X Marks the Spot: a trip to South America

Earlier this month, more than 220 LSA CA members came together to ring in the New Year in the excellent company of our President Professor Michael Scott. Classics Ambassador Brendon L describes the voyage that Professor Scott took us on to discover where ‘X Marks the Spot’ – the title of Michael’s forthcoming book, focusing on archaeological discoveries and their discoverers, which will be published in May this year.

“To open our 2023 lectures, we were provided with a fascinating insight into ‘The Rome of South America’ and one of the most famous sites from the early modern world – Machu Picchu. Professor Scott began by explaining the importance of the discovery of Machu Picchu, which was vital to our understanding of Inca history since the Incas did not leave any written sources, and the main ways to learn about their civilisation was through the chronicles of early Spanish conquerers. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that a Spanish Chronicle mentioning Machu Picchu was discovered. The Inca Empire was incredibly vast, spreading over 3000km by the late 15th century, which is approximate to the size of the Western Roman Empire in the 4th century CE. However, the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1532 and by 1536 they had conquered the majority of the Inca Empire, as a result, the remaining Inca ruler led a small rebellion and set up a neo-Inca empire that lasted until 1572.

Who was the “discoverer” in this story? In 1875, Hiram Bingham III was born to a poor family in Hawaii. Eager to achieve success, in 1900 he moved to mainland America and studied South American studies during his Postgraduate and PhD studies. Although at the time there were no departments for South American history at any North American universities, during this time, North America sought to exploit and be politically and economically invested in South America and, thus, began to see a benefit in providing the study and understanding of South America. In 1906, Bingham travelled to South America and replicated a 700 mile march from Caracas to Bogata which was initially done by Símon Bolívar and had been vital to liberating Columbia from Spanish rule. Bingham was appointed to the first permanent lectureship position in South American history at Yale University in 1907 and the following year visited the Inca site of Choquequiro.

In 1911, the Yale Peruvian Expedition sett off with, as well as Bingham, an explorer, a mountain climber, a chemistry professor, a geographer and a doctor to Cusco, Peru. This area of Peru was then one of the dirtiest cities in America since the modern Peruvian state focused its energies and economic attention on its political capital, Lima. Due to weather conditions, the crew was unable to climb Mount Karapuna and so some of the crew started to map out the 73rd Meridian whilst Bingham asked locals if they knew of any Inca ruins. The Rector of Cusco University informed Bingham and his men that whilst he was on a journey on a dirt track along the Urubamba river, a local innkeeper had mentioned some ruins which he referred to as Picchu. And thus, on 19th July 1911, Bingham, Foote and Sergeant Carrasco travelled along the dirt track and by July 23rd, they reached the inn which the Rector of Cusco University had mentioned and the innkeeper agreed to take them to the ruins. After crossing the Urubamba river and climbing a mountain, they were eventually taken by a family to Machu Picchu. Bingham was aware that he had not been the first to discover Machu Picchu, as he found the name Lizaraga and the date 1902 scratched onto one of the blocks of stone and since he had not found what he had set out to find, he left. However, he returned to make a map of Machu Picchu after discovering Vitcos and Vilcabamba in an unsuitable condition for his team to currently explore.

A second expedition was sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Kodak; this time, Bingham’s team built a proper bridge across the Urabamba river and created a track up the mountainside to make the site easier to access. As part of the funding of the second expedition, Bingham was required to bring his finds to North America, however, as the Peruvian government had put laws in place to prevent the takeaway of material from excavations in Peru they were only allowed to take the things they had excavated by 12th December. This, nevertheless, amounted to over a hundred cases filled with items. Sponsorship from Kodak meant that they had the latest camera technology to bring Machu Picchu to world attention. In April 1913, Bingham introduced the world to Machu Picchu in an article entitled ‘In the Wonderland of Peru’ which quickly broke all circulation records. Furthermore in May, Bingham headlined the New York Times; Bingham was open about the fact that he was aware that people had visited Machu Picchu before him but he gets credited as the discoverer since he was the first person to bring the image to world attention.

In 1912, in Harper’s Monthly, Bingham claimed that Machu Picchu was the first ever city of the Incas. He made this claim based on the fact that in the Spanish Chronicles there was a legend that the original city of the Incas had a significant architectural feature with three openings and at Machu Picchu there was a building with three windows in it. This claim was believed by very few people and by 1922 the masonry at Machu Picchu was shown to not be old enough to be the first Incan city. Bingham also claimed it was one of the last places of the Incas where they set up the Virgins temple of the Sun, similar to the Roman Vestal Virgins, claims he continued to make in his 1930 book ‘Machu Picchu: a citadel of the Incas’ and his 1948 book ‘Lost City of the Incas’. This book was particularly significant as it inspired the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name which, ultimately, inspired Indiana Jones.

The second half of Professor Scott’s lecture focused on the ‘afterlife’ of the site of Machu Picchu and its rise from ignominy to world-renowned tourism destination – from being branded ‘the Rome of South America’ to give Cusco an international appeal, to Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour policy which encouraged North and South America to mutually help each other and was revived following the Second World War. In 1948, Bingham was invited back to Peru to see the unveiling of a plaque at Machu Picchu which describes him as the scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu and to open the Hiram Bingham III highway that had been built to enable people to get to Machu Picchu. However, 10 days later, there was a military coup in Peru which ousted the Peruvian government and the new regime eliminated all tourism initiative. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a Boeing 707 landed at Lima again and in 1968 there were domestic air services between Lima and Cusco that were able to bring tourists back to Machu Picchu. Destruction came hand in hand with a tourism boom in the 1960s and 70s and in 1986, a bomb exploded on the tourist train taking people up to Machu Picchu, and, as a result the US advised against visiting Peru and Machu Picchu. This, however, was a positive thing for the local community as it allowed them to protect the site, which received UNESCO world heritage site status.

Machu Picchu did not become an academic phenomenon in the same way that it became a tourist phenomenon and it wasn’t until 1987 that a Scholar named John Howland Rao discovered a reference to Machu Picchu in a Spanish chronicle which described it as a royal estate. Although Machu Picchu still seems to be shrouded in a degree of mystery, it seems that it was a Royal Estate built by Pachacuti as a rural retreat from Cusco. It was then after his death a place of continual production of various trading goods that could be used to produce revenue to fund his eternal cult. Machu Picchu remains significant to Peru as New Peruvian presidents take their oath of office standing in front of Machu Picchu as the symbol of all things Peruvian.”

Thank you to our President for providing us with a fascinating lecture full of mystery and wonder and providing a brilliant start to our 2023 lectures! Do join us on 9th February for our next talk with Dr Dominic Perring on ‘London in the Roman World’.