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Athena Review Exhibition Reports: 

Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas

Yale University, New Haven, CT  (January 26 - May 4, 2003, and permanent exhibit after Feb. 2005)

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (June 22 -September 7, 2003) 

Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh (October 18, 2003 - January 4, 2004)

Denver Museum of Nature and Science (February 13 - May 9, 2004) 

The Houston Museum of Natural Science (June 12 - August 29, 2004) 

Field Museum in Chicago (October 8, 2004 - February 1, 2005).

For almost 500 years, the ruins in the shadow of the mountain Machu Picchu lay forgotten, hidden amongst the arid steep cliffs of the Andes in an oasis of humidity and lush vegetation (fig.1). The region had been inaccessible to most, until the early 20th century, when the Peruvian government built a road through the area. Then, in 1911, Hiram Bingham III, who was already a seasoned explorer of South America, set out to find the city of Vilcabamba (also known as Vitcos), the Inca’s last refuge from the invading Spaniards, which was not taken by them until 1572 (see Deyermenjian, this issue).   Bingham and his team, known as the Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition (YPSE), were sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society, along with Bingham’s family and Yale classmates. The team was multidisciplinary, which was unusual at the time, and included an archaeological engineer, an osteologist, a naturalist, a geologist, a topographer, a mountain-climbing engineer, and a surgeon. Bingham himself was not a trained archaeologist, but rather a historian knowledgeable about the Spanish Colonial period. His interest in finding the “lost city” of the Incas had been piqued during an earlier South American expedition, when he was persuaded by a local official to help investigate Choqqequirau, which Bingham concluded was probably a frontier fort, not the Inca’s final stronghold (see AR 1,3 p.76-78).

Bingham’s July 24, 1911 rediscovery of the site at Machu Picchu, only weeks after beginning his search, was followed by three seasons of excavation in 1912, 1914, and 1915. This was not the historical Vilcabamba he was seeking, but the site’s fine architecture and grand vistas suggested it held some importance for the Inca. The finds recovered in the first season were sent back to Yale and have remained in the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. Materials from the subsequent investigations have since been repatriated to the Peruvian government. The Yale collections, barely displayed or studied for decades, have been the recent focus of scientific analysis, and now the subject of a major new exhibit funded by, among others, the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The exhibition, the largest on the Incas ever assembled in the US, combines traditional artifact cases with innovative and interactive displays. It aims to rectify Bingham’s romantic images of Machu Picchu, such as that of the mountain-top spiritual center populated in its last years by “Virgins of the Sun.” The visitor learns about the history of the YPSE and about Tahuantisuyu, the empire of the Incas, and its reflections in the Machu Picchu finds. One also receives a sample of the current methods in archaeological analysis used to identify the true nature of the complex, now believed by experts to have been a royal estate, a summer retreat from the Inca capital of Cuzco.

[Fig.1: View of Machu Picchu as first discovered in 1911, before being cleared (Photo: H. Bingham; Yale Peabody Museum).

The exhibit opens and closes with the theme of the continued expression of Inca culture in the Andes region. As an introductory film notes, for many “the past is still present,” evident in subsistence practices (like terrace agriculture; fig.1), material culture (textiles), and ritual observances (solstice celebrations). Decorative art techniques continued into the colonial period, and Quechua, the Inca language, is still spoken today by millions of traditional people.

At the conclusion of this first short video, the screen rises revealing a door, behind which lies the rest of the exhibit. Here we see Hiram Bingham himself (in a life-size diorama) preparing to photograph an excavation in progress. The excavation methods of the YPSE were, in some ways, far ahead of their time. For instance, the project directors, George Eaton and Ellwood Ellis, collected, and Bingham chose to catalog findings (such as small bones, lithics, metals, and ceramics) usually discarded by contemporary archaeologists in favor of more spectacular objects. It was this original careful gathering of materials, according a recent volume edited by the co-curators of the present exhibit (Burger and Salazar 2003), that has allowed recent detailed analysis of the Peabody collections. As an exhibit signboard points out, however, the excavators did not record stratigraphy or the precise location of each find, practices that had already been widely adopted.

Fortunately, though, Bingham photographed meticulously throughout the expedition, amassing 11,000 pictures. Among the items exhibited in this area is a letter from Mr. Eastman of the Eastman Kodak company remarking on Bingham’s mention of his borrowed Kodak in a 1913 Harper’s Monthly article and tentatively promising use of the equipment for the following season. Regretfully, though, the main display of these photographs is only a binder of about twenty pages. Pachacuti, the first imperial ruler of the Incas, built Machu Picchu in about 1450. Entrance into the next room transports the visitor, along an ancient Inca road, to the Andean mountain tops and the royal country retreat of the Sapa Inca (emperor). On one wall is a modern panoramic photograph of the site, while the other walls are replicas of Inca-style temple architecture (molded specifically for this exhibit from a Cuzco temple). Minimally labelled artifacts in this room, displayed in window niches and along the center axis of the long narrow space, are listed mostly as “provenience unknown,” and are amassed from the Peabody’s own collections, along with loans from various museums and private collections.

This area displays beautiful, delicate, and intricate examples of both urban Inca metalwork and the provincial (but still complex) Ica style native to the Peru’s south coast. Quite striking, though, is a large ceramic vessel, which was used to store chicha, the Andean corn beer still drunk today. The pot, nearly one meter tall, is covered with life-size, three-dimensional representations of spondylus shells caught in a net. This spiny oyster shell has a distinctive deep, dark pink color and is found in the warm Pacific waters off the coast of Ecuador. The spondylus held ritual significance among Andean cultures for thousands of years as a symbol of the female aspect of fertility and a favorite food of the gods.

An informative video site tour, starring co-curators Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar, and a scale topographic model of Machu Picchu welcome the visitor in an adjacent room. As the two discuss the various parts of the complex, a light system illuminates the corresponding area on the model, allowing one to become familiar with the site’s layout. This feature is accompanied by 1930s aerial photographs and modern satellite images illustrating the contrast between the fertile lushness of the localized environs of Machu Picchu and the arid vastness of the surrounding region. Inca textiles and quipus (strands of knotted yarn) are highlighted in the next group of rooms. While the Inca did not have a writing system, quipus, which were used at least since the Middle Horizon (AD 500 - 900) by the Huari empire, served the bureaucratic purpose of counting, recording, and transmitting information about such things as crops, people, and their movements. In another life-size diorama contained within a replica thatched roof house, a government official carries a quipu to the Sapa Inca, who is attended by a servant. All wear colorful textile ponchos. Although this diorama has been enthusiastically promoted in the exhibition’s press release, the image of the Inca ruler was not overly impressive, as he is distinguished from the agent and a servant only by a short haircut, large gold ear discs, and golden sandals.

As previously mentioned, the Yale collections contain materials from the 1912 season, when Eaton and Ellis excavated over 100 burials outside of the main complex. The artifacts from these burials are displayed (along with some loans) in the main gallery of the exhibit. Here, and in the next room dedicated to the recent scientific analyses of the materials, the visitor learns more details about the new interpretation of Machu Picchu.

The human skeletal evidence has suggested to physical anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University that the residents of Machu Picchu were mixed in age and sex. Eaton, the 1912 project osteologist, had identified 109 females and 26 males. Bingham used this to back up his theory that the last residents of Machu Picchu included a preponderance of Virgins of the Sun or “Chosen Women,” who wove and mixed chicha for the imperial family (Bingham 1948:190). Verano, using more accurate comparative data, identifies 60 female and 39 male burials). Based on this and other evidence, the burials are now thought to represent the artisan-class servants and caretakers of the Sapa Inca’s country palace.

For instance, many of the artifacts found within the burials are associated with metal-working, and in fact, there is evidence, including tools and slag, that specialist metal craftsmen worked at Machu Picchu. Verano remarks further (in a video) that the skeletons do not show signs of hard labor, suggesting to him that these people did not build the structures, but worked in some other capacity. The skeletal and material remains reflect the diversity of Machu Picchu’s population. Eaton had correctly identified an ethnically diverse mixture of physical types including natives from both coast and highland (Verano 2003:65). Cranial modification (both intentional and not) was common in the Andes. Several skulls from the site - including one on display accompanied by a facial reconstruction - showed the annular deformation characteristic of the Lake Titicaca region (Bolivia) and other highland dwellers, in which the forehead slopes backward in a distinctive oblong shape; some showed occipital flattening ascribed to Peru’s central and northern coast; and most showed no deformation at all. The pottery found at the site tells a similar story. Even someone not familiar with Inca decorative style will readily note the geometric black, white, and red designs on their pottery (fig.2). Regional styles found at Machu Picchu, and exhibited here, are a group of very shallow bowls from the Lake Titicaca area (radiating lines and dots) and the northern coastal region of Peru (black-on-white fish-scale-like design).

The artifacts in the main gallery are numerous and impressive: metal objects, like shawl pins (tupus) and knives; stone artifacts, including several in the shape of a llama; and ceramics, especially vessels for storing and drinking chicha. Unfortunately, they are sparsely labeled, the labels themselves are sometimes hard to read, and the artifact displays are somewhat overshadowed by more innovative and high-tech aspects of the exhibit. For instance, the visual focus of this main gallery is yet another life-size human model. This time we see a “metal-worker,” and the figure is rather non-descript. As one of the publicized focal points of the exhibition, namely the first-time display of many of these objects, this area of the exhibit is rather disappointing, particularly in the lack of careful labelling and explanation of the artifacts. Three interactive stations, which allow a virtual tour of the Machu Picchu site are certainly the most innovative features of the exhibit. With an aerial view map as the starting point, the visitor can select which area of the complex to explore. Navigation through the site is accomplished with a mouse-like device, allowing 360-degree panoramic views and controlled movement through structures. Expert analyses are available in select areas, and one can “excavate” objects in others.

[Fig.2: Inca effigy jar from Machu Picchu (photo: Yale Peabody Museum).]

The penultimate area of the exhibit highlights the recent analysis of the 1912 burials with a video featuring the research of Salazar on the associated artifacts; George Miller of California State University, Hayward, on the associated faunal remains; Robert Gordon of Yale University on the metal objects; and Verano on the human remains. This video, one of four in the commonly used cable TV documentary style, contains detailed information on the data used to support the interpretation of Machu Picchu as a royal retreat. All of the videos, except one showing a reenactment of the solstice celebration, prominently feature the co-curators. This fact, like the exhibit’s heavy reliance on high-tech media, gives the sense that the curators’ primary concern was the presentation of their interpretations of the Machu Picchu finds, drawing attention away from the artifacts themselves.

Finally, the “Epilogue” illustrates the continued influence of Inca culture with objects and paintings of the Peruvian Colonial Period (17th and 18th centuries), including ceramic and gold drinking cups and one colorful textile. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit (Feb 11, 2003), the exhibition catalog was not available. As consolation, the previosly mentioned volume edited by Burger and Salazar is available. The book contains papers on Machu Picchu’s human and faunal remains: Miller on faunal analysis, Verano on human skeletal analysis, and Burger and others on stable isotopic analysis of the human remains. Though the methods for the studies are strictly scientific, the papers are informative, interesting, and well illustrated, and all three will engage the individual with a general interest in Peruvian prehistory, as well as the professional archaeologist.


Bingham, H. 1948. Lost City of thre Incas: The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders. Reprinted in 1969 as Atheneum 33. Forge Village, Mass.: The Murray Printing Company.

Burger, R.L. and L.C. Salazar (eds.). 2003. The 1912 Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition Collections from Machu Picchu: Human and Animal Remains. Yale University Publications in Anthropology 85. New Haven, Connecticut: Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.

Burger, R.L. 1992. Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Guamán Poma de Ayala, Felipe. [1615]. Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno (Codex Péruvien Illustré). Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, 1936. [1178 pp.] (Université de Paris, Travaux et Mémoires de l’Institut d’Ethnologie 23.)

From Athena Review, Vol.3,no.4. Written and Researched by Kathleen Brody.

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