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The Nasca Lines are one of the world's great enigmas. Who etched the more than 1,000 animal, human, and geometric figures that cover 400 square miles of barren pampa in southern Peru? How did the makers create lifelike images of monkeys, birds, and spiders without an aerial vantage point from which to view these giant figures that stretch across thousands of square yards? Most puzzling of all, why did the ancient Nasca lay out these lines and images in the desert? These are the questions that pioneering ...
The Nasca Lines are one of the world's great enigmas. Who etched the more than 1,000 animal, human, and geometric figures that cover 400 square miles of barren pampa in southern Peru? How did the makers create lifelike images of monkeys, birds, and spiders without an aerial vantage point from which to view these giant figures that stretch across thousands of square yards? Most puzzling of all, why did the ancient Nasca lay out these lines and images in the desert? These are the questions that pioneering archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni seeks to answer in this book.
Writing for a wide public audience, Aveni begins by establishing the Nasca Lines as a true wonder of the ancient world. He describes how viewers across the centuries have tried to interpret the lines and debunks the wilder theories. Then he vividly recounts his own years of exploration at Nasca in collaboration with other investigators and the discoveries that have answered many of the riddles about who made the Nasca Lines, when, and for what purposes. This fascinating overview of what the leading expert and his colleagues currently understand about the lines is required reading for everyone intrigued by ancient mysteries.
WONDERS OF THE WORLD
NASCA IN PERSPECTIVE
I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon, along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alphaeus. I have seen the Hanging Gardens and the Colossus of Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Maussollos. But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.
From an ancient guidebook
We are a culture of lists. Music ranks its Top 40, and the New York Times has its 20 best-sellers, fiction and non. Football sports a Pac Twelve and a Big Eight; basketball has the Big East, golf and Nascar the ten top money winners. The hierarchy of Olympic medalists consists of three gradations of ore from the precious to the common. In the entertainment world it's the movies' top box-office moneymakers, TV's Nielsen picks, and Mr. Blackwell's ten worst-dressed. But to the antiquarian goes the honor of the oldest and the most enduring list of all.
In the second century BC, a travel writer named Antipater, who lived in the Palestinian city of Sidon, authored a famous guidebook. Just as in Europe's great eighteenth-century Enlightenment, tourism flourished two thousand years earlier in an age of sustained exploration and expansion of the relatively peaceful Aegean world under Rome's domination. New territories were being mapped into the geography books, and they harbored marvels to be seen byany who would consider themselves knowledgeable about the world. Antipater's must-see list of human-made colossi in the world numbered a sacred, lucky seven, the same as the number of the ages of man, days of creation, deadly sins, virtues, liberal arts, and days of the week. For the ancient Greeks, the virgin number seven spelled magic. (Mathematically speaking, it is the only one of the first ten that is neither a factor nor a product of any of the others.)
Antipater's seven wonders consisted of a garden, a temple, a lighthouse, and a pair each of tombs and statues. Though their locales straddled three continents, all lay in the eastern circum-Mediterranean area between the Peloponnese and the Nile delta, and with a single exception, they all dated from the sixth to the third century BC. But you can't blame antiquity's Michelin guide for being temporally and spatially prejudiced. There simply wasn't much more to the known civilized world in the early days of the Roman Empire.
Though history has assigned him full credit for the special seven, Antipater is said to have copied his list from Callimachus, a librarian in the great library of Alexandria who lived a century before him. I believe the idea for a list of any numbered wonders probably goes back beyond both Antipater and Callimachus. It may have been dreamed up by Herodotus, the Greek historian, who preceded Antipater by two centuries, flushed with the grandeur of the blossoming Greek civilization in the wake of her victory over mighty Persia, Herodotus looked back to the surviving relics of the Middle East, upon the ruins of the Minoans and the Myceneans, to whom the pan-Hellenic cultures who would come to control the Aegean for three centuries owed so much for their origins—especially for the great architecture they would erect upon their acropolis. When Alexander the Great united the East and West in the fourth century BC, he linked Greek culture to even more faraway exotic places, like Egypt and Babylon, thus adding both to the historical motivation for list-making and to the choice of objects that would ultimately make up the wondrous roster. But it wasn't until the Renaissance, that time of renewed appreciation and admiration of the world of classical antiquity, that the list of masterpiece monuments became fixed as a standard of Western history.
Few are those who can name all seven undisputed masterpieces (the Parthenon and the Colosseum never made the original list), though practically everybody knows the oldest and the only one of them that remains standing. It is tucked away in the list of the magnificent seven originally introduced by Antipater in a poem, my epigraph to this chapter. "The great man-made mountains" refer specifically to the pyramids, especially the Great Pyramid of Khufu, or Cheops. It was built about 2500 BC in Egypt's Old Kingdom. The lithic essence of Egyptian rulership, the pyramid was intended as a burial place through which the soul of the divine ruler could access the world beyond the living.
From Teotihuacan to Cahokia to Cairo, I have never been able to get away from the notion that all pyramids are man-made mountains. At least that's what the Egyptians called them, the Mountains of the Pharaoh. Making your own mountain is just about as audacious a technological feat as anyone can imagine. Pyramid building, whether in Mexico, Peru, or Egypt, has always been a highly competitive enterprise. Each pharaoh sought to erect a mausoleum more magnificent than that of his predecessor and more innovative as well; for example, Zoser's stepped pyramid, Sneferu's bent pyramid, and architect Imhotep's invention of building pyramids in stone only indicate how high a premium Egyptian people once placed on the afterlife. Khufu's, of course, is the greatest—the Great Pyramid with a capital G—and it comes with the added bonus of a reclining sphinx adjacent to it. No wonder it attracts such a huge volume of tourists.
How colossal is Egypt's Great Pyramid? It covers over 13 acres, and it rests on a precisely leveled perfect (to within 8 inches) square oriented exactly on the cardinal directions; it measures 756 feet on a side, which amounts to a half-mile walk around its perimeter. At 481 feet in height, it was, for nearly 4,500 years (until 1900), the tallest building on the face of the earth (compare 555 feet for the Washington Monument). The 2,300,000 stone blocks that comprise it range between 2 and 15 tons and average 2.5 tons in weight. They are fitted together so tightly that only paper-thin layers of mortar lie between them.
Historian Diodorus of Sicily, who visited it in the first century BC, says it took 360,000 men 20 years to put the Great Pyramid together. Even after 5,000 years there is no universal agreement on how it was built, though University of Chicago Egyptologist Mark Lehner gets my nod for the sanest proposal. Lehner believes the builders constructed a series of wraparound ramps of progressively increasing grades (from 6 to 18.5 degrees) as they approached the top, all accessed from a main supply ramp 320 yards long. Lehner's on-site research has demonstrated that lifting the blocks was made possible only by greasing the ramp with wetted-down, slick clays. A thousand highly trained craftsmen supervised the job, assisted by a rotating workforce of 5,000 to 7,000 men to do the heavy lifting.
The Great Pyramid's interior is pierced with more than half a dozen shafts and chambers, including the 153-foot Grand Gallery, whose 28-foot-high polished limestone walls connect to the Queen's Chamber at one end and the King's Chamber at the other, along with half a mile of ascending and descending corridors designed to baffle tomb robbers in quest of the king's hidden ransom. Can you blame a thief for being attracted to such an obvious treasure marker?
Impossible-to-imagine feats of engineering like the Great Pyramid serve as grist for the mill of ideas that giant pyramids all over the world hold the secret of technological know-how now lost to posterity. Some wonder, have scholars conspired to keep this secret knowledge to themselves? Is there a way to harness this know-how by studying the meticulous details of the pyramid's construction, details that might conceal additional information? Perhaps they evolved a pyramid inch, a precise unit locked into the construction and layout of their edifices, a unit that encapsulates other universal standards of mensuration in the world including pi, the golden mean, maybe even the diameter of the earth and the radius of the solar system. One of the more imaginative pyramid theories alleges that there is a time scale for Armageddon encoded in measurements in pyramid inches between wall marks found in various corridors. There are plenty of other mysteries yet to probe, such as the site of the missing pit where one of the king's wooden boats designed to transport his soul to the underworld lies interred, and the clinging suspicion that despite every high-tech scanning technique employed on it, a concealed chamber holding a wondrous treasure yet resides undiscovered within the bowels of the pyramid.
The walls of the city of Babylon, or more specifically a rooftop garden lying at their summit, constitute the only other one of the seven wonders that predates classical Greece. Some say the garden never existed, but royal gardens were often an element in the structure and layout of Mesopotamian palaces, and since travel writer after travel writer down through the ages speaks of it profusely, it is hard to imagine that this lush royal garden was not a part of antiquity's largest, most impressive city. Several rubble heaps vie for consideration among disputing contemporary archaeologists. The walls that once circumscribed the city have been both partially excavated and fully described by Herodotus, among others. The city is surrounded, he says, "by a broad and deep moat, full of water, behind which rises a wall fifty royal cubits [about 27 yards] in width and 200 in height.... in the middle of the precinct there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong [220 yards] in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers."
To judge by the old historian's description, this garden was a terraced affair, each layer of terrace weighing down the vaulted architecture beneath it. The roofs of the royal apartments below were protected with sheets of lead to keep moisture from penetrating to the next layer; in other words, the whole affair was an aboveground or hanging garden. So lush was the tropical vegetation adorning it (including rushes and fruit and nut trees from all over the world) that from a distance, one chronicler wrote, anyone would suppose the garden to be a veritable woods on the side of a mountain.
Who would build something so unnecessarily elaborate? Love ranks alongside death as one of the great mysteries of life; so tradition spilled down from classical times has it that King Nebuchadnezzar had erected the garden in the seventh century BC for his foreign wife, who came from the wooded mountains of Medea. Amid the oriental vegetation in this lush man-made mountain environment his queen could feel at home while she held court.
If Khufu's pyramid is a marvel in stone, Nebuchadnezzar's Hanging Gardens might more appropriately be termed a water wonder. The Babylonians were masters of hydrology. Had they not been able to irrigate the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates (flooded marshes in the wet season and desiccated, baked clay surfaces in dry periods), they never would have been able to evolve the high culture that would pass down to us our learned proficiency in the astronomical sciences and the mathematics of arithmetic. An inscription on the stela of Assurnasirpal tells of canal water that came flowing down the intricately winding artificial stream, waterfall, and cascades along pathways scented with flowers and "sparkling like the stars in heaven."
The world's greatest work of art? A statue of the king of the gods carved by a world-famous sculptor in the city that originated the Olympic games ranks as one of the five remaining marvels, all of them from the Greek sphere. The statue of the Olympian Zeus was destroyed several centuries after it was carved by Pheidias, when Christians, who forbade worship in the pagan temples in which it was situated, had it removed to decorate a church in Constantinople. Within a century the church perished in a fire that also consumed the statue, flecks of stone in the temple that once housed it still attest to its roots, and a representation of it has been unearthed on an old Greek coin. Pheidias, who already had acquired a reputation from his two great statues on the Athenian acropolis, was commissioned by his friend, the Athenian ruler Pericles, to create the primary cult image in the temple dedicated to the worship of Zeus.
The seated figure, clad in a golden robe below the waist, an olive spray about the head, and wearing golden sandals, held a staff in one hand and a gold and ivory winged Victory in the other. The statue's base alone measured nearly seven yards wide, ten yards deep, and a yard high. Gaudy and oversized by present-day standards, the Olympian Zeus was made mostly of ivory-covered wood. It was over 40 feet tall, as high as a three-story commoner's house. The second-century Greek traveler Pausanias tells us that the throne was decorated with gold, precious stones, ivory, and ebony. Tools cast out from the temple excavated by archaeologists and dated to the same time period seem to be consistent with those suitable for work with such materials. A broken jug found amid the rubble bears the inscription "I belong to Pheidias."
The site of Antipater's favorite wonder (to judge by his poem in the epigraph) lies in Ephesus, one of the most popular tourist venues of antiquity. Located along the central Aegean coast of Turkey, a region now being actively reexploited for tourism by vacation cruise liners and museum lecture tours, this ancient Greek colonial city is frequently highlighted in Sunday supplements, where it is justly touted to be even more impressive than Pompeii. The Temple of Diana or Artemis, a huge shrine built on a scale never before attempted, is positioned today on waterlogged turf below the hilltop city. Only a single (reconstructed) column gives testimony to its ancient architectural grandeur. If the Egyptian temple is the house of the God and the Christian cathedral the house of the people, then the Greek temple, writes classicist Bluma Trell, is the house of the soul. Her reconstruction of a model of the Temple of Artemis for the British Museum makes it out to be a rectangular colonnaded marble building positioned in a huge open courtyard. From different locations within it one can view its exquisite geometric proportions from every conceivable angle. Marble steps lead up to the high platform (425 by 255 feet). Devoid of the elaborate overdecoration and sculptural detail that would impress a later age, the Temple of Artemis exhibited slender, fluted Ionic columns and a figureless frieze. It had windows in its pediment, and its doorway was flanked by statues of Amazons surrounded by a forest of more than ten dozen columns.
Although experts disagree on precisely where the image of Artemis was actually positioned, Greek and Roman historians tell us that pilgrims came from far and wide into the port city for sanctuary and to make offerings to her, for she was one of the oldest cult deities in the Middle East. In a scene reminiscent of Lourdes or Notre Dame, we can imagine the merchants who once plied their wares outside the crowded courtyards, peddling miniatures of the cultic statue, oracles, even hunks of sacrificial meat "hot off the altar." "Great is Diana of the Ephesians," cried the devotees of the temple when it was thought to be threatened with destruction by the preaching of the Apostle Paul (Acts 19).
Our word "mausoleum" has become a generic term thanks to old King Maussollos, who ruled Caria (a small state just south of Ephesus) in the fourth century BC. His tomb at Halicarnassus (today Bodrum) also made the top seven, I think at least in part because it was so huge. Today there is nothing left of it but a hodgepodge of chunks of the frieze in the British Museum, in addition to a few on-site scattered drums of marble and the outlines of a tombed chamber and its adjacent blocking stone. Pliny, the Roman historian of the first century, describes the magnificent place (made by Queen Artemisia, with the expertise of five supervising artists and architects, to house the remains of her deceased husband) as 63 feet long, 4,440 feet in circumference, 25 cubits [37.5 feet] high, and ringed by 36 columns, the top of it crowned by a marble four-horse chariot 140 feet above ground level and accessed by a 24-step stairway. So it stood for more than a millennium, until a thirteenth-century earthquake toppled the structure and its remains were quarried to build the nearby castle of the Knights of St. John. Still, most of Pliny's description is borne out by the archaeological excavations.
The Colossus of Rhodes, an island off the southwest coast of Turkey, is the third of seven wonders situated within a 1,500-square-mile area of the eastern Aegean's Turkish coast. It dates to 280 BC, just about the time the spoils of Alexander the Great's vast empire were being subdivided. Rhodian warfare was involved in the construction of this must-see sight. The brave citizens of Rhodes had defended their city—a symbol of freedom of trade—against all odds by withstanding a year-long siege. To memorialize the occasion, the citizenry sold the equipment abandoned on their shores by Demetrius the Besieger and spent the money on creating a bronze statue of Helios, the sun god, 100 feet tall (compare it with the 152-foot Statue of Liberty, whose sculptor is said to have had the Colossus in mind when he made it). We know less about the Colossus of Rhodes than the other six wonders of the world, for there are no remains whatsoever to be sifted for clues, just scant descriptions by the historians of antiquity (Figure 1).
The complicated method for casting such a huge statue in bronze is, I think, what impresses us most today. As the historian Philo of Byzantium describes the process:
Having built a base of white marble, the artist first fixed upon it the feet of the Colossus up to the height of the ankle-joints, having worked out the proportions suitable to a divine image destined to stand to a height of seventy cubits; for the sole of the foot already exceeded in length the height of other statues. For this reason it was impossible to hoist up the rest of the statue and place it upon the feet, but the ankles had to be cast upon the feet and, as when a house is built, the whole work had to rise upon itself.
And for this reason, while other statues are first modeled, then dismembered for casting in parts, and finally recomposed and erected, in this case, after the first part had been cast, the second was modeled upon it, and for the following part again the same method of working was adopted.... In order to prosecute the plan of operations on a firm basis throughout, the artist heaped up a huge mound of earth round each section as soon as it was completed, thus burying the finished work under the accumulated earth, and carrying out the casting of the next part on the level.
So, going up bit by bit, he reached the goal of his endeavor.
The Colossus also holds the record as shortest lived of the magnificent seven. The earthquake that hacked off the solar deity at the knee and toppled him in 226 BC, barely two generations after the statue was built, is said by Strabo to have left it still as impressive a sight prostrate as when it was standing. Leading kingdoms around the Aegean were so respectful of the metal mammoth that they pitched in with the intention of having it resurrected, though a Rhodian oracle later forbade them to put it back together. There lay the giant for nearly another thousand years for tourists to admire and poets to romanticize about, until the Arab occupancy of Rhodes in AD 654, when the whole of it was melted down for scrap.
Since the city of Alexandria, the rival of Athens positioned on the south coast of the Mediterranean on the continent of Africa, became the seat of Greek grandeur in later times, it fittingly deserves a wonder of its own. Any number of Alexandria's buildings could have qualified: for example, the famous library and the Temple of the Muses (from which we derive our word "museum"). But its lighthouse, or Pharos, was the crown jewel of the city that was founded by and named after the great liberator of Egypt from Persia. Based on an amalgamation of historical descriptions, some more reliable than others (one travel writer inflates its height to an impossible 1,836 feet), as well as its appearance on a number of coins, the Lighthouse of Alexandria seems to have been a three-tiered structure over 350 feet high: approximately 180 feet for the first cylindrical (or square?) stage, 90 for the second octagonal, and 45 for the third, again cylindrical. It was originally crowned with a statue of Zeus 15 feet high and perched on an island tucked close in to the harbor, so that every boat traveler entering the narrow mouth of the harbor could be awed by its skyscraping magnificence. This wonder too was done in by earthquakes, the first of them in the middle of the ninth century, and then finished off by another pair early in the thirteenth. Today a fifteenth-century Islamic fort occupies the site.
Both material and motive ring clear in this list of the original top seven handiworks so long admired by the West: mastery of stone and mastery of water, figural works of art in decorated wood and bronze, and works of architecture that reveal a subtle, exquisite geometry; a work for a husband and one for a wife; gifts of love to honor the dead and to exalt the gods; a pleasure dome, the symbol of a city, and a war memorial. The central role of religious worship that underlies the canon of marvelous achievements cannot be overstated. Pilgrims and patriots once came to revere these bigger-than-life one-of-a-kinds not to be missed by the eye of the informed traveler. They still do. To really understand the grandeur of human achievement, you too must experience all of them at least once.
Updating the List: From the Colosseum to Mount Rushmore
Since Antipater, the list of wonders—like all select canons—has changed with the times. Other wonders, even other lists, have appeared, especially during the Roman Empire, when tourism and list-making became exceedingly popular, as they are today. For example, the historian Diodorus lobbied to get the obelisk of Babylonian queen Semiramis included, and the Roman poet Martial thought the Colosseum to be easily the equal of any of the original seven. Likewise, the Great Hypostyle Hall in Rameses II's Temple of Amun at Karnak (Thebes) has often been mentioned.
Criteria changed too. A list by the sixth-century bishop Gregory of Tours included Noah's Ark and the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem, both important to the history of early Christianity, even if they had vanished from the face of the earth. A ninth-century list reveals the loss of worldliness and the ancient past characteristic of the Dark Ages. It included the Lighthouse, the Colossus, and the Temple of Artemis, but it replaced the other four in favor of the Capitolium, a statue of Bellerophon (the Greek hero), a stadium, and a bathhouse—all located in the city of Rome.
By the Renaissance, when remains of practically all the hallmarks of antiquity had disappeared, imaginative writers, poets, and painters found the need to recreate them. The French artist Jean Cousin the Younger and the Dutch sixteenth-century painter Maarten van Heemskerck made engravings, and in his Outline for Historical Architecture (1721), the Viennese architect Johann Fischer von Erlach reproduced from historical descriptions his own "true versions" of the Seven Wonders (I think they all look rather dated; see Figure 1). Other nominees from among buildings that still exist include the Great Wall of China, England's Stonehenge, and Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa.
What would a new millennial list of seven wonders comprise? One might begin by asking: What great marvels of construction technology attract today's tourist? A review of the travel sections of modern Sunday newspapers gives some answers. A winner that would surely enter my select circle is the world's best-known mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, yet another epitome of a man's love for a woman. Built by the seventeenth-century Mogul emperor Shah Jahan in Agra in the north of India to honor his queen Mumtaz Mahal, the onion-shaped domes of the Taj are today imitated all over the world. Inspired by the premature loss of his wife (she died in childbirth), the king chose an architect to supervise 20,000 men and women who worked night and day on the building for 22 years. So approving was Shah Jahan of their work that he chopped off the hands of the master builders and blinded the calligraphers so that they could never build another building to rival the Taj—or so goes the legend.
The Taj Mahal is a monument to lavishness built in a romantic age by an extravagant, extraordinarily wealthy individual. When they conquered India, the British were so impressed with the building that they made plans to dismantle it stone by stone and reassemble it in England. The Taj's main gate measures over 100 feet high; it is arched and studded with knobs made of different metals. Viewed through the gate, the distant main building looks small, but when approached along the straight, parallel paths flanking the walled garden and reflecting pool whose axis bisects it, the 220-foot-high main dome inflates like a colossal balloon. Its bell shape is said to have been variously inspired by the tents of the Tartars, the Himalayas, the clouds, a ripe pear, a woman's milk-filled breast, even the lowly haystacks found in the countryside surrounding Agra. Approaching the building that houses the queen's remains (later the king would be entombed there as well), the eye catches sight of the inlaid precious stones that adorn the facade. An octagonal marble screen carved in filigree surrounds the polychrome caskets, elaborately decorated with calligraphy. In a country divided by religion and class, the Taj, so dedicated to the ideals of love, stands as the singular enduring work that unites a love in all Indian people.
Though I described the Pharos at Alexandria as a skyscraper, the penchant for building really tall towers didn't take on a competitive air until late in the nineteenth century. The Eiffel Tower held the record for tallest human-made edifice from 1889, the year it was completed, until 1929. It exudes that unparalleled charisma that comes from the notion of building big just for the sake of big. This Paris tower was a monument built to progress and posterity, the potential of the Western world's Industrial Revolution and engineering prowess. The skills of engineer Gustave Eiffel would inspire Frédéric Bartholdi's design of the statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World." Commissioned as the centerpiece for the Paris World's Fair of 1889, specifically to be a tower a thousand feet tall, Eiffel's tower would show the world that Belle Epoque France in its Third Republic had not only survived humiliation at the hands of the Prussians in 1870 but had also escaped with a resurgent economy and a fully paid-up war debt, emerging as the leader of industrial Europe. It took years to erect the 986-foot iron-frame structure. A testimony to improvements in refinement and smelting in the iron industry of the nineteenth century, it cost 6 percent less than the allotted $1.6 million budget, all of this despite expert opinions that any structure so tall would collapse, sink, or be blown over by wind gusts.
In 1929 the Chrysler Building in New York City, at 1,046 feet, was ranked number one, but within two years it would be surpassed by the Empire State Building, which topped out at 1,250 feet, from sidewalk-level main entrance to the structural top. Disqualifying factory chimneys and antennae (which are not permitted by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the official organization for determining the heights of buildings), the record was toppled in turn by the World Trade Center (1,350 feet), the Sears Tower in Chicago (1,450 feet), and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (1,483 feet). Proposed future record setters include Seven South Dearborn in Chicago (1,537 feet) and the São Paulo Tower (1,622 feet).
"To make over a mountain into the form of a human head," writes art historian Simon Schama, "is perhaps the ultimate colonization of nature by culture, the alteration of landscape to manscape." Such an invasion, especially on a grand scale, is warranted only by the most audacious and accomplished culture.
Along the same line, sculptor Gutzon Borglum wrote, "A monument's dimensions should be determined by the importance to civilization of the events commemorated." For Borglum, the Idaho son of a Danish Mormon immigrant who would shape mountains, nothing could be too great to symbolize the spirit of America. When he single-mindedly set out to carve the faces of four great presidents on Mount Rushmore's granite cliffs in the late 1920's, the Seven Wonders of the World gleamed brightly in Borglum's mind's eye. All other monumental sculptures would be mere pygmies beside the countenances of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt, who would symbolize not only the greatness of four men but also the endurance of a political social philosophy, as the outspoken superpatriotic Borglum put it. Borglum's view from the twenties envisioned a nation that had struggled through wars of independence and the interpretation of the word "freedom" in its hard-won constitution to emerge by saving Europe and all of Western civilization from the tyranny of Prussia.
What better place to celebrate America's grandeur than in its newly expanded heartland, on the spine of a body of land being possessed, mastered, and tamed by the frontier spirit, far from the decay of eastern urbanity. What better material than the solid rock that made up the foundation of the nation's expanded continent. What an original stroke of genius, thought Borglum, when compared to mere copies of standards of antiquity typical of America's other great architectural symbols, such as the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.
The idea to carve faces on the Needles, the granitic spires that make up South Dakota's Black Hills, was inspired as early as 1924 by Doane Robertson, the state's historian, who had heard of Borglum's terra-sculpture at Stone Mountain in Georgia. There Borglum, the budding earth sculptor, had been chiseling away on a 20-foot head of General Robert E. Lee (it was never completed because of a dispute over funding). Looking for a way to attract tourists along the newly built highways of mid-America, Robertson invited Borglum to inspect a variety of sites. Full-scale operations began three years later, thanks to private donations, which turned out to be a pittance given what Borglum had in mind. An ardent self-promoter with messianic ambition, Borglum would frequently lobby Washington to seek support for the project. He succeeded in attracting penny-pinching President Coolidge to the site and exacting some funds from him, finally eliciting full federal support from the Roosevelt administration in 1934.
Every day Borglum would appear with his assistants suspended from cables attached to hand winches on the contoured profiles of his subjects. What had been shaped roughly with carefully placed charges of dynamite was now gradually smoothed by drills of decreasing size to resemble faces familiar to all. A crack here, a blemish there slowed the laborious path to perfection trod by the genius stonemason. By the end of the project 400,000 tons of granite rubble had fallen away into a heap at the foot of the cliff below the memorial, liberating the four artificially lighted male countenances. How big is the Colossus of Rushmore? If Washington's 60-foot-long face had a body of proportionate size, he would be 470 feet tall; he could cover a mile in 20 paces and wade knee-deep across the Mississippi. He could do the limbo under the Brooklyn Bridge, reach the tip of the Washington Monument, and touch the top of the Saint Louis arch as he passed two head lengths beneath it.
After the American flag was lifted from the face of the final figure at the 1938 unveiling, an awed President Roosevelt, who had not planned to speak, abruptly changed his mind and uttered these words:
On many occasions when a new project is presented to you on paper, and then, later on, you see the accomplishment, you are disappointed, but it is just the opposite of that in what we are looking at now. I had seen the photographs, I had seen the drawings, and I had talked with those who are responsible for this great work, and yet I had no conception, until about ten minutes ago, not only of its magnitude but also of its permanent beauty and importance.
I cannot imagine a list of seven modern wonders without at least one bridge. Like the tallest tower, the longest bridge need not necessarily be the most spectacular today. I think what matters more is when the mark was set and for how long the holder held the record—the same sort of magic that still keeps Babe Ruth towering over Mark McGwire and Roger Bannister ahead of all those nameless record-breaking milers. Viewed in their own time, two such bridges come to mind: the Brooklyn and San Francisco's Golden Gate, the mid-thirties' longest and tallest suspension span that tamed a turbulent tide-turning channel second only to Sicily's Straits of Messina in unpredictability.
This west-coast Depression miracle, engineered by Joseph Strauss, took four and a half years to build and cost two dozen lives. The pits that house its bases were dug deep enough to swallow a twelve-story building. Its 80,000 miles of wire were plied into bundles to cover a 4,300-foot span. Towers 746 feet above sea level required 22,000 tons of steel held together by 600,000 rivets. Better known today as a prime site for gravity-assisted suicides (and built in a city that tallies more than its share), the Golden Gate vies with Eiffel's tower (which is actually a distant second) for the top spot in that dubious category of places to die from (13.1 per year vs. 4.2; however, the many bridges of the Seine offer multiple convenient alternative venues for despondent and downtrodden Parisians).
Along with bridges and towers, my nominations for the list of other wonders of engineering include two canals, the Suez (opened in 1869) and the Panama (completed in 1914). Motives for constructing canals were as practical as those that resulted in great bridges, and they were at least as challenging to build. Panama's malarial swamps utterly defeated the French and exacted a severe toll on the American workforce that ultimately took over and completed the project. Dams should belong on the list too: Italy's Vaiont, America's Hoover, and Egypt's Aswan, probably the most impressive since it necessitated moving the colossal statues of Rameses II and reassembling them piece by piece in an artificially constructed environment. That feat in itself is a wonder of the world.
The Palace of Versailles, on the other hand, belongs not so much with wondrous works that stagger the techno-imagination but rather with those that inspire the soul. Like the Eiffel Tower, it falls into the "elegant, but is this really necessary?" category. Still, like his contemporary Shah Jahan, Louis XIV was an archetypal seventeenth-century monarch of extravagant tastes. His baths, beds, even his clothing, were decorated with gold and precious stones, and he was often said to have received leaders of foreign states weighed down and stoop shouldered in a diamond-encrusted robe. Being a connoisseur of architecture, among many other crafts, he also elaborately decorated his famous palace at Versailles. (London's Crystal Palace and Chicago's 1893 Exposition belong in this ostentatious category too.) Louis XIV's line, a symbol of the extraordinary concentration of wealth and power, would collapse under the bloody French Revolution within a hundred years of his death.
When we think of today's wonders, those of nature such as the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and Old Faithful usually take center stage. We often apply the word itself to life-saving drugs. We speak of the wonders of laser surgery, gene manipulation, and space exploration. All are marvels of modern technology, absolute necessities in promoting progress. And let's not forget the wondrous fantasy of Disney World.
The lists of great works any culture would deem marvelous go on and on, and they will forever change. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once remarked that secular modern man worships nothing more than his own development, especially the things that have marked its pinnacles through time). As long as the appetite for building on a grand scale remains alive in us, the concept of Wonders of the World as it was originally conceived in antiquity will endure. "Volume, great mass . . . this is what has the greatest emotional effect on the observer. While quality of form affects the mind, volume shocks the nerve or soul centers," wrote Gutzon Borglum. Eiffel himself said as much. So we single out archaic antiquity's pyramids, Europe's soaring Gothic cathedrals, and young America's statues. In an age of cultural diversity, as we run the lists of colossi, both past and present, of foreign and domestic lands—China's Wall, India's Taj, Mexico's Teotihuacan, and a mountain carving of Chief Crazy Horse sure to dwarf the neighboring white men's heads of Rushmore (if it is ever completed)— I wonder, is the appetite for sheer scale and magnitude timeless as well as transcultural?
Why place such eternal and grandiose thoughts in the minds of my readers if not to set the stage for the wondrous work that I intend to probe in this book, for everything that has ever been said about the Pyramid of Cheops and Borglum's faces has been applied to it. With big ideas in our heads we turn to a wonder oft described in pictures in magazines and travel supplements, a spectacular achievement of the human hand accorded regular appointments in National Geographic and other popular pictorials, more than once assigned the label "Eighth Wonder of the World."
The Nasca lines constitute one of the greatest human ventures in earth moving. Without question they are spectacular, these multimile-long straight lines, geometrical figures, zigzag scrawls, spirals, and animal figures the size of a football field—all of them laid out on the warm, hazy desert between the Ingenio and Nasca river valleys on the south coast of Peru. Their mammoth size and sheer number attract our attention. We are surprised by their widespread distribution over an area that looks so inhospitable, a lifeless place where it almost never rains. The Nasca lines raise questions that beg for rational answers: Why move thousands of tons of dirt around on a barren desert to create such fantastic drawings for no apparent reason? Why invest the vast amount of time that must have been required to construct such enormous figures, especially if nobody could appreciate looking at them from the ground? How could the construction on such a grand scale of such perfectly proportioned earth pictures actually have been accomplished? Was there a plan, a blueprint? What technology was needed to erect them? Were they, like the marvels created by Borglum and Eiffel, conceived by a single monomaniacal individual?
Surprisingly, few of the world's most famous wonders have been less well understood than the Nasca lines, the last of which we now know was constructed about a thousand years ago. Runways for visiting astronauts, a map of the world, the site of pre-Columbian Olympic games: such have been the fanciful interpretations of these ruins, now being threatened by the onslaught of tourists who make their way to this part of the pampa, as the locals call the desert here.
As with the Seven Wonders, there are so many ideas about motive and meaning underlying the mystery on the desert, so much old information about the place that needs to be corrected, and a flood of new information not many people actually know about the Nasca lines, including informed tourists who have flown over them and gawked at them.
If we dig deep enough, persist long enough, there's a fair bit of history to read between the lines, and when it is put in chronological order we can begin to appreciate what Frederick Jackson Turner meant when he said that history is written by the eye of the viewer set in its own time frame far apart from the object it views. To read the complex story written in these enigmatic earth sculptures spread over hundreds of square miles of barren desert, we must trek through the history of Nasca as seen through the eyes of many beholders over a multitude of ages—and so we begin our journey over, around, and beneath the surface of one of the great wonders of the world.
The Great Scratchpad on the Landscape
What tornadoes are to Kansans and Mount Kilauea is to Hawaiians, the slow process of mountain building was to the inhabitants of Nasca. People become victims of the forces of nature. The high Andes are relatively young as mountains go, raised a mere 200 million years ago by the Nasca continental plate, the eastern edge of which is located off the coast of South America's continental landmass. Contact with the upthrusted edge of the plate amounts to a seemingly insignificant tenth of an inch of lift per year on the average. As the mountains steadily rise higher and higher, the action of rivers slowly erodes away the deeply sloping landscape. The result is a set of gorges running east to west down which mountain rains and other nutrients plummet to the narrow coastal strip.
Anthropologists have characterized the Nasca area as a crossroads because so many resources capable of sustaining sedentary civilizations come together in the narrow coastal strip where it is located. First of all, thanks to the Humboldt current, Nasca lies in the heart of one of the greatest fishing areas in the world. Second, the fertile valleys of the floodplains are ideal for growing maize, manioc, and sweet potatoes. Third, the vertical ecological environment of the mountains that can produce a variety of crops at different levels is not so far away.
In ribbonlike lush valleys such as Nasca, the first sedentary people began to farm as early as the second millennium BC. Had they not invented irrigation canals to extend the sporadic rapid flow of water across the space of the valley, they could not have survived, for rain is scarce on the south coast. Constantly battling the erosive action of the rivers that worked their grinding power on the lifting landscape (some levels have risen faster than others, up to 20 feet in the past two thousand years), farmers slowly retreated toward the ever shrinking coast in search of irrigable land. This battle waged for land and water would emerge as a constant theme in shaping the three or more millennia of social contact among peoples of the coast, and as we would discover, it would ultimately figure in the construction and use of the Nasca lines. Here people truly were victimized by nature, and there is evidence to prove it.
Our wonder of the world lies neither in the high mountains nor in the rich low-lying, ever shifting farmlands that hug the rivers but in the delicate watershed of the space between coast and highlands. Today the western portion of the continent of South America beyond the Andes is outlined by a narrow coastal strip 2,500 miles long and up to about 100 miles in width. Geographers call it a foggy desert. The most arid portion of this region runs from northern Chile (the Atacama Desert) to southern Peru, where moisture from the Pacific Ocean is blocked by a thin mountain chain between desert and coast. This explains the low measurable rainfall, which occurs on the average of once in several years. The desert terrain is the pampa, rough tablelands carved by those deep, lush gorges that connect the high Andes with the coast. These interriverine lands are scarred by quebradas, shallow streambeds and gullies that have lain dry for centuries.
One such gorge is carved by the Río Grande, 250 miles south of Lima. About 30 miles from the Pacific and 1,000 feet above sea level, several tributaries join to form the Río Grande de Nasca drainage system: the Vizcas, Santa Cruz, and Río Grande from the north, the Ingenio from the east, and the Nasca and Trancas from the southeast. Each runs in the summer months from November to February, offering a verdant contrast to an otherwise dry landscape. It is in this region that the Nasca culture flourished some 1,250-2,000 years ago. Between the valley strips irrigated by the Ingenio and Nasca rivers lies one of the many elevated dry plains. Crisscrossed by quebradas running generally northeast to southwest, the 100-square-mile, triangular Nasca pampa is bounded on the north by the Ingenio River, on the south and west by the Nasca River, and on the east and northeast by the foothills of the Andes, at the base of which the Pan-American Highway runs (Figure 2).
Smaller subpampas that make up this region all have different names, most of them of modern origin. For example, the northern zone—the one with all the famous animal figures—is variously called the Pampa de los Incas, the Pampa Jumana, the Pampa del Calendario, and the Pampa San José on older maps. The western zone is called the Pampa Majuelos, and the southeastern zone, which is nestled up against the Andes and bordered by the Pan-American Highway, is termed the Pampa Cinco Cruces, or the Pampa of the Five Crosses. Sometimes these names tell us a lot about who has been to the pampa and for what reason. My friend Ralph Cané, an engineer from Santiago, Chile, and a longtime explorer and aficionado of Peruvian antiquity, believes the latter derives from the crosses that mark the burial place of five criminals who were captured there after repeatedly assaulting travelers along this lonely stretch of highway. He wrote me in 1990, "The original burials were marked with Huarango [tree] crosses. These crosses broke down over the years, and one of my first excursions onto the pampa with Duncan Masson was to look for and retrieve one of the remaining original crosses. We found it and it should be still at Duncan's home in Ica." (Masson, who had explored the pampa since the thirties from his quarters at the Dunes Hotel, died in the late eighties.) Five crosses still clearly visible from the Pan-American Highway mark the spot today.
On this ancient alluvial plain appear the celebrated Nasca geoglyphs, also variously called ground drawings, markings, or simply the Nasca lines. From an airplane, they look like a tangled mass, overlapping and intersecting one another (Figure 3). My first impression was of an unerased blackboard at the end of a busy day of classroom activities. As an astronomer, I also thought of the surface of the moon, an area totally unfit for life in any form. The pampas are strewn with angular broken pieces of stone—flat, angular rock fragments ranging from thumb size up to chunks as large as a foot in diameter. Most of these rocks got there when ancient flooding tumbled them down from the Andes.
Trapezoids, rectangles, straight lines, spirals, concentric ray systems, and animal, plant, even humanoid shapes dot the pampa. Tourists can fly over several birds, a few fish, a monkey, a spider, and a flower, as well as several other life forms; there is no universal agreement on their identification. (We will probe them all in detail in Chapter 5.) Some of the trapezoids are immense, up to a quarter-mile on their longest side. The animal geoglyphs are much smaller, usually tens of yards in dimension, or less than a football field in area. But it is the lines, many up to a few miles long and ranging in width from a narrow footpath up to hundreds of yards, that form by far the largest share of the drawings.
Although the Nasca geoglyphs generally appear as stark, light-colored features on a dark background in aerial photographs, it is not widely known that some of them can be seen, if with some difficulty, by ascending any of the small peaks or dunes that circle the pampa, particularly on the north and west. Have a look at Figure 4 for an example.
Ever since I laid eyes on them more than 25 years ago, I have felt that the Nasca figures should really be thought of as etchings. They were, after all, constructed by a subtractive or removal process. The etching proceeded by taking away the dark rock fragments that coat the floor of the pampa. Long before human occupation, these broken, angled pieces had been covered over several millennia by desert varnish, a dark oxide layer deposited there by airborne microorganisms. The difference in darkness between the exposed and unoxidized sides of a piece of pampa rock can be quite noticeable, as Figure 5 shows. Once this dark surface material is removed, the underlying unoxidized layer, which is composed of light-colored alluvial soil, is visible. The contrast can be even more dramatic when viewed from an airplane; it is further heightened by the black rim or border created by the detritus neatly deposited there by the builders of the lines. These hummocks of rock fragments range in height from an inch or so up to a yard.