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August 14, 2019

Amazing Then and Now Photographs of Machu Picchu After Excavation in 1911

In 1911 American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham traveled the region looking for the old Inca capital and was led to Machu Picchu by a villager, Melchor Arteaga. Bingham found the name Agustín Lizárraga and the date 1902 written in charcoal on one of the walls.


Though Bingham was not the first to visit the ruins, he was considered the scientific discoverer who brought Machu Picchu to international attention. Bingham organized another expedition in 1912 to undertake major clearing and excavation.
“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead, gigantic precipices of many-colored granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids; it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle.” — Hiram Bingham III
Bingham was a lecturer at Yale University, although not a trained archaeologist. In 1909, returning from the Pan-American Scientific Congress in Santiago, he traveled through Peru and was invited to explore the Inca ruins at Choqquequirau in the Apurímac Valley. He organized the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition in part to search for the Inca capital, which was thought to be the city of Vitcos. He consulted Carlos Romero, one of the chief historians in Lima who showed him helpful references and Father Antonio de la Calancha’s Chronicle of the Augustinians. In particular, Ramos thought Vitcos was “near a great white rock over a spring of fresh water.” Back in Cusco again, Bingham asked planters about the places mentioned by Calancha, particularly along the Urubamba River. According to Bingham, “one old prospector said there were interesting ruins at Machu Picchu,” though his statements “were given no importance by the leading citizens.” Only later did Bingham learn that Charles Wiener also heard of the ruins at Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu, but was unable to reach them.

The ruins of Machu Picchu are covered in jungle growth in this 1911 photograph taken when Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham first came to the site in 1911. (National Geographic)

Today the buildings at Machu Picchu are free of the vines and jungle growth that covered them when Bingham first arrived in 1911. (National Geographic)

Armed with this information the expedition went down the Urubamba River. En route, Bingham asked local people to show them Inca ruins, especially any place described as having a white rock over a spring.

At Mandor Pampa, Bingham asked farmer and innkeeper Melchor Arteaga if he knew of any nearby ruins. Arteaga said he knew of excellent ruins on the top of Huayna Picchu. The next day, 24 July, Arteaga led Bingham and Sergeant Carrasco across the river on a log bridge and up the Huayna Picchu mountain. At the top of the mountain, they came across a small hut occupied by a couple of Quechua, Richard and Alvarez, who were farming some of the original Machu Picchu agricultural terraces that they had cleared four years earlier. Alvarez’s 11-year-old son, Pablito, led Bingham along the ridge to the main ruins.

Bingham returned to Machu Picchu in 1912 with a team to begin excavation of the site, and then briefly visited again in 1915. (National Geographic)

Machu Picchu’s ruins are seen neatly excavated in 1997. The unique beauty and historical importance of the site led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage site in 1983. (National Geographic)

The ruins were mostly covered with vegetation except for the cleared agricultural terraces and clearings used by the farmers as vegetable gardens. Because of the vegetation, Bingham was not able to observe the full extent of the site. He took preliminary notes, measurements, and photographs, noting the fine quality of Inca stonework of several principal buildings. Bingham was unclear about the original purpose of the ruins, but decided that there was no indication that it matched the description of Vitcos.

The expedition continued down the Urubamba and up the Vilcabamba Rivers examining all the ruins they could find. Guided by locals, Bingham rediscovered and correctly identified the site of the old Inca capital, Vitcos (then called Rosaspata), and the nearby temple of Chuquipalta. He then crossed a pass and into the Pampaconas Valley where he found more ruins heavily buried in the jungle undergrowth at Espíritu Pampa, which he named “Trombone Pampa”. As was the case with Machu Picchu, the site was so heavily overgrown that Bingham could only note a few of the buildings. In 1964, Gene Savoy further explored the ruins at Espiritu Pampa and revealed the full extent of the site, identifying it as Vilcabamba Viejo, where the Incas fled after the Spanish drove them from Vitcos.

A local man sits on stairs in the entrance to Machu Picchu in this undated photograph taken by Hiram Bingham. (National Geographic)

The same gateway stairs are cleared of jungle growth and debris in a 2007 photograph. (National Geographic)

Bingham returned to Machu Picchu in 1912 under the sponsorship of Yale University and National Geographic again and with the full support of Peruvian President Leguia. The expedition undertook a four-month clearing of the site with local labour, which was expedited with the support of the Prefect of Cuzco. Excavation started in 1912 with further excavation undertaken in 1914 and 1915. Bingham focused on Machu Picchu because of its fine Inca stonework and well-preserved nature, which had lain undisturbed since the site was abandoned. None of Bingham’s several hypotheses explaining the site held up. During his studies, he carried various artifacts back to Yale. One prominent artifact was a set of 15th-century, ceremonial Incan knives made from bismuth bronze; they are the earliest known artifact containing this alloy.

Although local institutions initially welcomed the exploration, they soon accused Bingham of legal and cultural malpractice. Rumors arose that the team was stealing artifacts and smuggling them out of Peru through Bolivia. In fact, Bingham removed many artifacts, but openly and legally; they were deposited in the Yale University Museum. Bingham was abiding by the 1852 Civil Code of Peru; the code stated that “archaeological finds generally belonged to the discoverer, except when they had been discovered on private land.”

Hiram Bingham at his tent door near Machu Picchu in 1912.

Local press perpetuated the accusations, claiming that the excavation harmed the site and deprived local archaeologists of knowledge about their own history. Landowners began to demand rent from the excavators. By the time Bingham and his team left Machu Picchu, locals had formed coalitions to defend their ownership of Machu Picchu and its cultural remains, while Bingham claimed the artifacts ought to be studied by experts in American institutions.

There are disputes as to whether Bingham was in fact the first to “discover” Machu Picchu, as others have claimed to have been there before, and the native Quechuan people who led him to the city clearly knew it was there. However, he is credited with being the official discoverer of Machu Picchu and bringing the city to the attention of the world.



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