One Surveyor’s Diversion: A tale of surveying in Peru

January 27, 2002
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Jeff Voorheis details his invitation to assist a team of archaeologists in their efforts to discover and document the secrets of ancient civilizations.



The Mission

Seven and a half degrees south of the equator along the northern coast of Peru and thousands of miles from the concrete jungle of Los Angeles where I normally practice the daily rigors of my surveying profession, I was afforded the opportunity to apply my skills in a very different venue. I was invited to assist a team of archaeologists in their efforts to discover and document the secrets of ancient civilizations.

Project director Dr. Carol Mackey believed the exploration would benefit greatly from the involvement of a professional surveyor who could achieve a threefold mission. First, establish a long-term survey control network for use in future explorations; second, map as many architectural and topographic features as time would permit; and third, train fellow team members and students in the use of modern surveying equipment and methods. Although this posed a formidable challenge for my brief excursion to Peru, it proved to be an unforgettable and personally rewarding experience.

Jeff Voorheis and some of his team ascends the rugged and steep terrain of Cerro Faclo to establish survey control atop the mountain.

The Environment

We based ourselves at the Hotel Pakatnamu in the sleepy, seaside village of Pacasmayo, which is better known for its surfing than its visual appeal. Our very acceptable beachfront accommodations were arranged for less than $15 U.S. per night.

Apart from a few well-maintained properties on the “Boardwalk,” the town seemed to resemble the pictures of war-torn villages that so often grace the covers of Time and Newsweek. Strands of unsightly, rusted and twisted rebar protruded from dilapidated brick buildings. Sprawled plaster clung to shabby, old adobe walls. Some homes were constructed from sticks and scraps of corrugated tin. Fresh paint was scarce.

The town was alive with the bustle of street vendors and taxi-scooters. Horns honked frequently as traffic signals were non-existent. Men and women pushed carts and wheelbarrows heaped with giant, ripe avocados and fresh rolls. The aroma of fried chicken that wafted through the air was only offset by the subtle stench of fecal matter and urine left by the numerous scrawny, mangy dogs that roamed the streets. It was a feast for the senses to say the least.

Machu Picchu is the magnificent site of the Inca ruins perched high in the Andes Mountains.

The “Zona Arquelogica”

Some 20 km north of Pacasmayo lay Farfan, the name given to the archaeological zone where Dr. Mackey and her team have been excavating since 1999. Farfan is roughly 4 km in length from north to south and approximately 1/2 km wide. It is comprised of six high-walled adobe compounds, each measuring some 200-300 m in length. The site was occupied by the ancient Chimu civilization from about A.D. 1200 until the invading Incas seized the strategic location in 1470. There is much to learn as layers upon layers of centuries old, wind-blown sand are gently removed by the skillful trowel and brushwork of Dr. Mackey and her team. However, a sense of urgency looms as nearby farmland and squatters’ settlements encroach on the site and threaten its complete obliteration.

Dr. Donnan can be seen here (in blue) directing operations at “Dos Cabezas,” the site of his current excavation.

The Survey Challenge

Fueled by her sense of urgency, Dr. Mackey felt it would be advantageous to acquire the services of a professional land surveyor to assist in her mapping efforts. Some survey work had been performed during the previous excavation season but no permanent survey control had been established. Hence, precious time would be wasted if each new team had to re-establish their position every season, especially on a site of this magnitude. Therefore, we located as many permanent, well-defined, physical objects as possible (kilometer markers, transmission towers, signs, etc.), so that next season, a simple two- or three-point resection could be performed from virtually anywhere on the site. Interestingly, we stumbled across a couple of old, concrete survey monuments, one of which was labeled “PUNTO FARFAN.”

Next on Dr. Mackey’s agenda was to shoot topography over some excavations that bore some kind of religious or ceremonial significance. Crucial to the mapping was a study of the elevations of various floor levels. By comparing these elevations, Dr. Mackey was able to make reasonable assumptions about the various occupations of the complex. It is important for the preservation of the site to backfill the excavation as soon as the pertinent data has been extracted and the mapping has been completed. Therefore, we were somewhat rushed to complete the mapping as the excavation had been opened for some time prior to my arrival.

One of the unforeseen challenges that we faced was the concoction of an entirely new set of data collection field codes that we had to establish in order to correspond with archaeology nomenclature. Rather than the usual barrage of TC and FL shots, I invented codes like SK for “skull,” AL for “adobe level,” C for “ceramic,” etc.

I was concerned that working in the metric system might pose a challenge as I am so indelibly etched by the English foot system, but with a few quick switches to the data collector settings, I never gave it a second thought. Fortunately for me, we were generously loaned a Topcon GTS 300 series gun (Topcon Positioning Systems, Pleasanton, Calif.) and HP48 running TDS software (Tripod Data Systems, Corvallis, Ore.) by the Department of Archaeology at UCLA, which is virtually the same setup I use in my own practice.

The final and most challenging element of my trip was to train a few of the students to survey at a functional level in such a brief time. My burden was lightened by the fact that these individuals seemed eager to learn and retained the material very well. Even so, within a few short days I was able to take people who had virtually no prior exposure to surveying and have them setup the equipment, check their positions and collect topographic data without my assistance. Part of the training occurred back in the field lab each evening where we would download the day’s data using the latest version of CAD software that was generously donated by C&G Software Systems (Carlson Software, Maysville, Ky.). Using C&G’s auto-linework made plotting the data and generating contours almost effortless.

The Highlights

While many pleasing thoughts come to mind when I reflect on my travels in Peru, there were a couple of memories that punctuated the experience. One of Dr. Mackey’s colleagues and personal friends, Dr. Chris Donnan, also descends annually to the same region of Peru and has for some 35 years in his quest to unveil the mysteries of the Moche civilization, which predates the Chimu. When he learned that a surveyor would be present for a couple of weeks, he politely asked Dr. Mackey if he could borrow my services for a day at “Dos Cabezas,” the site he was currently excavating. She could not refuse, as she was currently borrowing his truck while her own was being repaired. Eager to see as much of the region as I possibly could, I was delighted to accept the invitation to work at his site.

Dos Cabezas is located in the lower Jequetepeque (pronounced “hecky-t-pecky”) river valley. What was once one large, stepped pyramid now appears as two mounds after the 16th century Spanish conquistadors ravaged the center of it in their quest for riches. Hence the name “Two Heads.” Astonishingly, what the Spanish failed to find became Dr. Donnan’s prize discovery in 1997 as he unearthed three magnificent tombs housing the remains of elite Moche individuals. The high societal status of the occupants was clearly evidenced by the richness of the treasure buried with them.

As a gesture of appreciation for the work on his site, Dr. Donnan invited me to his home that same evening. We savored a sensational local dish, cabrito (goat), ate salad grown in his own garden and sipped a smooth, red wine while discussing family and friends. In lieu of dessert, he apologetically placed a plain wooden crate at the center of the table. Upon carefully folding back the loose, white tissue covering the box, we laid eyes on the most revered contents of those royal tombs—the burial mask made of gilded copper and gold. The mask was predominantly green from the patina of millennium-aged copper. A repetitive rhomboid pattern of gold ran across its brow. A gold disc hung from its nose. The eyes, inlaid with white shell, stared back at us. It was a most engaging moment as we sat face to face with this precious treasure—no glass, no alarms and no ropes. I don’t think I would have been more incredulous had the Mona Lisa herself shown up!

Someone wiser than myself once said “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Taking the expression to heart, I reserved a couple of days at the end of my “work trip” (wink) to spend sightseeing. Chief among Peruvian tourist destinations is unquestionably Machu Picchu, the remarkably well preserved but little understood sight built by the Incas, nestled snugly in the Andean highlands. I didn’t dare let myself get so close without making the effort to behold this masterpiece of Incan craftsmanship.

Construction of the site commenced in the mid-15th century and continued until the conquering Spanish destroyed the empire in about 1530. The superb preservation of Machu Picchu is generally attributed to the speculation that the Incas abandoned the site and that the Spanish never found it. Had they discovered it, Machu Picchu would likely have faced the same destruction as so many other sites. It basically sat untouched and unspoiled until its relatively recent discovery by American explorer, Hiram Bingham, in 1911. The sight truly inspires awe whether one stands high above and macroscopically appreciates the “Lost City” spectacularly set amidst the majestic, snow-capped peaks of the Andes or microscopically marvels at the precision joints between enormous, hand-hewn granite blocks. It absolutely rivals any other site I have seen on three continents and is a must-see for anyone traveling in Peru.

Divine Inspiration

If you are like me, you enjoy your work and are heavily engrossed therein burning the “midnight oil” as it were, meeting deadlines and servicing your clients. In addition, you also enjoy travel and love seeing new sights, immersing yourself in a different culture, tasting different cuisine and meeting interesting people; but rarely do you find the time to do so. These two worlds tend to run on parallel tracks and almost never converge; however, the convergence of these worlds is what made my excursion to Peru so particularly worthwhile. I was given the opportunity to do what I enjoy doing most in a venue that provides fresh sights, sounds and challenges. I was also afforded the rich opportunity to work alongside experts in their own field who immensely enjoy doing what they’re doing. I hope I have allowed you to travel vicariously through my experience—if only slightly—and strongly encourage any fellow surveyor who is offered a similar opportunity to seize it. You will not regret it.

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