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Museums: An Inca Aspen Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Lisa Hunter

[image]The sacred temple area of Machu Picchu in 1911 before clearing by archaeologist Hiram Bingham. (Courtesy Yale University) [LARGER IMAGE]

Visiting Machu Picchu requires a long train ride through the Peruvian Andes that makes you wonder if the site will really be worth the trek. But once you arrive, it's spectacular. The same is true of a new Machu Picchu exhibition at the Yale Peabody Museum. Living up to its billing as the most extensive Inca exhibition ever mounted in the United States, "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas" is worth the trip to New Haven.

The show features archival photographs and memorabilia of Yale professor Hiram Bingham's Peruvian Scientific Expedition, which explored the site beginning in 1911, as well as elaborate walk-through dioramas and interactive displays you expect in a major, well-funded exhibition. (You can walk down an "Inca road," for example, and visit a reconstruction of a royal chamber.) Often such re-creations simply confuse the visitor as to what is authentic and what's not, but the Peabody's careful explanatory texts avoid this pitfall. That's important for this particular show, because what makes it special are the hundreds of Inca artifacts--including gold and silver artwork, pottery, and textiles--many of which were recovered from Machu Picchu itself. (Since the exhibition opened in January, the Peruvian government has placed renewed pressure on Yale to return these artifacts.)

Artifacts on display at the Yale Peabody Museum's "Machu Picchu: The Mystery of the Incas" include a bronze knife pendant and dragon-shaped bottle. (Courtesy Yale University) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

From studying these and other objects excavated at Machu Picchu, the show's curators, Yale archaeologists Richard L. Burger and Lucy C. Salazar, have reached some startling conclusions. They suggest that Machu Picchu was neither a spiritual center (as Bingham surmised) nor a refuge for the defeated Incas (another popular hypothesis) but a high-altitude retreat for the elite--a kind of Inca Aspen. This view is based mostly on the variety and superb quality of the excavated objects, such as a tunic made of a high-quality vicuña wool that only royalty were allowed to wear.

By dating the artifacts found at the site, the curators also conclude that, contrary to Bingham's theory that Machu Picchu had been occupied for centuries, this city in the clouds was active for less than a hundred years and then abandoned. Because the objects found there correspond to artifacts from all over the Inca Empire, the city's inhabitants were likely from different ethnic groups and spoke different languages.

The exhibition closes on May 4. It will then travel to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston, and Chicago before returning to the Yale Peabody Museum as a permanent exhibit. For armchair travelers, a companion book will be published this fall by Yale University Press.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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