Marcahuamachuco

“Despite increasing diversity among archaeologists and anthropologists, there is a strong tendency for researchers to have been socialized within a Western social tradition that places a high value on individualism, regards manual labor as unrewarding, and assumes the inevitability of hierarchy in any endeavor involving more than a few people.”

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The above comes from Theresa Topic’s article on Marcahuamachuco, a site in northern Peru which the Global Heritage Fund approved as a project in 2011.  I was there last week to evaluate next steps in the project, and while the greatest challenge lies in the hours I spent bouncing inside an SUV as it bounced off the scattered boulders that pass for roads to, around and on the site, I was still intrigued because the site presents a very unique physical layout.

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I had been told by biased sources that this was “the Machu Picchu of the North” and in many ways it paralleled that more famous (and much more recent) site in its monumentality and dramatic mountaintop setting.  According to the Topics, who began archaeological excavations here 20 years ago, the site dates from around 400 A.D. and unlike Machu Picchu, which was built and abandoned by the Inka in less than a century, Marcahuamachuco does not appear to have significant Inka (or Huari) occupation.

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What it does have are a lot of high walls, in both a circumferential “fortress” wall and a series of round enclosures on the southern end.  These are double walls with clear evidence of occupied stories inside, each story about 8 feet high, making walls of 25 feet in height in several locations.

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These are in stone, not the precisely joined masonry of the Inka but a more practical combination of large and small stones that has some seismic strength.  They reminded me of the round enclosures of the ancient Irish in the Burren and elsewhere, and of course my recent post on round structures.  Now, to be clear, the main structure, which is 5 stories high and labelled the Castillo or Castle, is not round, nor are most of the large buildings in the center of the complex.  Indeed, the northernmost complex are known as the rectangular towers, and these have yielded some interesting votive offerings in the last year.

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work on the torres rectangulares

What first struck me about the site (besides the SUV rollbar, which struck me repeatedly on the way there) were the huge halls that seemed to have been used as hostels or residences – massive rectangular structures reminiscent of the refectories in medieval European monasteries in their layout. This implies less a centralized, authoritarian hierarchy (always the least efficient form of social organization) than a familial federation. Less cult, more culture.

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here you can see where the floor supports are – this is the west wall

So let us return to Theresa Topic’s quote above:  what it appears we have in Marcahuamachuco is a ritual site where people stayed on site in large, likely clan-based structures for extended periods of time, although not permanently.  So, there is an analogy to Irish round enclosures, after all.  These assumptions are based on the amount of arable land in the vicinity, and the like use of certain structures for ceremonial purposes.  But it is the large residential structures which are in many ways the most interesting due to their scale and complexity.

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hearth visible in one of the round enclosures known as Monjas

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the massive west gate

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view from Monjas to western wall

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The site has a 360-degree, commanding view of the entire valley.  It also has some of the ceremonial structures we expect in Peruvian huacas and other sites, mostly in the plaza around the large Castillo building.

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The Castillo itself is intriguing because unlike the segmented masonry of the other structures, it appears to have been built, Bavinger style, in a kind of wrapping masonry spiral. 
Note the linear structure of the Monjas building below.

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The conjecture at this point is that various clan groups operated their own hostleries on the site while staying for some extended rituals.  Burning Man?  Much more research needs to be done, and we are hoping to help the local team – the Unidad Ejecutora de Marcahuamachuco – with mapping and other high-technology solutions to documentation and conservation. 

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Now we just need to get the roads fixed and we can bring tourists to an amazing site that is still waiting to tell its full story!

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