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Monica Barnes

Rebuilding the Inca Past

“To restore an edifice does not mean to maintain, to repair or to remake, but to reestablish it in a complete state such as might never have existed at any given moment” (Eugène-Emmanuel Violette-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture français de XIe au XVIe siècle [1854-1868] s. v., translation by Michael Camille).

The splendid Inca city of Huánuco Pampa stands on an isolated high plain some 800 kilometers by air northwest of Cusco. Today its stone walls seem to have withstood both the shock of earthquakes and the depredations of time. This is a carefully crafted illusion.

Although Huánuco Pampa was once the economic, social, and ritual center for thousands of people, less than a decade after the Spanish conquest of the Andes it was all but abandoned to ranching, its great halls converted to corrals, while cattle grazed on its plaza, around the sacred platform called ushnu by the Incas. Successive travelers, from the 1840s until the 1960s, commented that the site was being progressively and literally deconstructed, its stones recycled into other building projects.

This process may have continued uninterrupted, had it not been for John Victor Murra, an anthropologist and visionary who, as others before him, from Voltaire in the eighteenth century to Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Maríategui in the twentieth, saw the Incas as an ideal society that provided perfectly for human needs, both physical and spiritual. To Murra Huánuco Pampa was a Holy Grail, a key to understanding the Inca, who had left no alphabetic records.

I don’t know why Murra decided to reconstruct, or as he called it “clean and consolidate” Huánuco Pampa. He had no prior practice in architectural restoration and little experience in archaeology. Nevertheless, he won the legal, moral, and financial support of the relevant Peruvian authorities, and with the help of graduate students, Peace Corps volunteers, and local farmers, he endeavored to convert the vast site into a place that could be enjoyed and comprehended by school excursion parties and tourists alike. Although the field notes he created during this endeavor are less than perfect, he and his team took about 5,000 black and white photographs, both 35 mm. and medium format, allowing us to follow their  progress day-by-day. The restoration work occurred in little over two months, from August 12 to October 21, 1965. The negatives and vintage prints were eventually donated by Murra to the American Museum of Natural History. It is there that I am making an inventory and study of the photos, scanning them so that they can be widely shared. They are of great intellectual interest to archaeologists and architects in general, and, in particular, to all of us who focus on the Inca. They are also of enormous visual import.

Ironically, in his zeal to free pristine Inca stonework from the mantle of soil that covered it over the years, and to clear it of the plants that found nourishment in its crevices, Murra destroyed much of the archaeological evidence that could have answered the questions he asked of the ruins. Who lived, worked, celebrated, prayed, and sacrificed in Huánuco Pampa? How were they organized and how did they use the buildings and artifacts that cover the site?  Nevertheless, as one of Murra’s lovers told him about another matter, “What’s done is done.” What is left to us is to interpret his photos as best we can, and according to our own lights and knowledge.

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