I was asked a year ago by one of the people at Leicester’s web design time, which universities I thought had a good web presence. The first one I mentioned was Vanderbilt. To be honest, I don’t know where Vanderbilt is ((From the history page I eventually found that it’s probably somewhere in Tennessee, but I could look it up on Wikipedia if I cared.)) nor where it sits in the US pecking order, so perhaps it’s not that good, but their website looks slick. They’ve also been putting video on the web. The one above is the very big-brained Anthony Aveni talking about his research at Nazca.
There’s been a couple of interesting posts on the Peru Illness Flap recently. If you haven’t been reading about this, somewhere in the Andes near Lake Titicaca villagers saw a flash of light and heard a bang. They went to investigate and found a crater. They say there was a strange smell and that people are getting ill.
I’d been planning to blog about this when there was more information, so I was pleased to read Hysterical about hysteria on the SciAm blog. A lot of sites have been rubbishing the idea that this was an extra-terrestrial illness, which is fine, but George Musser at SciAm gets it exactly right when he argues that if you want to talk about the incident’s effect on the local people simple Geology isn’t enough. Geology is great when it comes to rocks, but it’s a remarkably poor method to investigate people.
Inca Bridge. Photo (cc) Rutahsa Adventures.
When I wrote the Stonehenge module for the Integrated Sciences course I was reminded of a presentation I’d seen while taking my MPhil, but I couldn’t remember the speaker’s name. It’s John Ochsendorf, as I’ve found out after reading this New York Times story How the Inca Leapt Canyons. Ochsendorf’s work is an example of something where interdisciplinarity is a positive thing rather than a buzzword. In this case his research started at undergraduate level when he looked at Inca bridges.
Bridges are a pretty important part of the Inca road network because so much of the landscape in the Andes is vertical. The Inca bridges were therefore reliable, but to a European eye they were very strange, because the bridges were not built of stone or wood. Instead these were inspired by the first little pig. These were bridges built of grass.
This is a slightly re-written version of a short piece I wrote elsewhere. I’m putting it up here because it tackles a timely problem. What do you do when you want to attract tourist dollars, but keep losing out to that big archaeological site down the road? The citizens of Chucuito saw at the busloads of visitors going to Tiahuanaco and decided to build their own temple. The problem is that Tiahuanaco is pretty impressive so any competition would either have to be equally large, or else something pretty noteworthy.
Chucuito Fertility Temple. Photo by Moonbird.
Welcome to the Inca Ullo temple of fertility.
A researcher investigating Inca sites discovered that twelve years ago the people of Chucuito decided to build their own authentic ruins dating from the 1500s. They then concoted a legend that women would visit the temple to ask for fertility. Twenty four stone phalluses later, they had one killer photo opportunity and thousands of visitors. You can see more photos at Jerry Peek’s site, or Rhymer.net. You might be wondering, “Is this safe for work?” but how unsafe could a temple devoted to penis worship be?
The story made a small splash on the web, with brief notices from Ananova and The Commonwealth Times. The Sun had a bigger story, complete with picture. We can only be thankful the reporter didn’t know that the early 1500s in some parts of Peru is known as the Wanka period. The International Herald Tribune only seems to have picked up the story this spring.
The deception raises some interesting questions about consumption of the past. Is it a fake site? The answer might seem to be pretty obviously yes, but what does it mean for a site to be fake? A lot of the myth surrounding King Arthur is made up. Yet people would accept Glastonbury as a genuine Arthurian site but reject Milton Keynes as having any role in the myth. Surely a lot of Milton Keynes would be explained by an Arthurian curse on the land. The boundary between real and fake isn’t hard and fast when looking at mythic sites, as Cornelius Holtorf noted in an earlier version of this post. Does a myth accrue authenticity with the passing of centuries, or can myths be created today?
I suspect the revelation will only increase visitor numbers because now it’s a ‘controversial’ site. Indeed if Disney made a heartwarming film of plucky villagers building a fake temple to save the local orphanage from closing then it would become even more of a draw. Is this site, and heritage sites in general, selling knowledge or experience? One for Michael Shanks or Cornelius Holtorf I think. For a less post-modern approach to experience there’s the Trireme Veterans for Truth.
The Andes reveal a few more secrets. Photo by Luis Perez.
Meanwhile half a world away there’s news of what might be the earliest known astronomical alignment and sculptures in the New World. The story has been covered by the Columbia Missourian and nobody else. It connects a temple in southern Peru and a figure in the Milky Way. And there’s a twist – this story is plausible.
The Columbia Missourian story has a few oddities in it and I haven’t read Inca archaeology recently so I’m rusty between my ignorance and possible misreporting the story seemed peculiar. Fortunately you can visit the Buena Vista project homepage and also download some of the presentations for the site (in Spanish in a large powerpoint file, but with nice pictures). They’ve found something quite special.
What they’ve found is a temple that barely escaped the attention of
looters procurers of authentic antiquities. It has an axial alignment which looks out to north of west. In the southern hemisphere this is the midwinter sunset alignment. By itself that would be interesting but not something I could get too excited about. If the temple has an axis then it has to point somewhere. The reason why this is more interesting is that they say that this pattern is found in similar temples in the region, which suggests it’s more likely to be deliberate. The truly unusual thing is what you see looking in the other direction. If the horizon was flat you’d see the midsummer sunrise. What you also see is the dark cloud constellation of the Fox.