After all the excitement of the Poetry Festival, am now off to a series of gatherings of a very different sort: a conference at the British Museum on Peruvian ushnus, the raised platform structures often found in the centre of Inca plazas or on hill tops.
This may seem a slightly esoteric subject, but the ushnus are both at the centre of the Inca world and yet surprisingly little understood. As one of the speakers plaintively noted, the Spanish chroniclers of the time did little to describe them.
One thing is immediately apparent: Andeanists, like poets and indeed like Incas, tend to celebrate their gatherings with many libations – at a party held by the Peruvian ambassador, the pisco sours were flowing freely and only copious amounts of black coffee provided by the British Museum allowed attendees to focus on the complex astronomical siting of the ushnus, which at sites like Huánaco Pampa are aligned to solstice and equinox risings of the sun.
My own interest comes from work we have carried out at Llactapata, with on-site help from Tom Zuidema (the keynote speaker at this conference), which has buildings which are similarly aligned to the sunrises of both solstices – see The full report on the expedition. There is also a large ushnu-style raised platform structure measuring some 60 feet by 40 feet, enclosed by a five feet high retaining wall – which like almost everything else to do with ushnus needs more investigation, but is the only known ushnu from which Machu Picchu is clearly visible. With an alignment of 110 degrees, the platform is orientated almost dead on the December solstice line for the rising sun. Read more…
There’s nothing as seductive as new technology, particularly in the world of archaeology. Some years ago I co-led an expedition that expended an inordinate amount of energy using a thermal imaging camera. We flew over the cloud forest near Machu Picchu to determine the full extent of the nearby site of Llactapata, at a cost of $1000 per hour for the plane, let alone for the camera. Its infra-red vision was supposed to be able to detect the difference in temperature between stone buildings which retain heat, and vegetation which does not. By using it, we hoped to be able to see through the cloud-forest to any ruins below the canopy – the archaeological equivalent of those X-Ray specs sold in schoolboys’ comics to look through women’s skirts, and in the event about as successful.
We ended up going into the forest on foot and looking in the more traditional manner, with machetes, frustration and a great deal of sweat. (The full story is told in Cochineal Red for those interested.)
But an even newer technology has come along that sounds rather more effective: lidar (‘light detection and ranging’). Gamers have used it to create virtual reality sites for some time. Now the husband-and-wife team of Arlen and Diane Chase have adapted it at Caracol in Belize to penetrate the jungle cover and create 3-D images of one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.
In the process they’ve established that the site was far more extensive than had ever been expected: the city sprawled over some 70 square miles.
Diane Chase was quoted as being ‘blown away’ by the new technology: ‘We believe that lidar will help transform Maya archaeology much in the same way that radiocarbon dating did in the 1950s and interpretations of Maya hieroglyphs did in the 1980s and ’90s.’
Apparently, however, they also emphasized that ‘it would not obviate the need to follow up with traditional mapping to establish “ground truth.” ’ What a terrific phrase – ‘ground truth’. Now that’s something I’ve been searching for my whole life…..
…and a summer of Festivals continues. Highlights of Edinburgh so far? The opening of a new show by John Bellany at the Open Eye gallery; the opening of a new gallery, the Glasshouse; and the scabrous and very funny stand-up show by Greg Behreindt, the script-writer of Sex in the City and He’s Just Not that into You. Which is odd as not normally that ‘into’ Cosmo movies. Best of all it’s been sunny.
But the show that is a model of how to explore ‘the idea of a country’ is The Discovery of Spain at the National; the curatorial work that’s gone into the exhibition and catalogue is impressive – and there’s a sense of how Spain went from the melancholy decaying empire of the 18th century to a place of duende and the unfettered imagination that the poets of the 1930s would go out to fight for.
Meanwhile I recently gave a reading at the Latitude Festival myself which was a lot of fun as could see Tricky do the ultimate crowd-surf (he was carried so far off from the stage-tent that he emerged in a field somewhere and the concert was over); Tequila Oil has been reviewed by the Independent, Guardian and Financial Times - and by Top Gear Magazine who said I was a good writer but clearly a lousy driver.
Also returned to Peru and the Inca site of Llactapata for a National Geographic and PBS Nova production: we filmed there at dawn on June solstice as the sun shone down the narrow passageway designed to mark that day. Then I had to do a piece to camera on what it all meant.
50 Wonders of the World has just been published by Quercus for £25. Which is a bargain, as it’s a handsome and very large book, which with a little carpentry could actually be used as a coffee table, not just on it.