Patterns on the Pampa: Secrets of the Nazca Lines

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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.

Making sense of meteorites

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Were-llama
A were-llama?

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.
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Inca Bridges

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Inca Bridge
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.
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Creating Myth

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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.

Inca? Temple
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 Temple of the Fox

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Andes
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.
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