July 24: Finders, Keepers

2016/07/24 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1911 Hiram Bingham III ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu.

Of course that is a silly thing to say.  The place Bingham dubbed the “Lost City of the Incas” was never lost, it sat there right where it had all along.  It’s the Incas who were lost.  Archaeologists know they vanished from this site in the mid-sixteenth century, about one hundred years after they built Machu Picchu.  What happened to them is a mystery.  (We suspect the Spanish.  Or a dread disease.  Or a dread Spanish disease.)

The city they left behind is a wondrous thing, a sprawling collection of 150 or so structures–some small, some big; some sacred, some residential.  Machu Picchu was likely a country retreat for urban elites who enjoyed life in this remote place among the mountains, living in fine masonry structures joined by intricate waterways, pools and fountains, scattered across some of the most amazing real estate on the planet.

Surely that rugged terrain helped guard the city first from the invading Spanish, and later from the occasional European (and later North American) missionary-naturalist-treasure-hunter-explorer, at least until the twentieth century.  Locals knew there was something special up there, and in 1911 one of them led Hiram Bingham III, a historian from Yale, to it.  Although at 1910s Yale the tenure process was rather different than it is in most places today (just having a name like Hiram Bingham III was probably credential enough), Bingham would have been a shoo-in with this ‘discovery’ and the resultant books and loot that he swiped from Peru and took back to the university museum.  During a few archaeological expeditions, he studied the site in detail and, just for safe keeping, mind you, ferried away loads of silver, ceramics, jewelry, even human remains to New Haven.

Pretty soon thereafter Peru asked for its stuff back.  And asked, and asked, and asked.  Claiming the artifacts were safer in the States, Yale refused to return the relics until quite recently.  It took several years to work out an agreement before the first crates were shipped to Peru in 2011.  One wonders to what extent Yale’s decision was based on the moral imperative to repatriate the goods, or the negative press  surrounding the controversy that began to tarnish their brand name.

In any event, even as a portion of the collection is returned home, attention needs to shift to the stability of Machu Picchu itself.  The settlement, which was probably populated by fewer than 1,000 people, now hosts over 400,000 tourists annually, which could pose more lasting damage to the memory of the Incas than the original plundering.

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