Archeology, Commentary

Machu Picchu Meets Cuzco in the Casa Concha

Machu Picchu

Cuzco is the most important Inca site in Peru–far beyond Machu Picchu, even though Machu Picchu is justifiably a wonder of the world.  After all, Cuzco was the imperial center, the place where the Incas carried out their finest architecture and worked out the daily details of their splendid life at the center of the universe. Now, with the opening of the Casa Concha Museum,  we have a chance to appreciate this city of many levels as well as the wonders of Inca Pachacutec’s marvel on a high, mountain saddle.

The Casa Concha, a colonial mansion with its own history, including being part of Inca Yupanqui’s palace called Pukamarka, has been carefully restored and until another museum structure is finished is the home of the Yale collection of artifacts gathered by the fabled explorer and scholar Hyrum Bingham.

That collection was much fought over and, last year, Yale University agreed to re-patriate the collection to Peru with various conditions, including that it be housed in a proper museum.  In addition, the collection has become the center of a new institute for the study of Machu Picchu and, hence, Inca society and culture.

This is good.  The scientific information on Machu Picchu has been scattered and often only available to specialists, while the interpretation of the site was left to travel specialists and tour guides who have created various fascinating but ultimately mythical stories of the site and its reality.

Entrance to the Casa Concha
Entrance to the Casa Concha

The new museum, while showing only a small amount of the material gathered, is particularly strong in showing this more scholarly understanding.  It includes video of prominent researchers, such as Richard Burger, explaining the archeological understanding of the site, including that it was am estate built by Inca Pachacutec, and that there is much evidence for metallurgy on site.

The displays exploring skeletal remains and their significance are also particularly strong.

Hopefully the Museum will grow into its role as a key place for sharing scholarly knowledge of the majestic site clinging to a ridge.  That is much needed.

Model Making Metals in Machu Picchu
Model Making Metals in Machu Picchu

However, while restoring the Casa Concha, named for the Marquis who carried the name Concha and resided there, researchers excavated  the site and found important remains, some of which are also displayed.

This is not surprising, after all the house, with its central location, a block from the Main Square, called Haukaypata in Inca Times, belonged to the Inca Yupanqui and then, after his demise, to his Panaca.  This last word can be defined as a kind of lineage, although their are particulars in the Inca usage that we are leaving unexpressed in the interest of space.  In any case, the palace was dedicated to preserving Yupanqui’s mummy and to the ceremony related to him and his memory, as well as cultivating his fields and carrying out his economy.

By the end of the empire, these Panacas organized around the mummies of the Inca rulers had become perhaps the dominant economic and social power in the Empire, certainly if one includes the contemporary Inca and his power at any given time.

View from Casa Concha's Balcony
View from Casa Concha’s Balcony

The Pukamarka wass a very extensive Palace extending between the contemporary streets of Santa Catalina and Maruri, as well as Arequipa and San Agustín.  Up until the moment of the opening of the Casa Concha, most people have been limited to seeing the eternal walls of extremely fine stonework.  But  those tend to easily shift into the background, especially in a city with so much Inca stonework.

The Casa Concha brings the Pukamarka (the red town, or reddish palace) more to life.  It displays artifacts found at the site of daily life.  These along with other displays, bring the amazing palace that belonged to Inca Yupanqui to center stage along with the country estate of his father, the Great Inca Pachacutec, the amazing Machu Picchu.

Columns in the Casa Concha
Columns in the Casa Concha

As a result, one can hope that Cuzco will begin to get more of its due as the most important Inca site in Peru.

But the Casa Concha is not just about the Incas.  It is an architectural treasure of colonial building, when the styles of Seville with their Moorish base, met the Inca city.  Though the outlines of this synthetic style of building–that incorporated Inca, Arabic, and Spanish into a whole with regional relevance–still remain, these grand colonial buildings with their majesty and sense of proportion have been increasingly cut up into ever smaller spaces to meet contemporary needs and the sense of colonial Cuzco is being lost.

And if it is being lost, so is the Inca city that is incorporated into it and beneath it.  Only shells remain in an increasing number of cases.

Nevertheless, the Casa Concha brings this majestic and hybrid architecture front and center.  In this way, it is no longer enough to leave the Incas in the past, broken by the Spanish invasion.  Rather we have to see continuities, where the people of Cuzco, whatever their origins, have come to grips with a living and vital city that is, at the same time, the most important of Inca sites.

Among other treasures was the discovery of an eighteenth century mural that graced some of the mansion’s walls.  At some two hundred meters of art, it is the largest intact colonial mural found in the city although it is fragmented.   And, it includes the figure of the Archangel Michael, a figure that is important in the passion-plays / dances of some parts of the Andes and which Teresa Gisbert sees as building an important link between the Andean of the Incas and Spanish Catholicism.

Archangel Michael
Archangel Michael

Whether to see the painting of the Archangel, the colonial mansion itself, the Inca Pukamarka, or to see the displays of artifacts from Yale and the Casa Concha, this Museum is well worth a visit.  Cuzco may yet take its justified place as the most important of Inca sites, but one that continues to live instead of haunting in pure silence a saddle-top where the river bends.

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