Few people can have had many thrills quite like the one Hiram Bingham had when he discovered ruins of what had once been an Incan city, unexpectedly and precariously perched on the knife-edge of a ridge joining two peaks, Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, high in the Andes Mountain Range in Peru. He was excited, but also mystified. Was it an abandoned Incan city – or a monastery? or a fortress? or a “University of Idolatry”, as some later suggested? In 1911, Bingham was not in a position to know quite what it was that he had discovered. There were precious few clues on the site, apart from the snugly fitted, massive stones that manifestly had once constituted walls, lanes, stairways, aqueducts, drains, and other constructions of monumental architecture. These stone ruins can be reached by a three days’ walk along Incan trails that follow high ridges, winding northwest from the ancient Incan capital city, Cuzco. But Bingham did not follow the high trails of the Incas. Being an explorer of European descent, he followed rivers that plunged, at first westwards, down steep, narrow valleys, but destined eventually to feed into the Amazon Basin, in the jungles far away to the northeast, and to empty into the Atlantic Ocean. From the jungles of the valley floor, Bingham climbed up to these ruins on a ridge far above him. When he reached the ridge and saw the secret stones there, he was elated, and intrigued. Many years later, comic books appeared with a dashing hero, “Indiana Jones”, an archaeologist from an American University, who was in some ways rather like Bingham; and later, these comics were translated into a series of Hollywood movies. The comics and movies no doubt leave out many of the more tedious tasks required of 3 archaeologists in their daily work – but they do convey some giddy feelings, and wild fantasies, a little like those that might sometimes buzz about inside an explorer’s head, on discovering a mysterious site like Machu Picchu. Before discovering these ruins, Bingham had sifted through written records, seeking clues to the locations of lost Incan cities, and found none mentioning this place.
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