Constructing Inca: The modern allure of an ancient culture

This spring, 12 Princeton undergraduates in the course "Inca Art and Architecture" learned firsthand the critical role that landscape can play in the structure of a civilization — while challenging their own perceptions of what "civilization" means. One of several Princeton classes that incorporated a spring break excursion, the Inca course included a trip to Peru to visit Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lima. The course was funded in part by the David A. Gardner ’69 Project Grants in the Humanities Council.

The Incas were one of the largest empires in the world during the 1400s and early 1500s, said Andrew Hamilton, a lecturer in art and archaeology who led the trip. "Studying Inca material culture and built environments gives students a chance to become familiar with an entirely different cultural model, and forces them to rethink basic assumptions they may have about what it means to live in the world.

"One of the things that makes Inca architecture spectacular is the way it is integrated with the exaggerated landscape of the Andes Mountains," he said. "But in order to grasp this, you really have to experience their cities firsthand: scaling the topography yourself, feeling the altitude in your lungs, seeing the changing sunlight across the surfaces of the stonework throughout the day, and watching the many fountains and water channels churn to life during a tropical downpour."

With photos, Hamilton and the students captured the experience.

  • Terraces at Machu Picchu

    We encountered these terraces at Machu Picchu. Terraces prevent mudslides and soil erosion, which enabled the Inca Empire to expand its population. These terraces also demonstrate the Inca Empire’s ability to command a large labor force to build these walls. While the terraces at Machu Picchu are rigid in shape, terraces at Pisac undulated along the mountain’s curvature. However, these terraces would have looked very different during the time of the Inca Empire with crops growing upon them.

  • Students standing on lookout point above Cusco

    While driving back to Cusco, we suddenly stopped on the side of the road to see an Inca huaca, or ritual monument, called Teteqaqa. It is a huge piece of carved bedrock on which the Incas poured libations. This sacred spot, for me, was emblematic of the history that is now inextricable from the city’s gorgeous landscape. The Inca site is now a lookout point with a view of Cusco and its mix of colonial terracotta-tiled roofs and modern architecture.

  • Page from book side-by-side original landscape in background

    One of the joys of this excursion was sharing with the students my new book, "Scale & the Incas,"which has just been published by Princeton University Press. A defining feature of the book is that I created over 70 hand-drawn and hand-painted analytical illustrations to depict the scaled relationships that were so central to the Incas’ art and worldviews. This photograph shows my illustration of a reduced-scale landscape carved from the bedrock of Machu Picchu alongside the original sculpture.

  • Machu Picchu

    For the students, the highlight of the excursion was certainly visiting Machu Picchu. As the clouds drifted up and over the crest of the site, the ruins of the 15th-century Inca royal estate disappeared and reappeared from view. The students were even lucky enough to spot a spectacled-bear cub frolicking in the mist, an extremely rare sight.

  • Stone wall in Cuzco

    Located in the heart of Cuzco, this beautiful stone wall predates Spanish arrival in the Andes. In contrast to European construction tactics, Inca builders used no mortar to adhere stones together — instead, each stone is carved individually to fit those surrounding it. This building style helped make their structures resistant to earthquakes, which are frequent along the Pacific coastline. Observing the sinuous patterns in person, along with the care and thought invested in every individual stone, was truly stunning.

  • Weaver in Chinchero

    While in Chinchero, our class climbed up a steep cobblestone path to a colonial church and Inca ruins. On the way, we came across a wonderful family of weavers and stopped to admire their work. They explained to us the intricate process of Andean weaving. This is just one example of the beautiful and laborious weaving techniques we encountered while in Peru that truly embody the complexity of making textiles and the work ethic of the weavers.

  • Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption in Cusco

    On our visit to Cusco we were able to visit the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption. Constructed by the Spanish conquistadors on the site of the Inca temple of Viracocha, it was built with stones from the nearby ancient site of Sacsayhuaman. The artwork, statues and architecture on the inside were breathtaking, I’ve never seen anything like it. With all the intricate details and placement of everything, it’s no surprise that it took 95 years to build.

  • Ollantaytambo ruins above town

    From the top of Ollantaytambo ruins, the beautiful town is visible below, bordered with a perimeter of jutting mountains. In this moment, I felt breathless, partially because of the intense rigor of the steep stone stairs, but mainly because the sheer beauty of the scene. The juxtaposition of past and present, and nature and culture, in such close quarters was one of the most eye-opening and beautiful sights on the trip.

  • Coast of Lima

    The final leg of our trip took us down from the mountainous highlands of Cusco and lush forests of Machu Picchu to the desert coast of Lima. Originally established by the Spanish conquistadores as a means of egress to the Pacific, Lima is now a sprawling megalopolis of more than 10 million people. We spent most of our time in the upscale Miraflores district, where this photo of the coastal highway at night was taken.

  • Students in Puchacamac

    During our time in Lima, we traveled to Pachacamac, a coastal site established hundreds of years before the Incas. Originally founded by the Lima culture, it became one of the most sacred sites in the Andes. The group stopped right after this photo was taken to read a myth about the site from the Huarochiri Manuscript, an indigenous account penned in the Colonial era. To connect to that tradition and that space, just as people had for over 1,000 years, was amazing.

Junior Elaine Romano, a history major who is also earning a certificate in visual arts, borrowed a medium-format camera from the Lewis Center for the Arts for the excursion. The photos, created from 6x6 cm negatives, are inherently square and, said Hamilton, "are rich, velvety and amazingly textured." This gallery includes a selection of Romano's photos.

  • Elaine Romano using large format camera in Peru

    Although I had hesitations about taking a camera to Peru, I decided to bring one loaned from the Program in Visual Arts at the Lewis Center for the Arts. This Yashica Mat 124G is a medium-format twin-lens reflex camera. I have been using this camera all semester for my visual arts coursework. I was later glad I brought the camera because the views in Peru were stunning. I focused on capturing clouds, and the ways that sunlight interacted with features of the landscape, particularly stone.

  • Hotel courtyard

    This was the first photo I took in Peru. We had just arrived to our hotel in Cusco, Hotel San Agustin, and I was exploring the building with some classmates. We found unusual sculptures on top of the plaster walls and a small courtyard tucked away behind the lobby. The red ochre walls and potted plants created a serene atmosphere that I wanted to capture for the sake of memory.

  • Llama eating grass

    On our second day in Peru, our class visited a tourist-oriented llama and alpaca farm just outside of Cusco. Before meeting the animals, we passed through a museum that contextualized the importance of camelids in Andean societies. After this, we were able to interact with the llamas and alpacas by walking along a set of enclosures and feeding them grass. Fortunately, they were quite attentive to you if you offered grass, so this llama was not too hard to photograph.

  • Student standing in field

    I had set out to investigate a carved offering stone with some classmates while in Chinchero, and I noticed Matthew Fastow in the distance standing beside a mountain with great folds running down the face. Relative to the mountain, Matthew appeared somehow quite large, so I asked him to stay where he was and took a quick photo.

  • Pisac market in Cusco

    I took this photo just as our group was about to leave an open-air market in Pisac. I had just bought a softball-sized ball of hand-spun, undyed sheep wool, and my classmates had purchased textiles and trinkets. However, the market’s vendors were also selling produce, as you can see in this photo. I was struck by the celestial pillars of light projecting down from the sky, and the shadows this light cast on the cobbled walk.

  • Pisac mountainside

    After shopping a bit at the market in Pisac, two classmates and I wandered out toward the edge of the town, where we found a vast cornfield. To the north, we saw a mountain rising up, and the scars of agricultural terraces cut into the mountainside.

  • Dog napping on steps

    While visiting Chinchero, our group stopped for a moment below a stepped lane, and I noticed a dog napping in the afternoon sun. We had been warned before the trip to avoid interacting with Peruvian dogs, but this dog seemed so blissfully content, so I snapped a quick shot — trying my best not to wake him or her.

  • Uramba River double exposure

    I captured this photograph of the Urubamba River just after our group returned from Machu Picchu. It had rained ceaselessly during our tour of the archaeological site, so I almost empathized with the swollen, crashing river. Two days later, I took a photo at Pachacamac, just outside of Lima, but my film had not advanced properly, and I ended up with this double-exposure.