This August my family and I went to Perú for a post-graduation trip. We were going for a friend’s wedding and turned it into a 3 week trip. Although I lived in Perú for 2 years following high school I stayed on the coast and never made it further inland to Cuzco. On this trip we flew to 13,000 feet of mountainous altitude and the heart of the ancient Incan empire. While touring the Andean ruins I was impressed with the practicality and attention to detail of their incredible stonework. The quality of work depended on the structure’s purpose and for that reason we only have remnants of the most important buildings in all but a few cities that were able to escape the Conquistadors’ attention. Machu Picchu was largely untouched by the western world until Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911 so the stonework used in different classes of society still remain.
Religious and political sites were built with the greatest care. The stones were quarried and then split using natural tools. A crack would be found or made with iron infused rocks then a wooden peg would be hammered into the space. After pouring continuous water over the wood peg it would expand and the stone would begin to split. The stones were then polished and beveled using iron heavy stone tools. The stones would be placed on one another without mortar. They had to fit so precisely that a sheet of paper could not pass between them. If it was not right the stone would be taken out, worked, and replaced until it fit perfectly. Some stones were several tons and if a stone was large enough it would be carved to form a corner with many carved sides instead of a simple brick. These walls were created at an angle so that if looked at as a cross section a tall triangle would be seen. These prevented collapse during earthquakes which are not uncommon in the region. Although the Conquistadors would often destroy sacred sites and replace them with towering cathedrals they sometimes utilized the strong walls to build monasteries and other colonial edifices.
The Kechua (the people were Kechua and Inca only refers to royal family and their dynasty) would not always use these precise methods. Many structures had to be built more quickly and for lower classes. In that case the walls were still designed to withstand seismic events but used grass and mud mortar and stone leftovers and shavings. This class of stonework was used for agricultural terraces and retaining walls, as well as storehouses and peasant quarters. Even the doorways were lower to indicate lower societal stature. This stone is not as precise and finely worked but indicates a practicality in empire building that exemplifies the Inca’s shrewd ruling style.
This style of construction contrasts with the practicality of modern average Peruvians. The building materials vary from adobe to brick, but the hope of future growth is apparent on the roof of every home. A family is often only able to construct a room or floor at a time so they leave structural rebar exposed knowing that they have planned for a future when they can build upward. While Americans plan to design and build a home in its entirety, Peruvians construct modularly, a room at a time. Hope for better days is everywhere, just look at the rooftops.
More photos from our Peruvian adventure can be seen here.