Sunday, December 13, 2015

On the Fardos of Paracas




Paracas names a peninsula in the northern Atacama desert. I have seen this place: the landscape is unearthly, a featureless beige desert absolutely without life edged by the icy, blue-green surf of the Pacific Ocean. Winds have abraded the desert to rounded knolls and hillocks, porpoise-smooth mountains that dip down to the sea. The water of the ocean is not life-giving but rather seems toxic because the slopes above the coast are made of grey-brown pebbles devoid of anything green as if the sea exuded poisonous mists. In some place, the slumps between the hills are filled with inert-looking glaciers of sand. The sea and sky are vivid, but the earth remains a blur – you can’t focus your eyes because there is nothing on which to fix them.

No one has ever been able to live on the Paracas peninsula. Two-thousand years ago, seasonal fishing villages, more like encampments than villages, may have sometimes occupied the barren coves on the coast. Middens mark these sites and, at one place, someone has inscribed three great tree-shaped glyphs into the side of beige mountain of sand – this is the Paracas "Candelabra," an emblem that is 595 feet tall and visible 12 miles out at sea. The Candelabra is aimed like an arrow toward the sky that is always as dry as a bone. Perhaps, the glyph points the way to some place inland, on the other side of massive hump of desert sand, or, maybe, the mark suggests that mariners continue down the coast line. Either the glyph was made by ancient people who left pottery that is 1800 years old in the two-foot deep groove incised in the sand or it was constructed by Freemasons to signify the arrival of the enlightenment in South America or it marks a pirate treasure or a landing pad for alien space vessels or represents the World-Tree or, most likely, means nothing at all.

Two vaguely breast-shaped hillocks overlook the dead grey slope rolling down to the vacant and monstrous sea. This is the Cerro Colorado. Two cemeteries occupy a terrace overlooking the sea below the crest of the gently rounded peaks. These are the necropolises of Wari Kaya and Paracas Cavernas. Wari Kaya is a series of small, cell-like huts half-submerged in the sand pockmarking the side of the hill – mummy bundles were found in the little mud-brick huts of an abandoned ceremonial center. Paracas Cavernas, a thousand meters away, is a roughly jointed stone retaining wall with the lintel of low door visible in its base. The door opens into several small underground rooms that were also crammed with mummy bundles.

These mortuary complexes were discovered by a local vaquero and excavated with scrupulous technique by Julio Tello, the father of Peruvian archaeology. Tello was a remarkable figure, a poor Quechua-speaking "mountain Indian" from the Andes who rose from poverty to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard. In 1915, Tello, who was then studying the practice of trepanation among the Nazca, acquired several superbly woven textiles at Pisco, a resort town a bit like Palm Springs in the Atacama desert. (Trepanation was a form of primitive neuro-surgery that involved chipping away a portion of the skull to expose the brain – no one knows why the Nazca performed this procedure, although many skulls excavated from their cemeteries show evidence of this surgery.) Tello investigated the source of these textiles, met the cowboy who had stumbled onto the Cerro Colorado burial sites, and, ultimately, extracted 429 of the huge mummy bundles from the graves. The mummy bundles were transported by truck to Lima where about 150 of them were painstakingly unwrapped to document their contents.

Julio Tello understood the significance of the discovery, but tragically was not able to protect the site. In 1930, political developments resulted in the archeologist’s ouster from the state anthropological museum at Lima. No one was appointed to act as custodian of the two cemeteries on Cerro Colorado with the result that local peasants looted the graveyards. Many of the bundles were ripped to pieces in situ by looters looking for jewelry, pots, and other artifacts wrapped in the textiles. Witnesses speak of shreds of richly covered cloth lying among the smashed shards of pots on the terraces overlooking the ocean. Over a hundred, mostly intact textiles made their way to Gothenberg, Sweden – these artifacts were the subject of contentious reparation litigation about five years ago in 2010. (Sweden returned most of the Paracas textiles although expressing doubt that the Peruvian government had resources adequate to care for the ancient cloth.) One fully intact mummy bundle is on display in Hildesheim, Germany.

The mummy bundles are impressive artifacts with an intense and charismatic aura. Many of them are very large – at first sight, the bundles seem to be wrapping the corpses of giants, colossal men and women. Most of the bundles are vaguely anthropomorphic in their unwrapped condition – they look like huge slumped figures and rise to conical protuberances shaped like enigmatic and massive burkha-clad heads. Some archaeologists imagine the bundles to simulate gigantic seeds – the corpses seem to have been set in the earth with the notion that they would somehow sprout or grow up out of the barren, pebbly desert.

A corpse occupies the core of each large bundle. The body is naturally mummified by the dry climate, seated upright with knees bound tightly against the chest by rope wrapped around the naked cadaver. The textile shell erected around the corpse consists of as many as four-hundred layers of cloth, all of them woven in the form of some kind of garment. The types of garments comprising the mummy bundle include wrap-around dresses, loin-cloths, ponchos, cloaks, and shawls. Remarkably, each mummy bundle includes garments in a variety of sizes – some of them are perfect miniatures, the size of a handkerchief and made as if dolls; other shawls and ponchos have been designed for giants – one of them is 35 feet wide and 9 feet tall. The garments do not appear to have been worn. Indeed, many of the textiles are too small to be worn – some of the loin cloths for instance are too tiny to fit around the hips of any human being, even a new born baby. Some of head-shaped protuberances on the bundles are densely packed knobs of cloth, tied with headbands or embroidered with images of mask-like eyes and feline creatures. The "shoulders" of the huge mummy bundles are sometimes clad with fox-pelt stoles or great fan-shaped bouquets of condor feathers.

The Paracas textiles are made of colorfully dyed wool or cotton fabric. (The wool is camelid, combed from vicunas, alpaca, and llamas.) The intricately patterned textiles show exquisite craftsmanship – indeed, some of the single-needle triple-loop weaving is without parallel, as fine as the finest textiles produced anywhere in the world. The garments are so carefully made that there is no distinction between the front and back side of the weave – both surfaces are crafted to an equal degree of perfection. Some of the garments are extraordinarily complex in their design and patterning. An example is a 2 x 4 foot mantle in the Brooklyn museum – the center of the shawl is geometric pattern, very finely woven and colorful, a repetitive motif that seems to illustrate some kind of supernatural being although stylized into merely eyes and mouth, that is ovals and a curved maw within a grid, perhaps representing legs or waves on the sea. An unbelievably complex fringe makes an edge to the mantle – the fringe consists of ninety figures, tiny monsters and animals arranged in a bas-relief procession encircling the garment. The figures are worked in low relief and so have three-dimensions and they are intricately fused together – the colors are dense blacks, reds, blues, greens and yellows.

Considered as a whole the fardos, or mummy bundles, constitute a cultural achievement on the order of the Sistine Chapel, or William Blake’s illuminated books – these textiles made between 800 BC and 100 AD are among the greatest of accomplishments in the history of human art. (Fardo is the Spanish word for "mummy" – the word is alive in the urban lexicon; in some Latin contexts, a fardo is a dull person, a man or woman who can’t dance, a wallflower at the edges of an otherwise lively party.) The millions and millions of precise needlepoint strokes necessary to weave these objects signifies an investment of human capital on the order of the creation of the pyramids. By any measure, the Paracas textiles are remarkable. And, yet, they are also inexplicably weird, alien, and bizarre. Many of the textiles are decorated with an unearthly apparition that archaeologists have dubbed the "backbent figure." This creature is intrinsically sinister and disturbing – I am unable to look at representations of the "backbent" personage without being transfixed by an uneasy chill. The image induces in me a vertiginous mixture in which revulsion blurs into fascination, a disquieting sensation that increases with more precise observation of these figures.

"Backbent" figures are generally arrayed in a kind of macabre procession. At first, the eye grasps them as a kind of blocky abstraction, a matrix of interlocking Lego blocks, as it were, very brightly colored and distributed with a thudding rhythm across the cloth. On more close inspection, the little marching monsters are revealed as human beings, sometimes wearing skirts across their loins, figures that have their backs bent into a right angle in the region of their cervical spine. This 90 degree crook at the top of the body results in the figures’ heads, generally trailing comet-like locks of hair, being rotated into an upside down orientation. The "backbent" figures are portrayed in a dizzying rotation that combines aspects of silhouette and full frontal representation – you can’t identify whether you are seeing the figures from the side or gazing at them frontally. This ambiguity in perception causes the figures to inhabit a space that is subtly different from ours. The dangling heads of the "backbent" marchers look vaguely like archaic Gorgons displayed on prehistoric Greek shields –two staring eyes gaze from the D-shaped heads beneath the twin slits of a de-fleshed and skeletal nose; at the top of the inverted head, teeth are displayed in taut grimace. The "backbent" figures are most certainly dead – indeed, it is hard to imagine anything "deader" than these little contorted corpse-dancers. In some instances, a little triangular goatee juts from their upraised chin – this is a representation of an amputated cervical vertebrate exposed at the place where an incision has cut through the "backbent" figure’s lower throat. (The "backbent" posture is that of a body splayed across an altar to be sliced open as part of a sacrifice, the chest upthrust so that the beating heart can be more readily removed.) Within this general pattern, these revenants show considerable, indeed, immense variation – some of the ghost-dancers brandish feathers or spondylos shells; others hold crescent-shaped knives with which they seem to be mutilating themselves. Many of them hold their own hearts in their stringy tentacular arms, gouged places in their torsos shedding fountains of blood that erupt into tendrils of trees or serpents at the distal ends. The creatures’ eyes are wide open and glaring and some of them are singing, or, perhaps, merely spewing blood from their bony jaws – red scrolls blossom there with oval involutions like stylized waves or the petals of flowers. Theorists of the disgust observe that this emotion arises when categories that we ordinarily separate are forced into such close proximity that delineating boundaries are blurred and indistinct. The "bentback" figures are shown in profile and full-frontally, they seem to be androgynous, neither clearly female nor male, and are both dead and alive – the scrolls of bodily fluids that they eject are either semen or excretions or blood and it is impossible to determine which. Even more uncanny, the "backbent" figures are designed to be viewed as vertically reversible – this is a characteristic of a pattern woven into a garment: it is anticipated that persons using the textile will see the image from different angles. The "backbent" figures are intrinsically unstable in their vertical dimension – since the heads are dangling at right angles or, even, upside-down and parallel to the upright torsos, the images can be interpreted spatially in two ways – either the heads are upright with their long hair standing erect as if with horripiliation and trailing schematized bodies at a right angle or the bodies are vertical pillars with the heads wagging upside-down below. Some of the figures equipped with elaborate fan-shaped feather headdresses can be interpreted as either macabre dancers or monstrous sharks with gaping jaws – the images have the quality that they can be made cohere either right-side-up or completely inverted; indeed, this kind of anatropic figure makes mockery of the notion of "up" and "down" – the figure can not be rotated into an "upside down" orientation without displaying another aspect, another form legible in the picture like engravings of hideous hags that when reversed reveal the profile of beautiful young woman. In this respect, the negative spaces in the image as viewed in one orientation turn into positive spaces when the picture is inverted. Thus, a "backbent" figure with an elaborate panoply of feathers, earrings, gorgets, and other personal adornments when rotated becomes a lethal-looking shark about to devour a drowning human body.

The weird unearthly geometries of the anatropic figures are mirrored in other scenes of transformation. Rows of "backbent" figures gradually recline into feline creatures, man-cougars with bristling fur and fangs. Other figures are modified in successive iterations in which blood-scrolls gradually become feathers which, in turn, slowly morph as if in iterated animation cells, into condor’s wings. Jaguars feed on "backbent" figures; sharks devour marching corpses and other ghost-dancers turn into uncanny masks suspended on flowering trees. No one knows what any of this means. In the context of pre-literate Peruvian cultures, tribes and city-states that had been extinct for fifteen-hundred years before the conquistadors arrived, all analysis is a kind of dream interpretation, the reconstruction of a theology and world-view so utterly vanished that no traces remained at all when the first Europeans reached these desolate shores. The cosmopolitan and theocratic Inca, then, the administrators of a great empire, didn’t themselves know of the existence of the strange mortuary complexes and vast mud pyramids in the howling wilderness of Peru’s northern coast. Thus, we have no basis of any kind to reliably determine what the ancient people who lived inland from the inhospitable and lunar Paracas peninsula believed or what they meant when they wove the awe-inspiring tapestries in which they draped their dead. All that we can say is that they viewed the kingdom of the dead as a place of transformation, that the seeds of corpses might either grow or shrink in all dimensions and that a dead body might turn into a mannikin or, unpredictably, assume the dimensions of a giant – the dead had to be clad in any event and so it was best to wrap them in garments of varying dimensions: tiny loin-cloths for the seed-corpses thrust into the earth and vast shawls and cloaks for the colossal dead. An ancestor might become a shark or the Master of Fishes or a mountain cougar. If an ancestor became a condor, then, perhaps, that dead person might visit the mountain tops and bring the rain clouds from those places, bearing the lifegiving water on vast grey and brown wings. To be dead, it seems, was to be more fully and vibrantly alive then mere mortals, more prone to change, more ephemeral with respect to fundamental identity – to be dead was to enter an ancestral place where all shapes and forms were fluid, where bodies spilled into one another like water mixing with water so that an insect might be a fish and a ferocious mountain-lion and a condor all at the same time.

Peruvian archaeology, like the study of Mayan and Aztec and Oaxacan antiquity, is the most fascinating and inexhaustible subject that I know. At Caral, 90 miles north of Lima, vast stepped pyramids rise above the desert. The pyramids are five-thousand years old, built by people described as the Norte Chico culture. Although armies of workers were required to build the vast clay terraces constructed around cores of packed boulders, these people were pre-ceramic – they had not pottery and cooked their food by dropping hot stones into water-filled pits excavated into the desert. Without pottery, these people also seem to have lived in a world without pictures – there is no evidence that they made representations of their world, no sculptures, no paintings, no geometric patterns on walls, only great, austere and towering mounds of densely packed earth. It was, some now argue, a wholly peaceful culture – among the graves there is no evidence of any death by violence. Perhaps, war is somehow related to the principle of representation, the idea that one thing can stand for another, a faculty that these people may not have possessed. In the highlands, a grass grew that could be woven into strands of rope and this material was made into loose nets that were used to transport the rocks and boulders quarried to make the pyramids. We can imagine long columns of workers carrying mesh nets each containing a half-dozen skull-sized boulders. Quipu, or computational knots, have been found on the site, suggesting that communication over distance involved interpretation of arrays of knots – if your only technology consists of earthmoving and strings, it would seem that certain distinct limitations would exist on what you could make. But this didn’t preclude the Norte Chico people from erecting enormous pyramids that still tower over the deserts of northern Peru.

And, of course, there is the sacrificial site at the Huaca de Luna, a Moche site also on the Peruvian northern coast. The structures at this place pre-date the Inca empire by a thousand years, but are three-thousand years after the peaceful Norte Chico culture. Huaca de Luna is a hillside plaza lined with mud-brick buildings occupying a terrace at the base of a perfectly conical mountain, the Cerro Blanco. At one end of the great plaza, floored with mud-brick tiles, outcroppings of natural stone thrust themselves up through the gravel of the desert. At this place, the Moche buried a dozen children, most of them slightly deformed, and, then, seem to have slaughtered war-captives above these tombs. The presence of pupa casings show that the corpses, about twelve or fifteen men, were left to rot on the edge of the plaza among the boulders and ribs of shattered stone extruded above the desert sand. Apparently, the shattered skeletons, half buried in mud washed down from the heights in storms remained a fixture of the complex for several hundred years. Curiously, the victims seem to have been clubbed and hacked to death during a torrential rainstorm in a kind of muddy pool among the out-thrust boulders. When el Nino disrupts the Pacific currents, cold mists sometimes wander like specters among the craters and stony ridges of the coastal desert. Where the mists meet the escarpments, sometimes layers of moss grow on those barren height, thin bands of green suspended like ribbons over the waterless basins and seaside mountains where neither tree nor shrub nor grass has ever taken root. These banners of green on the stony hillsides signify the coming of catastrophe, turbulent seas in which the great sea lions that live on the rock islands dotting the coast become agitated and warlike. The sea lions can not find their ordinary prey when el Nino afflicts the coast and so they take to the water and hunt close to shore, tearing apart the nets that the Moche people used to snare fish. Moche ceramics show fearsome priests with great cudgels doing battle with long-toothed walruses and sea-lions. Attendants play flutes and cornets made from human femurs. The massacre in the children’s graveyard at Huaca de Luna may have been construed as a battle in the war with the marauding sea lions caused by the el Nino – the sacrificial victims were, perhaps, butchered in lieu of the great aquatic mammals shredding the nets on which the people relied for much of their food. In a violent downpour, with lightning flashing on the wasteland of gravel mountains, priests cut apart their victims while the people stood in the rain, thousands of them in the plaza between the big ziggurats decorated with murals showing the Spider God and the Decapitator, an animate flint blade with eyes and a tongue like a dragon.

Human civilization begins when a man says that this stands for that and another man, or men, understands him. This is the fundamental basis for all culture, the principle of sacrifice arising in the context of symbolic substitution. Peruvian and Meso-American archaeology is fascinating because it shows us the inception of meaning, the beginnings of a semantics of representation, and the grammar of sacrifice – this is the beginning of culture, but it is, most remarkably, not our culture, but another, a different culture and, therefore, a radically different way of being human.

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