Desert Labyrinth: Lines, Landscape and Meaning at Nazca, Peru

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Landscapes are concepts as well as physical places. As we move through them we engage our social and cultural precepts, inventing and elaborating, emphasising or disregarding natural features, and bestowing ever-changing meanings on the arbitrary configurations of significance that we perceive. Topography becomes toponymy, reflected in, and acknowledged by, a layering of material traces. Few places epitomise these processes in a more palpable--or a more contentious--way than the desert of coastal southern Peru.

The Nazca pampa, 220[km.sup.2] in extent, is one of many arid desert plateaux that separate the habitable river valleys of the region. The part known as the Pampa de San Joss is famous for its palimpsest of pre-Columbian geoglyphs (lines, geometric designs, and zoomorphic figures). In fact, geoglyphs extend over the entire Nazca pampa, making it a unique example of the social construction of landscape, and of landscape as ongoing social process. Yet its status as an icon of international cultural heritage (Diaz Arriola 2000) is matched by its nature as one of the world's most fragile archaeological landscapes, and exacerbated by endless speculation on the origins and purpose of its enigmatic desert markings. Tensions between investigation, preservation, development and tourism, existing since the 1970s, resulted in access to the pampa being restricted, and also help to explain an almost 20-year absence of in situ investigations after the mid-1980s.

The geoglyphs are primarily associated with the Nasca culture (c. 100 BC-c. AD 700) and were produced, broadly speaking, by picking up or sweeping aside the oxide-darkened desert pavement of small stones to reveal lighter, sandy soil beneath (Silverman & Proulx 2002: 172). The theories that have attempted to explain these designs on the desert are a roll call of shifting twentieth-century obsessions, von Daniken's (1969) supposed alien landing strips being by far the most notorious example, albeit globally influential in heightening public awareness. Reiche's (1968) astronomical-calendrical interpretation remains a dominant public narrative at local and national levels within Peru. More reasoned interpretations, grounded in Andean material culture and world-view, postulate connections to water and irrigation, walking, ceremonial activity, ritual clearing, kinship, and concepts of radiality, as well as astronomy in limited measure (Reinhard 1987; Aveni 1990, 2000; Rodriguez 1999; Johnson et al. 2002).

Clusters of hill-top geoglyphs in the nearby Palpa valley area, north of the Nazca desert, have recently been mapped from the air (Sauerbier 2009; see also Arnold 2009) and, significantly, investigated on the ground using a range of archaeological techniques (Lambers 2006; Reindel et al. 2006). This important advance has tied Palpa's geoglyphs to material culture (Reindel & Wagner 2009), and revealed both to be typically Nasca, and thus coeval with the almost identical, though larger-scale and more densely-packed, desert designs of the Nazca pampa.

Our investigations seek to explain this scale and density. While we acknowledge in general terms that the Nazca geoglyphs were in some way a vivification of indigenous concepts of obligation to create and maintain ritual and social space (Silverman 1990a: 451-52; Urton 1990), we have not followed exclusively any prior theory. Instead, we adopted two distinct yet complementary approaches--one sensorial, the other technological.

Reconnaissance began in 2004, and established an 80[km.sup.2] study area towards the south and west of the Nazca pampa bordering the valley of the Nazca River, where the ceremonial site of Cahuachi is located (Silverman 1993; Orefici 2009a). Over a period of five years from 2007 we conducted an intensive and systematic investigation of the geoglyphs in this area, south of the most sensitive parts of the Pampa de San Jose but still a fragile landscape with restricted access. …