Tuesday, 24 December 2013

33. Wonder: Nazca Lines

(For the Nazca Lines preview, please click here.)

Deserts are mysterious places. Seemingly dead, they are silent and barren, stretching into the distance, only sand and rocks filling the void. But look closer and they have secrets. The Jordanian desert hid Petra from the world for centuries, the Taklamakan desert hides countless Buddhist buildings and artefacts (including hidden cave networks), and in southern Peru, the Nazca Desert has hundreds and hundreds of lines and drawings scrawled across it, barely visible from land but suddenly apparent when flying above it.

Created over the centuries during the 1st millennium AD, the Nazca Lines were only rediscovered in the late 1920s when commercial flights began to fly across the desert. Pilots began to comment upon the unusual markings and, slowly, further investigation began. This is the commonly told discovery story and holds some attraction - ancient mysteries being unexpectedly uncovered by modern technology. Some credit, however, should go to a Peruvian archaeologist called Toribio Mejia Xesspe who discovered them, seemingly independently, around the same time, but from ground level.  Together with an American archaeologist, he'd climbed a dune to get a better view of a burial site. Turning around, he'd seen the strange desert markings, which to him appeared to be pathways. He gave them some study, as early as 1927, but only seems to have got round to publishing his findings in 1939. Not many people paid attention to him. Obscure Peruvian archaeological findings published over a decade after their discovery seems not to have captured the public imagination.

But reports and images from the pilots slowly did. It wasn't just lines, it was shapes, and for the sharp-eyed, pictures too. From his terrestial viewpoint, Xesspe had thought them to be pathways, but they were surely more than just this. But why would ancient people create giant pictures that could only be seen from sky? Were they some kind of messages to the gods?

Danielle and I opted to be gods for our first method of viewing the lines, and took a small flight over the highlights. The modern day town of Nazca well provides for this, and we'd booked it through our hostel within minutes of arriving. For $90 each, we booked a 6-seater Cessna 206 aircraft (two pilots, four passengers), for a twisting and diving half-hour flight over the desert. Nazca's dinky airport is called the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport and is just one of many things named after the woman (Maria Reiche, I'm not sure where the Neuman comes from) who effectively turned the lines from a curious desert phenomenon to an internationally famed mystery and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as of 1995). Flights from elsewhere in Peru land here, so I gather, although it seems hard to believe upon seeing the small terminal packed with stalls devoted to tourist flights across the Nazca Lines and the small airstrip lined with the tiny aircraft designed to do so. This is an airport dedicated to the Lines. Just a few years ago, there were a series of incidents, some of which involved crashes into the desert and numerous fatalities, and since then the small Nazca industry has been allegedly reformed. The aircraft are now well maintained, and two pilots rather that just the one fly on each journey. This seems to have kept tourism keen, although the British Foreign Office are less so, still stating on their website "There are serious risks involved in flying over the Nazca Lines. There have been a number of fatal accidents and emergencies particularly involving planes operating from the Maria Reiche airport. Subsequent investigations showed that aircraft safety and maintenance standards were not being implemented. Though some improvements to operating practices have been made, problems continue to be reported." Hopefully, for Nazca's sake, the might of UNESCO is happy. Crashing planes into World Heritage Sites is not a UNESCO approved activity, and the town of Nazca, for which the lines is the lifeblood, doesn't want to do anything to jeopardise their sacred listing.

I can't speak for every aircraft there, but the one arranged via our hostel appeared to be in good working order, and not the chugging skybucket I'd half expected. In worse shape was my camera, which precisely on cue, stopped working. Since the very beginning of the Inca Trail, it's developed an uncanny knack for crapping out at the key moments, with the lens going out then retracting a couple of times upon being switched on, like a snail poking its head out of its shell then deciding "Nah..." I was able to take photos right up until standing on the runway, whereby my camera decided its job was done for the day. Fortunately, I commandeered Danielle's little camera, and to be honest, I don't think it hugely affected the quality of my photos. After all, you can't blame the camera when you have a photographer who does the like of this.

The half-hour journey across the desert is notoriously choppy. Two passengers sit on the left, and the others two sit, as you'd imagine, on the right. The plane gives both sides the best view possible of the Nazca pictures and it does this by banking steep left, turning sharply, and banking steep right. Sick bags are provided, and nausea is widely reported. Danielle and I had countered this by taking a magic pill an hour before the journey, and mine appeared to be very effective - I suffered no discomfort at all. Danielle on the other hand, upon getting back to the hostel, spent four hours in bed trying to feel human again.

But a good Wonder is worth a bit of nausea, so were the Nazca Lines worth it? Well, kind of. The area of desert containing the various lines are 400 square miles, which sounds a huge amount. Indeed it is, but you have to be careful with large sounding figures which have been squared. 400 square miles is the equivalent of 20 miles by 20 miles: still very large, but the amount is now more comprehensible. Additionally, the showstopper pictures are in a much smaller area, of just 10 square miles, just to the south bank of the Ingenio River. The monkey - possibly the most famous of them all - is 90 metres by 60 metres. That's quite big - but when you're around 500 metres up in an aircraft, it doesn't look so epic. In fact, flying over the desert, looking at the lines, they seem somewhat petite. The gods of 1500 years ago would have had to really concentrate to see what the Nazca people were getting at.

The above picture has the whale. See it? It's top-centre. Here's a cropped and zoomed version.

As a result, the flight over the Nazca Lines are less of a grand spectacle, and more of a picture-spotting exercise. The co-pilot makes the job much easier, and was very clear to describe and pinpoint the exact locations of each picture as we flew over them. Otherwise, much of the time I'd have struggled to spot many. I snapped away with Danielle's camera and hoped for the best. Here are three shots. See what you can make out. I've added the zoomed-in, cropped versions after.

The flight is definitely the best regular way to view the lines (no doubt a hot air balloon would be better, but I don't think this is commonly available) but it's definitely more of a novelty rather than a mind-blowing experience. It focuses on the pictures, but to my mind the countless and often very long lines and the numerous, and often massive (the largest is about 140,000 square metres), trapezoids are more impressive. The trapezoids especially look alien against the landscape, and it's not difficult to see why the more imaginative (i.e. crazy) of investigators pronounced them landing strips for extra-terrestrials.

Few of the world's Wonders have been less understood than Nazca Lines. We only have the merest idea about the people who created them, and less so about their reasons why. We don't even know their name. Peru's written history only begins upon the Spanish conquest in the 16th Century, and the Nazcas were long gone by then. Their name is simply taken from the small desert town of Nazca, founded by the Spanish in the 16th Century which happened to be the nearest to the Lines. Plenty of pottery has been found in the region, and this dates from around 100BC to 800AD (which neatly ties in with most dating of the Lines), but settled life goes back 9000 years. A thousand years before the Egyptians were doing so, the people were practicing mummification. And around the time of the animal drawings in the desert - which precede the lines and geometric figures - the Nazca people were building walled towns and adobe pyramids. Cahuachi is a series of around 40 pyramidal structures acting as a major ceremonial centre, and is located about an hour away from modern-day Nazca.

Plenty of people have tried to figure out the engima of the Nazca Lines, but without question the name that dominates is that of Maria Reiche. German-born, and a trained mathematician, she died in 1998 aged 95 after spending 50 years singlehandedly studying the lines close up. It wouldn't be unfair to call her somewhat reclusive and eccentic. She reportedly ate the same meal of banana, jam and milk for every meal, and she refused to collaborate, preferring to keep her vast store of data to herself. But boy, was she devoted to the task. Spending decades in near solitude, in the middle of the baking desert, painstakingly measuring and collecting data, it is her we have to thank for the lines being acclaimed, and possibly even for still existing. When she started her studies, in 1946, the lines were under threat from vehicles. Not much happens in the desert - that's why lines over a thousand years still exist. But drive a car through it and you've got a whole bunch of new lines. She raked over these, returning them to the desert, and also carefully "cleaned" the real Nazca Lines with a broom to make them clearer. When she began, many of the figures were too faint to be seen from the air, with stones and debris slowly obscuring them over the centuries. She returned them to their original state.

It is therefore a tad unfortunate that her conclusions as to the meaning of the Lines were probably entirely wrong. She believed them to be a vast astronomical calendar, lining up with the stars and the sun, and recorded many as doing so. But there was more than just a little confirmation bias in her methods: she didn't take into account the majority of lines that didn't particularly match up with anything. If I was to take a large sheet of paper and draw hundreds of random lines, some of mine would match up with fancy stars. Statistically, Maria Reiche's vast desert canvas would match up no closer to the stars than my sheet of paper; statistically, therefore, the Nazca Lines would not appear to be matched to the stars. The best you could say is that some of them might have been. Fortunately for Maria Reiche, she was so single-minded about her quest that she was entirely dismissive of any contrasting theories and died with unwavering conviction as to her rightness.

In her 80s, Reiche became a local superstar. Tourists were flocking to the otherwise anonymous town, and the world was paying attention. That Nazca before the Lines' discovery had a population of a few thousand and today has one of something like 60,000 including the surrounding area, and Reiche was largely responsible for both the boom and international respect. Schools in Nazca began closing on her birthday! And incredibly, in 1988, the town council planned to draw her face in the desert, adding her to the Lines. Only the intervention of archaeologists and the National Institute of Culture prevented it - but not before efforts had actually begun.

After the first day's aerial view, our second day was for a more close up view. Our guide was local, and his reverence for Maria Reiche was clear. He described her as a saint, and drew parallels to the nine-fingered figures of the desert (the monkey and a hand glyph have just nine-fingers, without any known reason) and the uncanny fact that Reiche herself just had nine fingers. She had lost one shortly before arriving in Nazca, while working as a nanny in Cusco and catching her finger on a cactus. Gangrene set in and the finger had to be removed. Whereas this might appear to be given Reiche an affinity for the Lines that began her obsession, our guide appeared to have deeper ideas. Perhaps his faltering English simply failed to convey what he was trying to get across, but both Danielle and I got the impression that he thought the Nazca people had been able to see into the future and see that Maria had just the nine fingers, and so drew the nine-fingered pictures in tribute to her.

The tour began at the Maria Reiche museum, a simple affair set in her former home, with her grave and her battered old camper van. Next was the viewing tower,  ramshackle 13-metre high tower, built next to the highway which, with great misfortune, was built cutting through the desert before true awareness of the figures had emerged. Happily, for the tourist experience, part of it is right next to two pictures.

Our guide explained that this tower is due to be removed in a couple of months, and replaced with a shiny new 30-metre tower, with various viewing platforms, which will allow a greater capacity and also a greater view of more distant figures. But the view from 13 metres was still interesting. Close up, the figures' size can be better appreciated, and their means of creation better seen, that is removal of stones to create lines, kind of like an engraving.

Interesting too was simply standing at ground level and looking at the desert, from the view the Nazca people would have seen. Really, all that effort, and they could surely never have really seen what they'd made.

Finally, we went up a natural mound, to see some more lines. The Nazca people could, at least, have done this.

So, the big question is, what were they all for? Theories abound, from the outlandish to the obscure. During Maria Reiche's heyday, with all her complicated astronomical calculations, and various other spectacular theories, a local headmaster quietly disagreed, saying, "Why look for anything complicated?" He demonstrated that all the lines could be done with poles and ropes and also thought many straight lines ended at water sources. Nobody paid much attention to him then, but scholars now seem to be heading in that common-sense direction. It is thought that the Lines are a mixture of ceremonial paths, messages to the gods above, and practical means of getting to ancient water sources. Broken pottery along the lines seems to back the ceremonial part up, and the large cleared spaces of the trapezoids could have held lots of people for grand ceremonies. In the desert, water is a big deal, so it's not surprising that worship might focus upon it.

Pehaps the owner of our hostel put it more succinctly though. "At first they made big pictures of animals in the hope the gods would see them and understand they represented life and water. When that didn't work, they went more abstract, with loads of fancy lines and shapes, with whatever meanings they might have had for the gods. In the end, they realised that all these efforts trying to get the gods to give them water weren't really working, so they just cut out the gods altogether and dug themselves some aqueducts. Simple practical science got them reliable sources of water that centuries of fancy offerings to the gods never could."

Visiting the Nazca Lines is an interesting experience, whether getting your stomach churned at [xxxft] or standing on a rickety metal tower at 13 metres. Reading and hearing about them is fascinating, with the myriad of theories and the frank realisation that we don't know why people around 1500 years ago thought it was worthwhile to make them all. But the actual lines... well, they're either long, or in funny shapes, or in quirky animal designs, but it would be a stretch to call them breaktaking. Weird, mysterious, thought-provoking, yes. Beautiful or spectacular, less so. Let's see what the critera say.

Size: 400 square miles may be the less massive sounding equivalent of 20 miles by 20 miles, but it's still a very large area. There are about 70 pictures, and many hundreds of lines and shapes, some lines stretching miles, some shapes pretty much the size of a runway. The largest picture is around the same as five football pitches. They may just be drawings on a desert, but they cover a large area.
Engineering: Very simple. Just a process of removal: shift the rocks to the side, creating a lighter area in the process. Few, if any of my Wonders, will be made so simply; however, it's the sheer amount of them that makes this simple process impressive.
Artistry: There's a definite style to the pictures. The trapezoids have a stark, unnatural quality to them. And the lines, well, they're just very, very long.
Age/Durability: Possibly up to 2000 years old in some case, at some at around 1000 years, it's one of nature's quirks that lines that are simply a lack of rocks have endured so long. If indeed they were messages to the gods, it would seem that the gods approve of the message.
Fame/Iconicity:  They're the number one desert drawings in the world, with some of them - the monkey especially - being fairly recognisable, even if the Nazca name is less so. I would regard them as generally fairly well-known rather than mega-famous.
Context:  In this case, the Nazca Lines pretty much are their own context. Clearly, they are inseparable from their surroundings.
Back Story: Mysterious and fascinating, they are both an ancient enigma and full of individual character stories from their modern time investigators.
Originality: The Nazca Lines are not exactly what you could describe as identikit.
Wow Factor: Sorely lacking. The desert is very big and they are very small by comparison. They are also spread out. It's a huge canvas with lots of small details, but no overall picture.

What makes a Wonder of the world? It's a question I'm obviously invested in answering, and in his book on the Nazca Lines the archaeoligist Anthony Aveni also tries to answer it. He lists three criteria: it must be one of a kind, it must represent an almost inconceivable effort in its construction, and it must leave a timeless message for all eternity. By his criteria, the Nasca Lines could qualify. But by my reckoning, the Nazca Lines is a less obvious candidate. At the core of what makes a Wonder, for me, is a sense of the "wow". The Nazca Lines are fascinating, dripping with good old-fashioned ancient mystery, and are a terrific puzzle for the ages. Drawings in the desert or the ground aren't unique to Nazca, but Nazca does it best. Nonetheless, as a visual spectacle, it's difficult to say that the Nazca Lines are a powerful one. Flying over them, it's just a case of "spot the monkey" or whatever, and close up they are revealed as the kind of thing you or I could do given the inclination. A single desert-sized picture would have this impact, but hundreds of small pictures and lines has less of one. In the end, I would compare the Nazca Lines to the Terracotta Warriors: absolutely fascinating archaeological discoveries, but not visual spectacles to compare to the very best out there. It's so different to anything else on my list that it's very difficult to directly compare, but I suppose the Terracotta Warriors are my gauge, and I would put them pretty much equal with them, perhaps the tiniest shade ahead.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. The Eiffel Tower
5. The Millau Viaduct
6. Angkor Wat
7. Bagan.

Other Wonders
Sydney Opera House
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris


Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Nazca Lines
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. I painstakingly tried to find the Nazca Lines on Google Earth, they're not easy to spot at first, a bit like your description of them from the aeroplane. It is certainly mysterious as to why a civilisation would want to draw lines in the desert, that alone makes them worthy of interest. But the visual impact from what I can see from your photos and your article, they do seem a little underwhelming. Personally I would rate some prehistoric cave paintings higher than this, although I say this as someone who has seen neither for real.


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