Friday, 8 May 2015

The Amazing Race 26, Episode 10

Otuzco (Peru) - Trujillo (Peru) - Huanchaco (Peru)

The highlight of this episode of The Amazing Race 26 was a visit to the site of Chan Chan (near Trujillo on the coast of northern Peru), once the largest city in the Americas and largest adobe (mud-brick) city in the world.

Despite its scale and significance, Chan Chan is less well known and visited by fewer foreign tourists than several other pre-Hispanic American sites including Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes (perhaps the single most iconic “bucket-list” tourist destination in the world not yet visited by The Amazing Race), Teotihuacan near Mexico City (visited by The Amazing Race in season 3), and the Mayan sites of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, including Chichen Itza (The Amazing Race 3 went to nearby Tulum).

One reason for lower visitorship to Chan Chan is that while vast, it is low and sprawling without pyramids, towers, or other iconic tall monuments. Another is that the adobe which is its most characteristic and significant feature is constantly weathering away.

That highlights a common dilemma for archaeologists and for governments trying to balance economic development and funding for historical preservation through tourism with the negative effects of both tourist visits and the the reconstruction that creates or preserves visual attractions for tourists.

Although it wasn’t mentioned in the voiceover narration or any of the racers’ comments on the reality-TV show, that dilemma was reflected in the racers’ task: working with “archaeologists” to make and transport mud bricks to be used in reconstruction and “maintenance” of deteriorating and/or reconstructed portions of Chan Chan.

It may be that when Chan Chan was inhabited, there was an ongoing and continuous process of rebuilding of deteriorating adobe walls through the incorporation of new mud bricks. But the “reconstruction” of historical artifacts is not archeology, and “maintenance” is only sometimes considered an appropriate part of “conservation”.

The work the racers were involved in would more accurately be described as part of an ongoing process of replacing or covering over architectural and archaeological artifacts with new replicas constructed to allow tourists to experience the site as some interpreter thinks it might have looked at some particular past time.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the construction of replicas, whether they are merely made to look like the originals (or what someone thinks the originals once looked like) or whether they are replicas built with what are thought to be historically authentic although new materials and techniques. Experimental archaeologists make replicas of large and small artifacts in order to test theories of how and from what materials they were made, and to determine empirically what sorts of fabrication marks or traces those techniques would leave on artifacts after aging.

But from the point of view of conservation, preservation, or archeology, it makes more sense to build these new replicas anywhere other than on top of, displacing, or commingled with the materials found on archeologically significant sites. Even when the best efforts are made to ensure that reconstruction and repair is nondestructive and reversible, it almost inevitably entails at least some loss or damage of the historical record. It can be particularly unfortunate if reconstruction work today interferes — in ways that may be impossible to anticipate — with attempts to employ imaging, sensing, or other research techniques developed in the future.

From the point of view of historical interpretation, there are difficult choices to be made as to whether to “restore” sites or artifacts to the way someone thinks they looked at some point (and if so, which one) during the time when they were inhabited or in use, or at the time when they were “discovered” or encountered by Europeans or other foreigners, or simply to “stabilize” them against further deterioration.

That last task is particularly difficult at Chan Chan, where the adobe is inherently vulnerable to erosion whenever it rains. It rains rarely in the coastal and Andean deserts of western South America. Years often pass with no rain at all. But when it rains it pours, as it did in places in the Atacama Desert a little further south earlier this year. Both falling rain and flash floods of groundwater can rapidly wear down or wash out large sections of exposed structures made of material with no water resistance.

Tourism can be a problem even at unreconstructed archaeological sites. Visitors can trample and compress the ground (obscuring traces of what is or was below) and damage structures even if they are trying to be careful and not deliberately looting or picking up fragments as souvenirs. Creating access for tourists may be difficult without alteration to sites and structures. Visitors’ breathing can increase the humidity in confined spaces where dryness has been a preservative, and lighting can fade murals and accelerate the deterioration of textiles.

If cost is no object, the best preservation or conservation strategy may sometimes be to leave ancient artifacts in the ground, and to keep tourists away. But making artifacts visible, doing so in situ, and creating on-site replicas or replacements that enable visitors to imagine that they are seeing history as it once was, are often the most effective strategies for generating revenue to support both local people and conservation work.

I’m not an archaeologist, I haven’t visited Can Chan, and I pass no judgement on its curators. Many governments and many local tourism entrepreneurs recognize that archaeological artifacts are a perishable and nonrenewable national resource, but nevertheless regard their economic exploitation through tourism as essential to national economic development, and in some cases to survival. Who are we to fault them, if we are unwilling to contribute as much to fund the protection of ancient artifacts that have been left in the ground as we are willing to spend to visit those things and places that we can see and experience for ourselves?

Without a time machine, we can visit neither the past nor the future. In reality, we travel in the present, even if our fantasies may take us elsewhere or to other times. Whether we travel to learn about the past or (as is my personal priority in travel) about the future, no Herculean labor of historical “reconstruction” or World’s Fair “futurism” can take us there, other than in our imagination.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 8 May 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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