South America

For the last month or so, I’ve spent one or two days a week leafing through old typewritten letters between collectors and dealers, in an attempt to figure out how the Pre-Columbian objects at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts became part of the museum’s collection. This is for my MA thesis. There’s loads of fun or interesting stuff in these letters, but, since it’s all private correspondence, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it–no matter how outrageous some of the dealers’ pronouncements on the legality of their activities may be.

However, I did find something cool today that’s probably ok for me to share–old-timey Australian anthropologist Henry Ling Roth’s account of how the weird little collection of Pre-Columbian artefacts at Halifax’s Bankfield Museum formed. The Bankfield Museum became a museum in 1887, after having been the home of Edward Akroyd–who, in the nineteenth century, had been Halifax’s foremost woollen and worsted manufacturer. (Halifax is in Yorkshire, by the way, and both woollen and worsted are types of yarn). Roth curated the museum’s collection between 1900 and 1925, and wrote some notes on the museum’s Pre-Columbian material. Without further ado:

At a great Exhibition held in Halifax in the year 1841 there were shown amongst other interesting exhibits, two interesting collections of domestic articles made by the natives of Ancient Peru. They were stated to be belong to a Mr J. Egan, but the name should have been spelt Hegan a member of the Liverpool firm of Hall, Hegan & Co. […] After the Exhibition was over Mr Hegan gave the two collections to the Museum of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society where they remained until the year 1896 when they were transferred with other forgotten relics to Bankfield Museum.

In the Exhibition Catalogue one collection is spoken of as ‘Peruvian Antiquities: Contents of the Tomb of a Cacica, or ancient Peruvian Princess, of the Nation of the Atacames, Found on the Southern Point of the Coast of Peru in the Valley of Sama near the mouth of the River” & consisted of about 30 enumerated articles. The other collection is spoken of as “A Unique series of Sepulchral Urns, Vases, Drinking Cups, Bottles, Paterae, & other domestic Utensils & personal Ornaments, Musical Instruments, etc., discovered in Ancient Tombs in the Valley of Sama, Lacumba, etc., in Peru & also in the Cordillera”, but none of these articles are detailed so that we cannot say whether all the things have come down to us. Strangely enough a large portion of the pottery has been labelled ‘MEXICO’, although it is distinctly Peruvian.

Further on, Roth lists the items from the tomb of the “Andean Princess”:

“A part of the Undergarment of the Cacica.

“The Upper Garment or Shirt without Sleeves.

“The Belt or Faja, worn by the Cacia, & denoting her rank among the aristocracy of the Inca’s dynasty.

“The Thorn of the Cactus, used as a Pin, anterior to the introduction of the Metals, & proving that the interment was prior to the arrival of Europeans.

“The large Kerchief called Andro, in which the Cacica carried her various implements.

“The Spindle & the Sticks forming a Loom for weaving, with the latter of which all woven articles of dress were made. Around the Sticks is a Faja or Belt in a process of manufacture.

“The Hinda or Sling now in use among the Indians of the Cordillera.

“Three instruments for making Fringes.

“Two Vichuntas used for opening the wool of stuffs.

“A smaller Kerchief to hang in front, used as a pocket.

“A Comb called Chucha.

“Spoons of different forms.

“A Wooden Spoon in the process of formation.

“A Wooden Knife used in dancing.

“Workbag of the Cacica, with her spindles etc.

“Balls of Thread found in above workbag.

“A Masorca of Maize entire, found hanging over the head of the Cacica.

“Remains of a fishing net.

“Spices with which the Mummy was found embalmed.

“Remains of net-work.

“Locks of Hair & Leaves found in Paringuita, hung over the Head of the Cacica.

“An Earthen Vase called Ura, found full of Maize.

“Vase or Bottle found full of Chicha.

“The Skull, Hair & Head-dress, & part of the Skeleton of the Cacica.

“A Skull found in the Tomb of the Cacica.’

“A large number of the articles enumerated is missing, as was to be expected, & it is not possible to determine which are some of the things. Then several have been misnamed, or imaginary qualifications given to them. There is no skull with part of the skeleton, but there is a dried head with some skin & hair attached & decorated with the locks of hair – but wooly – as above mentioned. As for the other skull, Whiteley Ward told me more than once that as a boy he & other youngsters used to make a football of it & had no doubt that it had long since been kicked to pieces. The “wooden knife used in dancing” is nothing more than a weavers beater-in.

“There is also a Mummy of which I have been able to find any record except the label which reads as follows: – ‘A Natural Mummy of a Female. Discovered in January 1834, along with seven others, within a cavern, on the mountain of Gamiza, one of the highest passable points of the Andes, in the neighbourhood of Tunja, a city three or four days from Bogota, the capital of New Granada. Presented by Miss Staveley, Springfield’. There was a John Staveley, a South American merchant in the thirties of the last century in Halifax, who was one of the earliest members of the Halifax Literary & Philosophical Society, so it is not improbable that this mummy found its way to Halifax through his business connections with the South American continent.

Oh and let’s not forget

“a Halifax mechanic, Mr C.H. Hitchen, [who] brought home and deposited in the Museum some very crude pottery from the ruins of Huanacho, which he excavated in Mar-June, 1887, & one large urn from the sacred (?) city of Pachachonac on the north coast of Peru, which he purchased in April, 1897.”

There are many reasons why I like this passage–the unrestrained use of ampersands, the copious capitalisation of words, the weirdly compelling list of looted grave goods–but, perhaps most of all, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the haphazard, bizarre and gleefully unethical way that many of the older museums formed. Also I can’t believe they just let kids play football with a crumbling Pre-Columbian skull–was it lack of concern/respect for primitive cultures or people, some forgotten Great Football Shortage that pushed people to desperate measures to enjoy their favourite pastime–or just sheer madness?

As a note: from the website, it does not seem that the Bankfield Museum displays any of these objects any more. Perhaps they still hold them in storage, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pre-Columbian stuff was sold on to art dealers or other museums–it seems likely that a silver llama on display at the Sainsbury Centre used to be on display at Bankfield (Roth describes a similar llama in his notes, and feels compel to explain that a llama is a “native sheep”).

Because we have loads of written accounts of Inca life and history*, we know more about them than we do about any other ancient South American culture. But they were only around for about a 100 years (specifically, from 1438 to 1533)–loads of other equally amazing cultures had developed on the continent, long before the Inca even sheared their first llama.

If they were around today, the Wari would be particularly offended by how little we know about them compared to the Inca, especially as the Wari** did a lot of the things that the Inca usually get the credit for. In other words, they were the ultimate hipster civilisation.

So, what are these things that they did before it was cool?

1. Ruling Peru

The Inca were not the first South Americans to have their own empire–the Wari were there first. It was not as big as the Inca Empire, but it lasted longer–so, though it only covered most of Peru (the Inca ruled over most of Western South America), it lasted about 500 years, between 600 and 1100 AD. And yeah, of course the Spanish invasion is partly to blame for the fall of the Inca, but I think the Empire was on its last legs anyway, so it wouldn’t have lasted much longer than it did anyway.

Like the Inca, the Wari spread their control over vast territories by founding administrative centres wherever they conquered. The Inca used their administrative centres to resettle labor forces, and to host lavish feasts in which said the efforts of said labour forces were rewarded with pints and pints of maize beer. There are some who believe that the Wari used their centres in a similar way, but there’s not much evidence than that, and it sounds a lot like people simply projecting what we know about the Inca onto what we don’t know about the Wari. No doubt, the Wari would have found this quite aggravating.

Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

Wari mummy on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

2. Building Efficient Road Networks

Everybody knows that the Inca built long roads all across their Empire, for the efficient movement and transportation of armies, labour forces, messages, and trade goods (including, famously, fish that was still fresh when it got to the highlands, after a journey that started on the coast). Few, however, know that many of those roads had already been built by the Wari. I don’t think a study has actually been carried out specifically on this topic, but many so-called Inca roads are said to clearly link up Wari centres one to the other, and they often pass through smaller Wari sites, which were probably waystations–like Jincamocco, on the road between the capital, Huari, and the Peruvian coast.

Wari llamas--no doubt among the main species to be led by the Wari along their long, long roads. (These llama-shaped pots are on display at Lima's

Wari llama-shaped ceramic vessels, on display at Lima’s National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and Archaeology.

3. Speaking Quechua

Before the Spanish came along, Quechua was the main language family spoken in Western South America. For a long time, people thought that this was because of the Inca–the Inca were thought to have been Quechua-speakers, who simply made their Quechua dialect their Empire’s official language out of convenience.

However, there are some interesting signs that, in fact, it was the Wari who spread Quechua across Peru–and that the Inca (who may have spoken some other language, such as Aymara) adopted it as an administrative language because it was already so widespread. Simply put, based on the number of Quechua dialects that exist today, and how different they are from one another, archaeologist David Beresford-Jones and linguist Paul Heggarty argue that Quechua dialects are more likely to have spread during the course of the Wari Empire’s 500 years, and then further evolved from that moment onward, than having spread during the 100 years of the Inca Empire, and evolved since then. Also, a map of the traditional distribution of Quechua speakers is remarkably similar to a map of the Wari Empire: they both cover most of the highlands, from Ancash to Cuzco, as well as the South-Central coast, excluding the area north of Lima, and a few isolated pockets around Cajamarca and Viracochapampa.

A map of Quechua's assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

A map of Quechua’s assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a little bit like saying that the Romans didn’t speak Latin to begin with, but had to adopt it because it was already widespread throughout Europe and North Africa when they start expanding their empire. I should say that not all agree with this scenario, but it’s definitely a plausible one.

4. Dystopian Architecture

Long before the twentieth-century graced the world with Soviet architecture, the Wari had already figured out that erecting very big, very ugly, and very standardised buildings was a good way of striking fear and instilling misery in the hearts of the populace.

All Wari administrative centres are made up of one huge rectangular enclosure, with an orderly set of smaller rectangular enclosures inside. The walls of these enclosures are overwhelmingly huge–13 ft (4 m) thick and 30 ft (10 m) tall. They usually surround open courtyards, with mazes of rooms around and between them. Sometimes even the streets that lead from Point A to Point B are walled off. Doors and windows are kept to a bare minimum–indeed, people used to think that the city of Pikillacta had no doors at all, which to led to theories about it having been an ancient prison, or some horrific mental asylum. However, a few decades ago a team of archaeologists led by Gordon McEwan found the city’s elusive doors–simply by digging a bit deeper along the buildings’ walls.

"Welcome to The Grid": the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone

“Welcome to The Grid”: the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone 2012: 148).

(It’s worth saying that the actual Wari capital, Huari, is an absolute mess–the exact chaotic opposite of the administrative centres the Wari dotted all around Peru–which has actually made it very difficult for archaeologists to work on it.)

… and that’s about it for now. I was going to add some more stuff about Wari art, but it doesn’t fit  very well with this theme, so I think I’ll just turn this into a series–so stay tuned for the next post, which will probably include stuff on looting, forgeries, and the illicit trade of antiquities!

In the meantime, if you want to read a bit more about the Wari, check out what’s been written about last summer’s spectacular find of an unlooted Wari tomb at El Castillo de Huarmey, just north of Lima–here and here!

* Courtesy, mostly, of an Inca nobleman named Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a half-Inca named Garcilaso de la Vega, a Jesuit priest named Bernabe Cobo, and a mixed assortment of Spanish mercenaries and missionaries–check out my post on Inca childhood for some of the stuff they wrote!

** They’re also known as Huari–not what they called themselves, but, rather, the modern name of the site where the ruins of their presumed capital lie.


Beresford-Jones, D.P. and Heggarty, P. 2012. Broadening Our Horizons: Towards an Interdisciplinary Prehistory of the Andes. In Heggarty, P. and Beresford-Jones, D. (eds.) Archaeology and Language in the Andes pp. 57-84. New York: Oxford University Press.

Isbell, W.H. 1987. State origins in the Ayacucho valley, central highlands, Peru. In Haas, J., Pozorski, T. and Pozorski, S. (eds.) The origins and development of the Andean state pp. 83-90. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Isbell, W.H. 1988. City and State in Middle Horizon Huari. In Keatinge, R.W. (ed.) Peruvian Prehistory pp. 164-189. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

McEwan, G.F. 1991. Investigations at the Pikillacta site: a provincial Huari centre in the valley of Cuzco. In Isbell, W.H. and McEwan, G.F. (eds.) Huari Administrative Structure: Prehistoric Monumental Architecture and State Government pp. 93-120. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, R.S. 2012. Art of the Andes. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Everybody knows that the Inca sacrificed children to their gods. Just last year, the internet was all over a study suggesting that the mummified corpses of sacrificed children from 15th-century Peru retained traces of alcohol and drugs–often with lurid titles describing the children as “stoned” and “drunk” before dying. A lot of people find the subject of human sacrifice captivating, myself included–perhaps because people enjoy reading about gruesome things (gruesome things, in this case, which actually happened, which must add a certain extra frisson of excitement) while in the relative comfort and safety of their homes or offices. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with that–if they help us understand past cultures, we shouldn’t avoid discussing certain topics simply because they have popular appeal. But, in the case of the Inca, I think all this attention towards child sacrifice has ended up making us forget that there were loads of other children, all across the Inca empire, who were not sacrificed. What was life like for them?

It turns out almost nothing has been written on this subject. With a few notable exceptions, archaeologists tend to neglect children as a demographic. This might be due partly to the fact that Westerners, and therefore Western archaeologists, tend to think of children as carefree beings who do nothing but play all day and whose actions have no consequence on wider social or cultural phenomena. Or, alternatively, they tend to think of children as passive recipients of the cultural norms and rules that their parents, teachers and other elders transmit to them. But children are people, no matter how small or strange they might be, and they have agency, thoughts and opinions about things–which are just as interesting and informative in the study of past cultures as those of adults.

So how do we start trying to figure out what life was like for little Incas*? Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle and Good Government (which is also known by other titles) is probably a good place to begin. Guaman Poma was an Inca nobleman who lived at the time of Spanish rule, and left a written account, in Spanish, of Inca life both before and after the Spanish conquest. The Inca Empire was absolutely massive, and Guaman Poma tells us that one of the ways its rulers tried to control it was by regularly gathering data on its population. Once every six months, officials would be sent to all corners of the empire to perform a census–apparently, each time it took about three days to count all the males in one particular ethnic group, and three more days to count all the females. The numbers would be recorded through a system of knotted strings known as quipu, and which is still largely undeciphered today.

What does this have to do with Inca children? Well, each ethnic group was divided into ten classes. These classes were based on economic productivity and social consequence–so 25- to 50-year-olds came first, 60- to 70-year-olds second, the extremely elderly third, the disabled fourth, 18- to 20-year-olds fifth, and then, successively, teenagers, 5- to 9-year-olds, toddlers, and babies.

Not much use? A toddler (right) and a "playful little boy of five years" (left).

Not much use? A toddler (right) and a “playful little boy of five years” (left) (Poma 2009: 160-161). What kind of object is that boy playing with? It doesn’t look like any toy I’m familiar with. And what of his animal hat? Animal headdresses in other Pre-Columbian cultures are often believed to have something to do with shamanism (i.e. they connect the wearer with some kind of spirit animal), but that was probably not the case here. These and the following drawings were all done by Guaman Poma himself.

This might seem to suggest that children were seen as of no consequence in Inca society, and indeed Guaman Poma only talks about what is done to toddlers and babies, rather than what they do–they are breastfed by their mothers, they are rocked in their cradles and generally taken care of by their parents and elder siblings. And the first thing Guaman Poma says of 5- to 9-year-olds is that they are disciplined by their parents through frequent beatings**. But then, beginning from this age, kids also started gradually accumulating a broad repertoire of skills that would serve them well as imperial subjects.

This drawing depicts a "playful little girl of five", but she's already helping with household (?) chores.

This drawing depicts a “playful little girl of five”, but she’s already helping with household (?) chores (Poma 2009: 176).

Girls would be the first to learn new skills: 9-year-olds probably already knew how to spin thread, gather herbs, and brew beer. Between the ages of 9 and 12, boys would learn to trap birds (whose skin was made into leather, whose flesh was cooked and eaten, and whose feathers ended up ornamenting shields and weapons), while girls gathered flowers in the fields, and used the pigments in the petals to dye the turbans and other precious garments worn by the nobles. Teenage boys would mostly tend to herds of llamas and alpacas up in the higher altitudes, but they would also learn how to use lassoos, traps and slings to hunt and kill animals. Occasionally, they would be picked to serve their betters. Teenage girls were expected to be “submissive and respectful”, to cook and clean, to obey their elders’ orders and stay away from men until they were given one to marry. Apparently, they also kept their hair short and their feet bare.

Flower Picker

A 9-year-old flower-picker (Poma 2009: 175).


A 12-year-old boy herder, carrying birds he probably killed himself (Poma 2009: 157)–possibly after having trapped them in that big net he’s holding? The only context I’m aware of in which similar nets are used is bird- and bat-catching for the purpose of wildlife studies.

Girl herder

Girl herder (Poma 2009: 173): short-haired but not barefoot. And accompanied by a dog. Interesting that Guaman Poma only says that boys herded llamas and alpacas, then shows a 12-year-old girl performing this very thing (while he male counterpart is more interested in bird-trapping).

In order to prepare the boys for war, and the girls for married life, both were kept away from fatty, sugary or greasy food, honey, vinegar, hot condiments, and beer.

The Spanish also left behind a few texts that help us learn more about Inca childhood. A Jesuit priest by the name of Bernabe’ Cobo, in particular, gives us a bit more information on the lives of babies than Guaman Poma does. Cobo tells us that a freezing bath in a mountain’s stream was one of the first things an Inca baby would experience. Soon after, the baby’s head was bound so that it would assume a more attractive shape than boring old usual head shapes. Cone shapes were popular among some highland communities, for example. Four days after the bath, the baby, who had presumably spent those four days naked, was finally wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a cradle. The latter was a small board with four feet, equipped with a blanket for padding and some light restraints to prevent the child from falling off; it was also designed so that the mother could walk around with it strapped to her back.

Guamam Poma's drawing of a baby girl in her cradle.

Baby girl in her cradle (Poma 2009: 180). You can see the bindings around her head, that were meant to shape her cranium in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Freezing baths continued, and the mother would never take the baby into her arms or on her lap, for fear of spoiling her. Once she reached the venerable age of two, the child was finally named, during an elaborate hair-cutting ceremony called the rutuchicoy, which I think is still practiced in certain Andean communities today. The likely reason why people waited so long before naming the child was because infant mortality was so high.

Guamam Poma's drawing of a baby boy.

Baby boy (Poma 2009: 163).

Of course, not all children were the same. A half-Spanish, half-Inca chronicler by the name of Garcilaso de la Vega recalls that boys of noble blood, both Inca and non, went to school in Cusco, the capital, for four years, and there they were taught Quechua (the empire’s official language, still spoken today in some Andean communities), Inca religion and history, quipu accounting, and the proper use of weapons. As for girls, the prettiest ones were taken from their families at the age of ten and sequestered inside so-called Houses of the Chosen Women (aqllawasi). Here, after four years of learning about Inca religion, weaving, cooking and beer-brewing, these “Chosen Women” (aqllakuna) would either go on to become priestesses, or be given as trophy wives to men who had curried the Emperor’s favour. Much work has actually been written on the aqllakuna.

Finally, it’s worth saying that I also found some information on the way illness was cured in kids. Fevers, apparently, were cured by bathing the child in a large pot filled to the brim with the entire family’s urine. And many other diseases were believed to be cured by giving the child his preserved umbilical cord to suck on–the act of sucking would, apparently, ensure that the cord itself would absorb all the evil that the child’s body contained. My source for these two nuggets of information is Terry Deary’s The Incredible Incas, from the Horrible Histories series of books, which unfortunately lack bibliographies, so this last paragraph may not actually be that reliable.

It seems, then, that we actually do know quite a lot about childhood in Inca times, even without archaeology. Should archaeologists bother to try to find out more? I think they should. If we want to find out what children’s lives were like in the past, we should go directly to the children themselves, and not just what adults said about them. And Inca children didn’t express themselves through writing, but through the objects they used in play, and in their household chores, and in their jobs out in the fields. Looking at these objects, both by themselves (the kinds of material they were made out of, how often they were used, how they were decorated, how they were discarded when broken or no longer needed) and within the context of archaeological sites (the kinds of spaces they tend to be found in, whether they were buried with children at death), would give us the closest thing to an insider’s perspective on the lives of children in the Inca Empire.

A potentially interesting question to investigate: can we distinguish slings used by children to trap birds and small animals from those used by adults in hunting and warfare? If so, what could the differences mean? Ancient South American slings are actually a pretty common find in a lot of archaeological sites and museums.

9-year-old hunter (Poma 2009: 158). A potentially interesting question to investigate: can we distinguish slings used by children to trap birds and small animals from those used by adults in hunting and warfare? If so, what could the differences mean?

There’s also the fact that Guaman Poma, and to a large extent Cobo and Garcilaso, both give us a pretty monolithic idea of Inca childhood. The Inca Empire covered a spectrum of languages and cultures, and it seems unlikely that children in all corners of the empire were treated and behaved in the same way. We know some groups were unhappy with Inca rule (for example, the Chachapoya of Peru’s cloud forests), and they may have encouraged rebellion in their children as well, lest they grow up as obedient imperial subjects. And we know some groups were favoured by the Inca (for example, the Chincha of the southern coasts), and it is possible that in many areas of their lives and cultures they were allowed to keep their old customs, which may or may not have included different notions of childhood and children than the ones the Inca had. What is needed here is a comparison of children’s material culture from disparate parts of the empire.

Of course, though I make it sound easy, none of this probably will be. But then, that’s what people used to say about the archaeology of women–there used to be an argument that, because women in the past were often confined to humble, domestic duties, it would be very difficult to “find” them in the archaeological record. Decades later, such a position would be derided–the literature on women’s lives in the past is staggering in its richness and complexity. So I am optimistic that something similar can be done with children’s lives in the Inca empire, as well.

If anyone has any comments or questions–if you know something about Inca childhood, or have seen objects associated with Inca children in museums, or want to know about the stuff I left out (mainly, initiation rituals), or anything else–I’d be very happy to hear from you!


* By which I mean children in the Inca empire–the Inca themselves were simply the dominant ethnic group, and they were in the minority.

** Guaman Poma provides a pretty vivid description of a child’s reaction at the pinching of his ears on the part of long-nailed elders–“the children’s eyes started out of their heads, tears came to them and they cried with the pain”. Guaman Poma also adds that the elders often grew their fingernails to be long and sharp, which would result in the punished children’s ears being pierced side to side. And at one point, Guaman Poma also says that children were flogged at the first disobedience, and sent to the gold or silver mines at the second, but I think he might be referring to very specific circumstances–though it’s not very clear.


D’Altroy, T. 2002. The Incas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Deary, T. The Incredible Incas. London: Scholastic.

Poma, G. 2009. The First New Chronicle and Good Government: On the History of the World and the Incas up to 1615. Translated by R. Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Poma, G. 1978. Letter to a King: A Peruvian Chief’s Account of Life Under the Incas and Under Spanish Rule. Translated by C. Dilke. New York: E.P. Dutton.

In my previous post about Moche sex pots, I summarised who the Moche were, what their sex pots depicted, and some of the early theories about their use and meaning. I concluded with Gero’s (2004) idea that Moche sex pots were metaphors for changing power dynamics within ancient Peruvian society, with dominant men as stand-ins for the rulers, and subordinate women as stand-ins for the “people”.

But Gero’s was not the only the only theory on Moche sex pots that was published in 2004: that year, Mary Weismantel’s “Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America” also came out.

It’s worth repeating that, in Moche sex pottery, vaginal penetration is very rarely represented. Instead, depictions anal sex, fellatio, and the masturbation of skeletons/skeletonised individuals are much more frequent. Often, this is interpreted as suggesting that Moche sex pottery was not concerned with reproduction–for example, Larco Hoyle (1965) suggested that these pots were meant to illustrate birth control methods, while Gero suggested that they were meant to emphasise male pleasure.

Anal sex among the Moche (Gero 2004: 13): a birth control strategy? A metaphor for power dynamics? Or something else altogether?

Anal sex among the Moche (Gero 2004: 13): a birth control strategy? A metaphor for power dynamics? Or something else altogether?

However, Weismantel points out that, for a lot of cultures, in different parts of the world and at different moments in history, vaginal penetration was not thought of as having anything to do with reproduction. For example, when interviewed by Polish anthropologist Malinowski in the 1920s, the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, claimed that sex between men and women did not lead to babies: rather, when women bathed, they were somehow impregnated by their ancestors. For the Trobrianders, then, depictions of anal or oral sex would have nothing to do with reproduction, but neither would depictions of vaginal sex.

But there are also cultures in which anal or oral sex are absolutely crucial for reproduction. Among the Sambia of Melanesia, at least until the 1980s, it was thought that “[t]he human capacity to reproduce [was] contained in a scarce, precious, and immortal fluid–visible as semen in men and breast milk in women–that must be physically transmitted from one generation to another” (Weismantel 2004: 497). Therefore, for the human race to continue, Sambia boys had to fellate older men, so that they could then pass the reproductive fluids they so acquired to their future wives. And the neighbouring Kaluli had similar notions about anal sex. For the Sambia and the Kaluli, then, scenes of anal or oral sex, either between men or between men and women, would depict important reproductive activity, despite the fact that they would not lead, biologically speaking, to the meeting of sperm and egg.

Pots depicting anal sex, on display at Lima's Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Pots depicting anal sex, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

But, of course, 1980s Melanesia is a long way away from ancient Peru. Contemporary Amazonian peoples like the Tukanoa, the Barsana and the Wari’ are a bit closer, and though they don’t seem to consider anal or oral sex to be as important as the Sambia and the Kaluli do, they do have similar ideas about the importance of the transferral of vital fluids. Specifically, these cultures believe in “seminal nurture”–that is, it is not the single moment when sperm meets egg that is important for reproduction, but repeated intercourse, as it is through regular infusions of semen from men, and the mother’s own substances, that the foetus is gradually formed.

In sum: if we consider that many cultures don’t consider vaginal intercourse to be important for reproduction, and if some cultures consider that reproduction is all about the transferral of bodily fluids, regardless of the orifice through which they pass, then it makes sense to think that maybe Moche sex pots actually depict acts of reproduction.

Indeed, Weismantel writes that there are pots in which women are shown breast-feeding infants as they are penetrated–suggesting that a link is being made between the vital fluids that the man passes on to the woman, and those that the woman passes on to the infant. Perhaps they were considered to be the same fluids, just as for the Sambia.

And pots depicting women masturbating skeletons may well be showing that the vital fluids that women need to further human existence ultimately came from their long-dead ancestors.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Though I used this photo for the previous post as well, it’s not because it’s the only pot that depicts a similar scene: quite simply, I don’t own the copyright of any other photo of this kind of pottery.

If we consider that only the ruling classes could probably afford to commission such high-quality ceramics, it is possible, then, that Moche sex pots reflected their concern with furthering lineages, producing heirs, ensuring that their family remained powerful, and remained connected to the ancestors’ power, through the generations. Personally, I think that, in light of this idea, it’s particularly interesting that these pots probably accompanied the elite dead to their graves (we don’t know for sure because many were looted rather than properly excavated)–maybe they were meant to indicate that, despite the death of single individuals within a lineage, their descendants lived on, and would produce other descendants, and so on.

I think this is a very cool theory. It’s not without its flaws: for example, pots in which breast-feeding and anal sex co-occur are exceedingly rare, although I think the idea that anal/oral sex could be reproductive for the Moche is still pretty solid without them. Also, as Weismantel herself points out, the words “Moche sex pots” cover such a huge variety of objects that many do not fit very easily with her theory–for example, pots depicting possible venereal diseases, or copulation scenes between animals, or other stuff that looks pretty weird to a modern-day Western viewer like me (below). But this actually draws attention to the fact that just one theory probably would not explain the whole corpus of Moche sex pots: most likely, the Moche themselves thought of sex pots as divided into different categories, each with its own attached meanings and values.

Double penis pot, on display at Lima's Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Double penis pot, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Will I write a Part Three? Perhaps–Steve Bourget has also written some interesting stuff on this topic, and their connection with funerary and sacrificial rituals. But, for now, I will stop here. Next week, I will probably write something about pots that have nothing at all to do with sex, but which archaeologists have to deal with more frequently.

You can download Weismantel’s article here. And, as always, questions, comments and corrections, persnickety or otherwise, are always welcome!

Additional references

Gero, J. 2004. Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reflections. In T. Oestigaard, N. Anfinset and T. Saetersdal (eds) Combining the Past and the Present: Archaeological Perspectives on Society pp. 3-22. Oxford: BAR International Series 1210.

Larco Hoyle, R. 1965. Checcan. Geneva: Nagel.

When people come across Moche sex pots, they tend to find them amusing, or gross, or weird, or titillating. Or something that should be squirreled away in an adults-only section of a museum, lest our children’s innocent eyes be tainted by their frank depictions of anal sex, oral sex, masturbation, huge erect penises, and occasional huge vulvas.

A rare pot that emphasise female genitalia rather than the male equivalent. On display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A rare pot that emphasises female genitalia rather than the male equivalent. On display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

But what if we take them seriously, as objects that can actually tell us something about people’s lives in the past, how they thought about things, and what they valued?

Before continuing, I should say a few brief words on the Moche–they inhabited the North Coast of Peru between about 200 and 850 AD (way before the Inca), they were characterised by high social stratification, and they produced an insane amount of beautiful pottery. Some of this pottery is finely painted with hunting scenes, duel scenes and scenes of ritual sacrifice, as well as stories from mythology. Some of it is shaped to look like agricultural products, animals, warriors, musicians, gods, the faces of prominent individuals, amputees, animal-human hybrids, old men, seashells, mountains, sacrifice victims, labourers, blind people, headdresses, skeletons… and, of course, people having sex.

Not much has actually been written on Moche sex pots–despite the fact that the Moche are very well studied (they’re probably the ancient Peruvian culture we know most about, after the Inca), and the fact that they produced something like 500 of these pots, suggesting sex was very important for them. These pots clearly reflect very different notions of sex and reproduction from ones that prevail in the West, and, because of this, a lot of researchers have had trouble making sense of them.

For example, depictions of vaginal sex are extremely rare. Why? For a very long time, of the main theories out there was that Moche sex pots were meant to encourage birth control, by showing how one might enjoy sex without risking babies (Larco Hoyle 1965: 107-112). However, there’s something unconvincing about the notion that people had to make hundreds upon hundreds of expensive ceramics, just for the Pre-Coumbian equivalent of a Sex Ed lesson.

Oral sex.

Oral sex: a birth control strategy? (Gero 2004: 12)

Another example of the strange stuff you see in Moche sex pots: women masturbating skeletons. Here, for a while many people thought that these pots were supposed to warn men of the dangers of excessive sex (Larco Hoyle 1965: 87-90)–“if you can’t control yourself, this is what happens to you–you stop eating, all your flesh falls off, you’ll just be a bunch of bones with a penis attached”. Perhaps they were meant to warn women too–“say no to your man more often, if you value his health”. Again, the dubious notion that these pots were a sort of ceramic Sex Ed lesson, coupled with ideas about the “dangers” of sex that are suspiciously close to Western ideas of sin and punishment.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine. Update: as one commenter pointed out, the skeleton isn’t passively receiving his companion’ attentions.

These are not the only theories that were proposed about the meaning of Moche sex pots in the twentieth century–but other ones I’ve come across are unconvincingly convoluted (i’m happy to summarise/discuss them in the comments section if anyone is interested). The way people started to look at Moche sex pots changed in the Noughties, with two articles that came out in 2004. I’ll talk about one in my next post on sex pots, and spend the rest of this post discussing the other one.

Joan M. Gero’s “Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reflections” suggests that Moche sex pots were all about power and politics. Gero points out that Moche society was more hierarchical than previous societies in the region, and she suggests that the sex pots may have been used as metaphors to justify or make sense of the new power relations. In her view, Moche sex pots are all about dominance and subordination: because depictions of anal sex and fellatio are so common, while depictions of vaginal sex and clitoral stimulation are very rare and depictions of cunnilingus non-existent, and because women never seem to be having much fun in these scenes (Gero even suggests that their participation in them may be “forced or commanded”), Gero suggests that the Moche are using these pots to say something like “even in the most intimate of relationships, there is one who gives pleasure, and one who receives it”. This message that may well have been used to justify or make sense of the rule of the few over the many. In other words, women in Moche pots may be stand-ins for “the people”, while men may represent the rulers–the former are meant to do all the hard work and get little in return, while the latter are meant to get all the pleasure and give little back.

I’m not entirely convinced by this theory. It’s true that depictions of vaginal sex and clitoral stimulation are very rare, and depictions of cunnilingus non-existent. BUT.

The one example I could find of what looks like clitoral stimulation in a Moche pot. On display at the Museo Larco, Lima.

The one example I could find of what looks like clitoral stimulation in a Moche pot. On display at the Museo Larco, Lima. Photo mine.

For one thing, it’s often very difficult, in Moche pottery, to tell what exactly the people depicted are feeling–sometimes there are obvious frowns, or smiles, but most of the time facial expressions appear to be neutral. This goes for sex pots as well: the women don’t seem to be having much fun, true–but, usually, neither do the men (below). There are a few rare cases in which men are shown to be enjoying being fellated, but then there are also a few rare examples of women smiling while they masturbate their partner.

She doesn't seem to be enjoying it, but neither does he. This is just one of many examples I could have chosen.

She doesn’t seem to be enjoying it, but neither does he. This is just one of many examples I could have chosen. (Gero 2004: 14).

Secondly, who says that anal sex or fellatio can’t give pleasure to women? As far as I am aware, they both can, and, in any case, though it may well have a biological basis, “pleasure” is also often influenced by culture. In other words, if in some societies things that are thought of as delicious to eat can be thought of as disgusting by others, then the same should apply to sexual practices.

However, when you compare Moche sex pots with Recuay sex pots, which is what Gero does, the Moche do seem to be much more hierarchical about intercourse. The Recuay were the Moche’s neighbours in the highlands, and their sex pots seem to emphasise complementarity and equal interaction between sex partners. For example, by showing the man and the woman sitting in front of one another, rather than showing one on top of the other. Or by using two-chambered pots to depict sex scenes (below): one chamber (usually the one in the shape of the woman) was used to filled the pot with liquid, the other (usually the man’s) to pour it out. This suggests that both chambers (both man and woman) are needed for the pot (and therefore society?) to function.

Two-chambered Recuay sex pot, in which the male bit has a spout and the female bit has the side in which you fill up the vessel.

Two-chambered Recuay sex pot, in which the male bit has a spout and the female bit has the side in which you fill up the vessel (Gero 2004: 7)

Still, I think the other article that was written in 2004 offers a more persuasive answer to the question “why all the anal sex?”–but for that, you will head over to Moche Sex Pots, Part Two.

Meanwhile, you can download and read Gero’s full article here.

Additional References:

Larco Hoyle, R. 1965. Checcan. Geneva: Nagel.

NB Some of these images may appear to depict men having sex with men. However, it appears that, if one actually looks closely at these pots, the who is penetrated/the one who fellates is actually equipped with a vulva.

Since seeing it some time in October, I’ve been raving to almost everyone about the British Museum’s current exhibition, Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC - 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC – 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

For one thing, it’s a selection of artefacts that cannot fail to cause wonder in visitors. A necklace made out of gold-covered jaguar claws! A jaguar with a parasol (left)! A minuscule, grinning bat-man creature with a pair of wings that looks like an impossibly elaborate hairdo! Wonder is so incredibly important for this sort of thing–people talk about the way sex is often used to grab people’s attention, but sheer wonder is just as effective at ensnaring the public–and ensuring that they stick around long enough that they actually end up learning something about whatever it is they’re feeling wonder for. I remember one of my teachers in school giving us this piece of advice: whenever you’re studying something, and it’s starting to get a bit boring, the best thing to do is to think “wow, that’s amazing!” at the end of each sentence. Pretty soon, your mind starts thinking that the stuff you’re reading actually is amazing, and the information sticks to your brain much more easily. It does work!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he's chewing the coca leaves!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he’s chewing the coca leaves!

It’s not just because the objects are made of gold that they are spectacular. In fact, I was a bit worried, before going, that the exhibition would be too “bling”: that is, that it would focus too much on shiny stuff and how shiny it is, and de-emphasise both the people that made and used the shiny stuff, and all the other non-gold things they made and used and valued as well. Instead, there are loads of beautiful ceramics, and a whole room whose main message is “it wasn’t all about gold for ancient Colombians, here’s some stuff that was equally if not more important”–such as feathers, textiles, and animal matter. And as for the ancient Colombians themselves, it seemed to me that the curators chose exactly the right objects to give a strong sense that there were living, breathing, squishy humans behind all the bling and jewellery: a disarmingly lifelike ceramic sculpture of a man chewing coca leaves (right), a big fleshy nose adorned with a huge bull-ring emerging from a funerary urn as if the urn itself were still haunted by the spirit of its occupant, a small gold effigy of a man removing a mask from his face… Of course, it’s also possible that this is just my overactive imagination, combined with the fact that the message “we study things in order to get to people” was so strongly inculcated in me at University, that I’m always pushing myself to imagine the human context within which the stuff I see in museums was originally used. In other words, I’m not sure if anyone else, who doesn’t study the same sorts of things as me, would also get such a strong sense of the people behind the artefacts.

Mannequins at Lima's Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

Mannequins at Lima’s Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

The only real criticism I had to make about the exhibition was that the curators could have used mannequins like the ones they have at Lima’s Museo Larco (left), or at least small illustrations next to captions, to show people how exactly the jewellery on display was worn: without explanations like these, it was a bit difficult to figure out, at least for some of the pieces.

However, the other day I came across a critique of the exhibition that made me reconsider my extra-positive opinion. It is titled “Not far ‘Beyond El Dorado’: Grumblings about the British Museum, Colombian gold, and looting in public display”, and it appeared on Donna Yates’s wonderfully named blog about looting, antiquities trafficking and art crime, Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector. I don’t agree with everything Yates says: I don’t agree that people will learn little from it, or that it’s all about gawking at gold, and I certainly don’t agree that the exhibition will do more to encourage the El Dorado myth than to dispel it. If anything, my feeling was that the curators designed the exhibition to give visitors a smug sense of superiority towards the sixteenth-century adventurers hunting for the mythical golden city: the exhibition starts by explaining how all the early explorers really cared about was gold, and how they couldn’t care less about what the objects that were made out of it meant to the people who made them; then, by shrouding the following rooms in darkness and filling them with a not-too-cheesy “jungle noises” soundtrack, they make you feel like you’re the one discovering these things for the first time, but doing it right, by also reading the captions and learning about the objects’ original cultural contexts. You could easily argue that there is no substance to this, that no way is an exhibition like this going to make up for all the wrongs suffered by indigenous South Americans by the hands of Europeans, that it’s just hollow easing of Colonial Guilt, and I would agree with you, but I do think that it does at least encourage people to reject the myth of El Dorado from the very start.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

As for the stuff about shamans (right) being “crap”, I don’t know that much about ancient Colombians, so I can’t comment, although I’m aware of so many other instances of the illegitimate use of the word “shaman” by archaeologists (might write a post about this soon), that it wouldn’t surprise me too much if Yates was right in rolling her eyes at that part of the exhibition. And I didn’t notice all the inconsistencies she noticed regarding the different culture groups the objects belonged to–though there is a map at the beginning of the exhibition with the main culture groups, apparently it doesn’t mention many that are subsequently mentioned in the captions.

But I think Yates’s most important point is that the British Museum completely neglected to talk about the matter of looting. Almost all the objects on display do not come from legitimate archaeological excavations, but from looting. Their legal status is not in question, as they were bought or seized by the Colombian government, and they are now usually on display in Bogotá’s Museo del Oro, rather than in some anonymous Swiss collector’s mansion. But looting is a huge problem people should know more about. For one thing, because it means we don’t know where exactly the objects comes from (not just in terms of geography, but also in terms of stratigraphic layers, as well as in terms of structure–for example, an ancient trash pit as opposed to a pottery workshop), we will never know for sure what they were used for, why/whether they were important for people in the past, and often even what time period they’re from (I don’t know if you noticed, but most of the objects I’ve drawn have extremely vague dates–600-1600 AD for the ceramic figure, for example). This assuming the object, like the ones at the El Dorado exhibition, end up in a museum, rather than someone’s private collection, where they will often be unavailable for study. Moreover, because looted objects have a tendency to be sold to tourists or smuggled out of their original country, they deprive the latter not only of its cultural heritage, but also of the possibility of, for example, creating a museum of local history and prehistory, with which to attract more visitors to the country.

How would I tackle the problem of looting, if I were a curator? A good idea might be to replace captions that tell you what we know about the objects, with captions that tell you what we don’t know about them, and may never know about them, because of looting. Of course, this emphasises the problem that looting represents to archaeologists, rather than the one it represents to source countries.

But one or two panels on looting would also work fine. If the El Dorado exhibition had some, they would fit quite well with the theme of “we moderns have enlightened attitudes towards these objects, early explorers were just greedy”, by turning it on its head, and showing that greed towards these things is alive and well in the modern age. If placed at the end, this might have had a particularly powerful effect, as visitors would have just spent an hour or so patting themselves on the back for all the un-greedy learning they were doing, and how much better Europeans like themselves are towards Colombians now.

But there were no such panels, and so an excellent opportunity to get people thinking about looting and antiquities trafficking was lost. Hopefully, similar exhibitions in the future will not make the same mistake, although it’s likely that many will.

I don’t want to discourage people from seeing the exhibition (which will run until 24th March 2014)–as I said, there are a lot of amazing things on display, and I do think it’s possible to learn something from it. But be aware of the issues I’ve highlighted, and think–how would you have talked about looting, if you’d been one of the curators? and why don’t they talk about it?

For more about looting from this blog, check out my post on ransacked Pre-Columbian cemeteries in Peru.

If, dear readers, you’ve seen this exhibition and would like to share any thoughts about it, even if they don’t have anything to do with anything I’ve written, I’d be very glad to hear someone else’s opinion!

Suggestions for further reading

Donna Yates’ aforementioned blog, and her page on the Trafficking Culture project website, are highly, highly recommended.

Ollantaytambo. All those terraces were used for cultivating food for the gods. On top, it's mostly temples and altars. There's also some cool stuff at the bottom of the terraces--mostly elaborate and still-working waterworks. Photo mine, just like all the other ones accompanying this post.

Ollantaytambo. All those terraces were used for cultivating food for the gods. On top, it’s mostly temples and altars. There’s also some cool stuff at the bottom of the terraces–mostly elaborate and still-working waterworks. Photo mine, just like all the other ones accompanying this post.

The Inka site of Ollantaytambo, not far from Cusco, has all the usual stuff you find in well-preserved Inka sites–agricultural terraces, impressive waterworks, the occasional natural rock whose shape recalls the Inka Emperor’s profile, large structures for storing food, altars and temples and trapezoidal niches in walls for offerings to the gods, and of course the walls themselves, those amazing Inka walls in which all the stones fit together so wonderfully that they have survived all the earthquakes that have shaken the land in the last several centuries. All really cool stuff, and I would definitely recommend a visit, but, in a sense, same old same old.

What I mean to say is that I couldn’t really connect with Ollantaytambo the same way I connected with Machu Picchu, or Saqsayhuaman, near Cusco. Or even ancient and medieval places closer to home: Stonehenge, for example, whose huge stones, which I was able to experience up close on an archaeology fieldtrip four years ago, completely blew my mind with their size and age. Or this tiny, obscure Medieval church in Bologna (Italy), part of the Seven Churches complex, which feels like you’ve just missed, by a matter of minutes, its congregation of golden-bearded and -tressed people, with their funky helmets and animal pelts. (I’m thinking Middle Earth-type Rohirrim here, by the way, not so much actual ancient inhabitants of the city).

ScatterBut Ollantaytambo clearly feels alive to someone, in the same way in which Stonehenge, or that little church, feel to me. As you can see in the above photo, the site rests on the slopes of a hill, and I decided, after my guided tour ended, to climb the hill, as far up and as far beyond the ruins as possible. And it was by doing so that I came across what I can only imagine is a modern-day offering–this vast collection of old polaroids, scattered all over the weird high-altitude vegetation, sometimes almost melted into clumps or bleached almost completely white by the sun’s rays. There were so many of them, every time I thought I’d seen the last one I’d climb a bit further and find more. A closer look revealed that they were all pictures of the same person: a child, which then grew up into a handsome teenager, shown riding his skateboard, smiling, making faces, and so on. And each photo was marked with a large-ish golden sun.

P1050441It was simultaneously spooky and compelling. Part of me was uncomfortable with the discovery–it felt a bit too much like intruding into someone’s private life and beliefs. Part of me feels uncomfortable writing about this in a blog that anyone can find online–in fact, if anyone’s reading this who is planning to visit Ollantaytambo, please don’t remove any of the polaroids from the site, if you decide to look for them.

Was the person who left the polaroids at Ollantaytambo symbolically sacrificing their own son? or were they symbolically sacrificing their own childhood? or what? and why?

SkateIt seems a fairly common practice, in Peru, to leave offerings to ancient monuments. At Saqsayhuaman, the keen-eyed visitor will be able to observe coca leaves left at the foot of massive Inka walls, or scattered, here and there, on the floor of a (now dry) artificial pond. And I’ve heard that, at an excavation that was going on in parallel to my own this summer, when one of the volunteer diggers fell ill, some thought it was because an offering had not been made to the site itself. These are the modern-day remnants of the Pre-Columbian belief that certain places, including both human-made structures and natural formations, possess a kind of life force that makes them a bit like gods. These places are known as huacas.

A fossilised Inka spirit?

A fossilised Inka spirit?

The polaroids completely altered my experience of Ollantaytambo. I was suddenly acutely aware of how alone I was atop the hill: the surrounding towns and fields had shrunken to abstract geometric patterns way down below me, and most of the other tourists probably didn’t even know you could go where I was. It was just me and the sun and the huaca. And the Andean vegetation, which, as I mentioned above, is fairly weird–it kind of looked, I realised, like underwater vegetation, only several meters above sea level, and variously dried, scorched, or bleached by the sun. Turquoise moss, little phosphorescent-like green tufts, dark-red tendrils creeping out of cracks between rocks, starfish-like purple and white things, pale cacti like those tube-like organisms that thrive in the deepest recesses of the ocean, and so on. And there was the occasional stump that looked a bit like it had a face (left), and someone, presumably previous visitors, had left stone circles and piles of stones, which, if I’d been a superstitious Medieval peasant, at that point I’d not have hesitated to attribute to gnomes and/or faeries.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. Maybe it’s that, to truly understand a site, it’s not sufficient to learn what every single thing in it is, but you have to experience the site–the place–at some deep, visceral level as well. After all, it is most likely that the ancient inhabitants didn’t think of the place as temple+altars+terraces+waterworks+etc., but thought of it, simply, as Ollantaytambo, or Stonehenge, or Machu Picchu, places with their particular meaning and atmosphere and energy.  It feels like an obvious thing to point out, though maybe it isn’t–in fact, I think it is easy to forget this when you’ve taken a million tours of ancient sites and you start thinking of them as collections/combinations of the different spots/structures/objects that are deemed noteworthy enough to merit a little speech by the guide. However, if there are readers out there who have been inspired to think very different thoughts by this piece, I’d love, as always, to hear them in the comments section below!

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