Interview With Guillermo Cock

National Geographic News
April 17, 2002
AOL Members: Chat with lead scientist Willy Cock online at 9 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time, Thursday, April 18, at AOL Keyword Archaeology

Peruvian-born archaeologist Guillermo (Willy) Cock is an expert on Andean cultures and has been doing archaeological work in Peru since 1983. Cock completed postgraduate work in anthropology at Catholic University in Lima, Peru.

He earned his masters degree in archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he remains a Research Associate at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History. He is also a member of the Asociación Peruana de Etnohistoria.

He has authored more than 30 publications, books, articles, and papers on the history, culture, and archaeology of the Andes.Throughout his career, Cock has served as a researcher, project director, and consultant for Andean exhibitions at museums in Peru and the United States.

He has held top governmental positions, as an advisor to the Minister of Education of Peru and as chief archaeologist for Peru's National Institute of Culture. He frequently consults with the National Geographic Society on a wide variety of topics, including the Moche, the Inca, and Francisco Pizarro. Cock also has extensive field experience, having led archaeological expeditions at Pacatnam and Dos Cabezas in the Jequetepeque Valley and at Chira-Villa, Garagay, and Puruchuco in the Rimac Valley.

In 1999 Cock and a team of archaeologists began an excavation that has become a salvage operation. The Puruchuco site is outside the city of Lima, where a group of squatters has settled—they call their community Tupac Amaru after the last Inca ruler who was beheaded by the Spanish in 1572.

The shantytown has mushroomed over the past ten years, transforming the unexplored archaeological site into an urban sprawl. More than 1,200 families have settled there, directly on top of an ancient burial site believed to be the second-largest excavated Inca cemetery in Peru. With no sewage system, the residents dump thousands of gallons of water into the archaeological area each day. Utility companies, installing electrical poles to provide the most basic of necessities, are at risk of disturbing graves. The arid lands have preserved the past in its sands for centuries, and now modern development is destroying it at an alarming clip.

Under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, Cock and his team worked around the clock during three archaeological field seasons in 1999, 2000 and 2001, excavating human remains, mummies, and mummy bundles, which are large funerary bundles that contain more than one corpse. In all, they extracted the remains of approximately 2,200 individuals, representing a full spectrum of rank and age.

While this is an impressive take, Cock believes that they have uncovered no more than 40 percent of what lies beneath the surface. Without more time and funding, the remaining "urban mummies" will never be recovered.

Q&A with Guillermo Cock, Puruchuco Project Leader

Q: What exactly have you uncovered at Puruchuco?

GC: We estimate that we have human remains belonging to between 2,200 and 2,400 individuals, which is an incredible number of people for this kind of excavation. Of special note are almost 40 falsas cabezas (false heads) bundles that we have excavated. Prior to our excavations, only one falsas cabezas bundle from the Inca Period had been recovered by an archaeologist, in 1956.

Q: What is the significance of the find?

GC: Practically all of the individuals belong to the Late Horizon, or Inca, Period. We can safely say that most of these burials—99.8 percent, perhaps—were put into the ground within a period of 75 years, which makes this a really unique sample of Andean archaeology. This is not only the second-largest excavated ancient cemetery in Peru, but also it appears to be the largest cemetery for a single time period ever excavated in Peru. With such high numbers, it's going to take several years to investigate, analyze, and draw conclusions.

Q: What are funerary bundles?

GC: Funerary bundling is a method of wrapping and interring mummies. We have been able to excavate over 200 funerary bundles of different types in 2001 and over 1,200 since our work began in 1999. Since 1999, we have also excavated an incredible number of bundles—about 40—of high rank, which are called falsas cabezas bundles. The false head bundle is a very interesting tradition in the central coast of Peru. It was very prevalent during the Middle Horizon Period, before the Inca, about 1,000 years ago. Then, during the Late Intermediate Period, also a pre-Inca period, they became rare.

Q: What is found in the falsas cabezas?

The falsas cabezas are the largest bundles interred at the site. They always contain multiple individuals and include the finest artifacts both inside and outside of the bundles. Although there are at least five types of false head bundles, they share some characteristics: They contain more than one individual; they are buried within a group of bundles of different types and sizes; and they are buried in areas specially selected and prepared for the burial ceremony.

Most of the individuals were buried in a grave pit dug from the surface. In the case of the false head bundles, the pit ranged from four by four meters (4.4 by 4.4 yards) to six by eight meters (6.6 by 8.75 yards) with a depth of between four or five meters (four or five yards). Then, the false head bundle was arranged with the companion bundles of different types and sizes. Once the grave has been partially filled in, a series of ceremonial activities were performed that included food offerings, burning of products, and leaving ceramic jars standing in the surface. On top of the ceremonial objects, other bundles (smaller than the false heads) are deposited in the same grave, creating up to three layers of burials, with the falsas cabezas at the deepest level.

Q: What was the excavation site like?

GC: The cemetery is located in a ravine flanked on the east and the west by hillsides. The squatters settled in the flat part of the ravine, on top of the cemetery, but did not build a good city in terms of urban development. We were not able to excavate under homes, so we were left to work in the open spaces such as streets, avenues, and parks. At the time, they didn't have electricity, but it was being installed at the tail end of our last excavation.

Additionally, there were serious problems with the water supply. The town didn't have running water or a sewer system. In the absence of sewers, the people dump the water and wastes into the ground, which is the main cause of the deterioration of the site.

One of our main challenges was poor health conditions. Imagine working in an area where there is no sewer, and at least half the people have constructed rudimentary septic tanks. All the water, brought in by trucks, is contaminated and must be boiled to make it drinkable. It is sad to say, but the squatters of Tupac Amaru have adapted to these conditions, whereas we did not. We were all afflicted with stomach problems, skin infections, colds, flus, etc. I have had an infection in my throat since September 2001 that my doctors have not been able to kill.

Q: Was this really more of a salvage expedition than a traditional excavation?

GC: The destruction of the archaeological site was a big problem. After more than ten years, with people living there, the amount of damage was tremendous. It really concerned us. There were some people—including us—who did not believe that there was much left at the site. Some thought that this excavation should not have been done. They would rather have the people live on top of the remains, because they always hoped that the government would be able to expel the people from the area. With the archaeological remains being destroyed, and with the people in abject poverty, the political battles continue. Meanwhile, we ran out of time.

Q: You finished an excavation in July 2001. Where is the project's focus now?

GC: We received a second grant last year from National Geographic to accomplish two things. The first was to organize the collection. Because of the need to work quickly in the field in a race against time, in a race against destruction, we had not inventoried everything. About 10,000 to 10,500 packs—a pack is what we put archaeological material in—or as many as 60,000 or 70,000 objects have been delivered to our lab since the project began in 1999. Between August and November 2001, we were able to reclassify everything and take a complete inventory.

Secondly, National Geographic provided funds to open three bundles, one of which will be featured in the article in the May 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine. We have been working with five physical anthropologists, each investigating different areas of skeletal biology, in order to understand the ways in which changes in culture during the Last Horizon, or Inca, Period affected these human beings.

We are studying to determine who they were, age and sex, growth and development, nutrition, illnesses that they suffered from, the causes of death, the genetic relationship among the individuals, and even the kind of work that they did. The physical anthropologists will be able to find answers to all these questions in the marks that the muscles leave in the bones. Then we will be able to hypothesize about the social, political, economic, and even religious conditions "reflected" in the bones of these individuals. In the interplay between the physical anthropology and the study of the "material culture," we are going to be in the position to reveal new information about this mysterious culture.

We have also started a study of earlier periods, because this cemetery had previous occupations. The site was not always a cemetery; at times, it was a village. In terms of architecture, we found several buildings, habitations, walls, floors, domestic refuse, all kinds of evidence to suggest earlier occupation. We also have about 20 burials that pre-date the Inca.

Q: What do you hope to learn?

GC: It will take us years to analyze our findings. We hope to see the Inca Period in a different way. From the local perspective, we want to learn how the expansion of Inca culture affected the different regions in Peru and each individual valley, and also how the process of Inca conquest was conducted. This is a unique opportunity to study a period of time that is famous but yet about which little is known.

Source: The National Geographic Special Inca Mummies: Secrets of a Lost World, premiering Wednesday, May 15, 2002, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on PBS. The documentary goes on assignment with Cock and two other explorers to trace the rise and fall of the Inca, and to help preserve the legacy of one of the most magnificent civilizations the world has ever known.

Return to main story: Thousands of Inca Mummies Raised From Their Graves

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