysterious contents of a pot that was still sealed when the archaeologists found it.

New research

Our team is not the first to examine Tambo Viejo: that accolade goes to the late Francis A Riddell and Dorothy Menzel, who investigated it in 1954. They drew up the first site map and conducted two small-scale excavations to piece together how long the site was occupied. What Riddell and Menzel found, persuaded them that Tambo Viejo saw intensive use. Their reading was supported by superimposed floor levels and the build-up of midden deposits. Our research has confirmed that initial observation. At the same time, fresh study has revealed that Tambo Viejo appears to have only been occupied for a relatively short span. It is also possible that the new administrative centre was not built immediately after the Incas annexed the valley. Instead, the peaceful manner in which it was ceded to the Incas seemingly meant there was no sense of urgency when it came to introducing tighter regulation.

Several sacrificial guinea pigs were discovered at the site. Some were laid directly on the natural ground surface, indicating that their demise was one of the first acts perpetrated as work got under way. The dry conditions permitted extraordinary preservation of such remains, and revealed that the ill-fated rodents wore colourful accoutrements.

Our research is building up a picture of the substantial changes to the layout of Tambo Viejo that occurred during its brief lifespan. The two excavated buildings, known as Structure 1 and Structure 2, have both shone light on how once-spacious areas could be reimagined. Structure 1 lies immediately south of the plaza, and is a large rectangular building that may have been a hall, perhaps originally housing the workforce assembled to construct the site. If so, it would help explain why the building later received internal divisions, as once construction of Tambo Viejo was complete, the hall could be put to a new use.

Structure 2 lay on the opposite side of the plaza and experienced a similar fate. This time, though, the presence of domestic waste and burnt organic materials suggests that the space initially served as a large kitchen. Once again, the building was later subdivided, suggesting a modification in use. Artefacts associated with spinning would fit with a new industrial role, presumably linked to textile production.

Artificially coloured camelid hair was fashioned into earrings and necklaces for the guinea pigs.

Animal sacrifices

Our research has shed light, too, on how construction activities at the site went hand in hand with elaborate ritual ceremonies. Both building plots were the scene of guinea-pig sacrifices conducted either before or at around the time the foundations for the cobblestone walls were laid. The guinea pigs were mainly sub-adults and placed directly onto the existing ground surface, emphasising that their demise was one of the first acts perpetrated on the site. While some of these small rodents were deposited in their natural state, others were enveloped within a miniature rug and even kitted out with what can be described as sacrificial regalia. This took the form of elegant sets of beautiful string earrings made of camelid hair. These adornments were red, yellow, green, and purple in colour, while further fibres of the same colour had been woven into beautiful necklaces that were placed around the doomed rodents’ necks. The length of these accessories made them unsuitable for the guinea pigs to roam around in. As such, rather than them being routinely adorned with such tassels, we can be confident that they were put on the animals just before they were sacrificed. When their time came, the guinea pigs were sometimes deposited as single offerings, and sometimes in pairs or groups. In one case, three guinea pigs were found associated with a little burnt wood, suggesting that fire sometimes played a part in the ceremonies.

Closing operations at Tambo Viejo included the sacrifice of young llamas in Structure 1. These were also adorned with coloured tassels, while sticks with an orange feather were planted in the ground near their eyes. Red lines and a dot were also applied to the faces of the white llamas.

Further information
This research is made possible thanks to funds provided to the author from the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 101 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All images: L Valdez