By Carlo Brescia
Photographs from the Chavín de Huántar Digital Media Archive at CyArk

Article published in the magazine:
August 2006 Issue
Huaraz, Peru


In a visit in 1994 to Chavín de Huantar, during a documentary recording for the Discovery Channel, archaeologist and anthropologist John Rick asked his colleague, Peruvian archaeologist Luis Lumbreras whether there was a good map of Chavin. There wasn’t. The Stanford University professor decided to design a project to develop the definitive map of the site. In 1995 he began and still continues today.

How has the internal map of the Chavin Temple been developed?

Well, it is very difficult keep control of space and dimensions in internal spaces, therefore we have been going deeper into electronics, testing new systems in Beta version. Two years ago we did a tri-dimensional scan of the site and took around 200 millions readings very quickly. Now we know the internal and external outline of the site at a detail, a level that few sites in the world have reached. We keep filing up the place this way, but around 6 years ago we began to give more emphasis to the conservation aspects, we still do excavations with research objectives but they are always oriented towards conservation. Chavin needs a lot of conservation, and any research must take this necessity into account.

What is the significance of the Chavin National Museum?

I believe that the Chavin Museum is going to be of great significance in showing how to work in a site in a way that permits people to reconstruct it upon different hypotheses and periods. In Chavin, an ideal conservation of the site can take place without any reconstruction, just revealing the site as it is, obviously stabilizing it but avoiding the reconstruction that has been done in many sites of the country leaving them as modern and not as prehistoric places. With digital technologies we can show in the new museum a virtual image of Chavin at 1200 BC, at 800 BC, at 600, 300. For that purpose you don’t have to modify it physically and impose a unique interpretation of the site. This can be done virtually without doing any harm. The reconstruction of sites is usually irreversible: when a mistake is discovered it is often too late to correct it.


Why do you work only 8 weeks each year?

The relatively short seasons obey to various reasons. First, we have limited funding. Second, in my experience it is more important to do a strong campaign but limited in extension than doing a long one with less people and emphasis. Then, archaeological works, especially in altitude, are very exhausting: for example, the Lima students that work with us after 6 or 7 weeks they have to take holidays to recover their strength. Finally, we have the rainy season: archaeological works in this zone during this time are a disaster; you can’t call them scientific because control is very difficult.

What would happen if the economic resources are doubled?

With more resources obviously we could work in more fronts at the same time, and more important is that we could use well-known experts in conservation, not only national but also international. There are many decisions that the site requires: for example, which wall is going to be kept, and how it is going to be preserved; the lithic art, how its future is going to be guaranteed without hiding it from the tourists, and things like that. There are solutions to many of these problems but for this we must bring international level consultants, foreign or national, and the latter are not necessarily cheap to hire. If we had more funds we could employ a higher level of expertise and also move on faster with the works. In fact, it helps in everything, up to a level where this is not necessarily positive, but we are not even close to reaching this level.

How does the National Institute of Culture (INC) relate to this project?

Well, in this project we obviously have to work with the permit of the INC. In times like these, we have good relations with the management staff of the site and with the INC of Huaraz. It is not always like this but at this moment it is very fruitful because we can support mutually with equipment, personnel, contacts, communications; there are many ways we can complement efforts and we need the personnel of the INC to conserve and protect the site while we are not here.

And the relation between the project and the local government?

The role of the project in relation to the local government is to try to help people understand the significance of the resources they have and their possible management in tourism, research and conservation. There is a very positive future for cultural resources in the area but the people of Chavin must accept that these are not resources that will simply generate money and wealth. It is required an investment from them, at least in understanding it, and possibly even a in economic terms. They can’t continue thinking that this is simply the goose who lays the golden eggs. It is not like that, nowhere in the world is it like that. We have to understand our past, appreciate it and assume the identity that it offers us, but we also have to give, to share efforts and work collectively. Sometimes the group work with the local government has been difficult, sometimes it hasn’t. We always expect an improving relationship.


What is the importance of Chavin in the Americas?

Chavin is a unique site and it is no common thing to say. Chavin has extraordinary subterranean galleries; there are around 2 kilometres of them: there is no place in the new world even approaching this number. Neither is there a place in the Andean region with lithic art of this form and age. Then, there are many characteristics of the site that teach us about the early stages of authority development in the Andes. The evidence found here is much clearer than in any other site and we can more or less understand which rites were being performed: why, what was the strategy of the priests… This is not simply an ancient church: this is a place where priests actually convince people of the difference between people inside a cult and people outside it. For these last ones, to join the cult in Chavin meant a lot in terms of social status. Chavin doesn’t only show us what rites were being performed, it also show us the way these rites changed the mentality of the Andean people in a process that lead up to the Incas, these latter probably being one of the most authoritarian cultures of the world. Hence, in Chavin we are in the transition from an egalitarian society to a more differentiated one. Chavin simply gives more proofs on how this process happened, more than in any other site that I have known, at least in the new world.

What is the significance of the San Pedro cactus in Chavin culture?

The use of hallucinogenic elements, like San Pedro or huilca, was very important for the priests in Chavin as they were literally intending to enter the mind of the people, and when I say people I don’t mean the commons, but people from higher ranks that came to Chavin on pilgrimage from far away places, of which we have very strong evidence. The task of the priests was to try to change their mentality, convince them of the power of the cult. They used many elements: light, sound, architecture and probably rites of various types of which we don’t know yet. But the psychoactive elements played a very important role: when used, imagination and suggestion have a very strong effect. In my limited experience, I see San Pedro as a drug that permits that increases the effectiveness of suggestion when trying to make a person see things that one wants him to see. Summed to the effect of psychoactives, sounds, strong lights and architecture, there was also the exploration of images that are the core of Chavin lithic and ceramic art. Many of these images are very complex, one has to explore them, and if these complexities are explored by suggestion of a priest or guide a very sophisticated message can be achieved, a message that unluckily nowadays we can’t see or understand. I believe that without the use of drugs of this type, in Chavin it would have been very difficult to achieve the conversion of people to a more complex system of authority in social and political terms.


Is there something you want to say about the new discoveries?

The recent discoveries that we have made, here in the Plaza de Armas of Chavin, indicate the presence of humans since 8 to 10 thousand years ago. This evidence, summed to the other one we have gathered over the last years, show that Chavin has a culture as old as 10,000 years. This changes much the perspective because now you can’t look for the origins of Chavin in other towns and places, like Caral or Las Aldas in the coast: Chavin has archaeological evidence of the first human presence in South America. What I mean by that is that the present inhabitants of Chavin must have a very profound pride of their heritage that isn’t only the temple, this is very important but now, together with the new discoveries, Chavin can become an archaeological centre of research, conservation and tourism. I foresee a very positive future for the town and the area.

After working 12 years here in Chavin, The things you have seen and lived have changed the way you see things?

I think I have entered in to the Andean thinking about the relation between humans and the environment, but with much more profundity in to the relation amongst humans. What are these relations? When is it legitimate to gain control over other humans? What powers must one have or master in order to reach this goal? What responsibilities come with this? I believe that my understanding of the human condition has increased by what I have seen in the Temple. I have to say, honestly, that the authority development process amongst humans has not always been a positive thing. We must not make the past a romantic icon when it is not necessarily one, we must learn from it if we want to have a society that addresses the necessities and wishes of everyone. The development process of political institutions is something we must understand as they still exist nowadays. If we don’t understand well how we reached this historic moment we will have to simply let history flow without control. I think it is very important for the future of humanity to begin controlling our destiny a little bit more than it has been done up to now.


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