Back in the Saddle (of Machu Picchu); also: The Smithsonian, Harry Houdini, Albert Einstein, The New Yorker, and The Appendix
It’s been a year since I last posted. In that time, I passed my comprehensive exams in my history Ph.D. program at UT Austin, trundled off to Washington, D.C. for a terrific fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, continued on to Philadelphia for a spell as a fellow with the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science (Pachs), and did some writing in between:
A piece on how Harry Houdini (or at least his human remains) escaped the Smithsonian, for the SI Archives’ blog.
And a Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker on Albert Einstein’s brain.
I’m also helping start up an online journal of archival and narrative history, The Appendix. (I’ll be posting more about that soon.)
So, don’t worry, I’ve been busy. Life got in the way.
I’m in Peru now, on a graduate research fellowship formerly known as the Fulbright-Hays, working on my dissertation. In the past, I’ve kept this work as a grad student fairly separate from my writing as a popular historian and journalist. Also, my interest in other things, like novels, comics, superheroes, and trying to be good.
From here on out, though, I’m going to be less compartmentalized. I’m going to start writing about more of each on this website and elsewhere — a more unified life theory, as it were.
In that spirit: ‘So, what’s that dissertation about?’
Some days … everything. On clearer days, though, it’s about how pre-Columbian graves, skulls and mummies from the Andes have traveled throughout the Americas since the conquest, but especially between Peru and the U.S., knitting us together in a strange empire of tissue, bone, treasure and science. It emerged from Cradle of Gold on Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu, for sure, but it’s about bigger things, I think, than the nature of discovery and awkward American explorers “forgetting” to send back artifacts. It’s about how humans understand, write about and interact with other humans’ dead; how bodies get confused with riches, and vice versa; how real human achievement can cut through the awful tangle of race and science; but it might just be about how amazing pre-Columbian Americans were and how their descendants are, and how we can best honor them.
It’s also chockablock with grave-robbing, smuggling, mountains of gold, liquefying mummies, and skulls riddled with mysterious holes.
So if you’re interested in that, I’ll see you soon.
Last month I gave a lecture on Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu to a sold-out audience at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Bingham’s first visit to the ruins, we talked about the Incas, the nature of discovery, indigenous rights, and who gets to own the past. The folks of National Geographic have polished the hour and ten minute talk into an awesome half-hour long video they’ve posted on their channel on Youtube. Enjoy!
For readers out there in the D.C. area, I’ll be speaking at the National Geographic Society this coming Tuesday, June 28, 2011, about Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu, on the occasion of the site’s 100th anniversary in the public eye. The event is co-presented with the Embassy of Peru and promises to be interesting. Tickets can be bought here.
In time for the the 100th anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s first visit to Machu Picchu, the artifacts that Bingham’s team excavated and exported to Yale begin to return to Cusco.
“Brothers and sisters, we’re very happy today; each of us is going to sing and applaud because the objects are now here. They’ve returned. It’s not gold or silver. It’s the work of our older brothers and sisters that was taken away and never should have left,” said the mayor in Quechua, the Incas’ language.
Archaeology has been going well for Peru lately.
To begin with, archaeologists in Cusco have announced the discovery of a pre-Inca tomb at the jungle site Espiritu Pampa — the very last Inca ruin that Hiram Bingham visited during the 1911 venture that netted Machu Picchu. The Indians then living at the site told Bingham that it was Vilcabamba, the last city of the Incas — Bingham didn’t believe them, a sad and strange twist I detail in Cradle of Gold — but it seems that Espiritu Pampa had a far older history. It turns out it was settled at least by the Wari, a culture that flourished in the central Andes from about the sixth to thirteenth centuries CE. The tomb’s occupant, now dubbed “el Señor de Wari,” “The Lord of Wari,” was buried with a silver mask and breastplate, “two golden bracelets, four silver head feathers, 15 representations of faces in beaten silver, two palm wood scepters adorned with silver, three necklaces of semi-precious stones and 200 silver sequins.” This is the first evidence, apparently, that this massive pre-Inca culture penetrated the eastern slopes of the Andes, complicating our understanding of how Peru’s civilizations spread over the region and sometimes re-purposed prior settlements.
The return of 98 artifacts smuggled from Peru.
The artifacts from Machu Picchu will return to Peru on Peru’s Presidential Plane.
And Peru is introducing a new one-sol coin, with the Chullpas of Sillustani on its reverse face — a set of incredibly well-preserved tower burials in Peru’s southern highlands. They look pretty great to me.