domenica 14 giugno 2015

Lost Cities of the Mexican Highlands

The mysterious ruins of Chimalacatlan

      In a remote mountain region to the South of the Central Mexican state of Morelos, stand some of the most enigmatic megalithic ruins of all of Mesoamerica.

The impressive megalithic Acropolis of Chimalacatlan rises on top of a high ridge overlooking the Sierra de Huautla and the vast plains of Morelos and Guerrero. [Photo by Author]
      Mexico and Central America are rightfully famous for their impressive concentration of ancient Pre-Columbian ruins, covering a time span of several thousand years, from the Olmec civilization of the early pre-classic and formative period (1,400 BC to 400 BC), to the great Maya civilization of the lowlands of Chiapas and Guatemala (beginning 750 BC), to the bloodthirsty rituals and military organization of the great Aztec empire (1,325 AD to 1,521 AD). 
Yet, for how impressive the architectural and artistic achievements of these great Pre-Columbian civilizations (suffice to mention the great Maya pyramids, palaces and ballcourts), megalithic stone architecture seems to be largely absent from the landscape of ancient Mesoamerica.

      Certainly, many Mesoamerican civilizations were familiar with cutting and raising large stone monoliths. As an example, one could easily cite the over hundreds of stelae erected by the Mayas of the Classic Period (250 to 900 AD), some of which weighting over 60 tons [1], or the equally impressive Olmec stone heads (weighting betwen 6 and 40 tons [2]) and Aztec monoliths. The most famous Aztec monolith, the celebrated Stone of the Sun, or Piedra del Sol, now in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City, in fact a massive stone calendar and cosmologic monument, weights an estimate of nearly 25 tons [3]. Even more impressive, the Tlaloc monolith (originally from San Miguel Coatlinchan and now decorating a fountain outside of the same Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City), weights in excess of 168 tons and is also believed to date to the Aztec period [4].

      In spite of these astonishing feats of engineering, the use of large and often very large stones seemed to be limited to free-standing monuments, while smaller stones, adobe and concrete were the materials of choice throughout Mesoamerica for all large scale constructions and pyramids. Even the most impressive Maya pyramids, as well as the even larger pyramids at Teotihuacan and Cholula, were built almost exclusively of small, incoherent stones and adobe, mixed with concrete and stuccoed or plastered on the outside.
Unlike the Andean region of South America, with its impressive megalithic architecture as in the region of Cuzco, capital of the Inca empire, and Tiwanaku, nothing on the scale of the impressive megalithic walls and constructions of Peru seems to have ever characterized Mesoamerican architecture. 

      There is however one remarkable exception to this rule, which is as impressive in its monumentality and scale as it is also remarkably unknown to the public at large, including many of the very specialists in Mesoamerican archaeology and architecture [5]. This is the case of the megalithic platforms and walls of Chimalacatlan, in the south of Morelos and near the border with the state of Guerrero. 

"A most ancient and famous work"

      The ruins of Chimalacatlan are located within the boundaries of the municipality of Tlaquiltenango, amid the stunning natural setting of the Sierra de Huautla. 
It takes about 40 minutes to reach the tiny village of Chimalacatlan from the municipal capital of Tlaquiltenango, and during the rainy season, another 30 to 40 minutes to walk the steep and muddy trail leading up to the ruins. 

      The site lamentably lacks almost any kind of tourist infrastructure, with the exception of a decaying panel at the end of the trail, informing you that you have finally reached the site. What you will find, however, will more than compensate the effort required to get to this remote location. 

The first structured encountered on the Mesa del Venado (and the only one at least partially cleared from the thick vegetation covering the hill) is a ceremonial ballcourt resting on top of a high dry stone platform. [Photo by Author] 
A detail of the wall construction on the Mesa del Venado shows the use of mid-sized, roughly cut stones around the corners of the structures. Although of not particularly accurate workmanship, these platforms are remarkable for the use of dry, unmortared stone. [Photo by Author]
The little ceremonial ballcourt on top of the Mesa del Venado is one of the most distinctively Meso-American structures at the site, although it possibly dates to a later phase of occupation than the megalithic walls of the Acropolis, when the settlement expanded to engulf the nearby hill. [Photo by Author]
      The first ancient construction encountered on the site, occupying a plateau know as Mesa del Venado, is a vast ceremonial platform complete with a ruined pyramid, almost entirely covered by the lush tropical vegetation of the area, and a small ballcourt game. 
Here for the first time the unusual character of the ruins of Chimalacatlan starts to emerge. The ballcourt itself rests on a large platform, built with carefully arranged unmortared stones: Even though the general quality of the masonry and stone construction is quite poor, the presence of dry walls and unmortared stone construction is striking when compared to the architectural style of other nearby sites like Xochicalco. 

      The main ceremonial center of the ancient city occupies the hill right opposite to this first group of ruins, called Cerro del Venado. The trail to the top runs amidst giant cactuses and copal trees forming a scenery of stunning natural beauty in one of the largest protected areas of tropical dry forest in all of Mexico.

      The site itself is arranged on a set of dry stone platforms, placed at different levels, once connected though a system of monumental ramps and stairways of which only few sections emerge from the thick underbrush and vegetation. Unfortunately, the lower platforms are currently in a very ruinous state, still awaiting excavation and proper consolidation works. It seems, however, that the platforms formed a set of plazas at different levels, roughly following the profile of the natural elevation.

The decaying sign at the entrance of the site. You can zoom in the image to read an English and Spanish description of the ruins, as well as a map of the major structures still visible on the mountain. [Photo by Author] 
The long ascent to the Acropolis is finally compensated with the impressive sight of this megalithic stone wall, that closes the path from the lower terraces. [Photo by Author]
      It is not until one reaches the middle portion of the hill that one encounters the first spectacular examples of megalithic architecture at the site. 
The megalithic buildings consists of a set of two superimposed platforms, at slightly different elevations,only the first one of which appears to be complete on all four sides. 
The lower platform is perfectly square and measures about 40 meters on each side. Its outer walls reach at least 7 to 8 meters high at the North-West corner, and are entirely built of massive ashlars, some of which over 2,5 meters long. The construction is of remarkable quality and accuracy, consisting of several layers of carefully laid out and jointed megalithic stone blocks. 
The second platform shares the exact same characteristics of the first one, including the slightly inward-sloping walls and fine megalithic masonry. Only the main facade of the platform survives in its entirety, while the remaining sides terminate abruptly after 25 or 30 meters against the natural bedrock.

The great megalithic wall facing the ravine on the North-West side of the Acropolis. The wall continues without interruptions for a length of about 60 or 70 meters, and encircles the Acropolis on three sides (the fourth one is the natural bedrock). Some of the stones are over 2,5 meters in length and might weight in excess of 5 or 6 tons. [Photo by Author]
The point where the lower platform joins the upper megalithic platform is marked by a beautiful angle, where the wall reaches again an heigh of about 5 to 6 meters. [Photo by Author]
The height of the wall delimiting the perimeter of the second (upper) megalithic platform decreases progressively as the slope of the hill increases, until leveling down to the level of the natural bedrock. This would have made it rather unsuitable to serve a defensive purpose, and suggest instead a ritual or ceremonial use of the megalithic platform above. [Photo by Author]
      The longest continuous stretch of megalithic walls, facing a deep ravine and joining the two platforms, covers a length of about 60 or 70 meters, and forms a beautiful angle where the two platforms join at different elevations, the second (uppermost) platform being slightly larger at the base than the lower one. 

      The top of the lower platform is occupied by what appears to be a sunken patio or courtyard, a feature not uncommon at other Olmec sites in the Region (like Chalcatzingo and Teopantecuanitlan, which might provide important elements for the dating of the megalithic platforms of Chimalacatlan). The top of the uppermost platform was also artificially leveled around a natural rocky outcrop, and is occupied by several large boulders, still in the rough, which might have been intended as part of some sort of megalithic temple or construction, which was however never completed.

In this view, taken from the South-West corner of the second (uppermost) megalithic platform, the rubble filling of both platforms, behind the megalithic retaining walls, can be clearly appreciated. The top of the first (bottom) platform is occupied by a sort of sunken patio, also delimited by large megalithic blocks, which is suggestive of the ceremonial use of the site. [Photo by Author]
A detail of one of the megalithic stone blocks on the uppermost platform, measuring over 2,5 meters in length. Interestingly, most stones appear to be cracked , something which might be compatible with exposure to very intense heat. The natural erosion has also cancelled any trace of tool marks, and is itself suggestive of the high antiquity of the site. [Photo by Author]
The megalithic wall on the North-East side varies in height between 4 meters to as little as one meter, where it reaches the level of the natural bedrock. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the same North-East angle, as seen from the lower platform. Note the very accurate workmanship and placement of the megalithic stone blocks delimiting the second (upper) platform. [Photo by Author]
The center portion of the upper platform wall is composed of more irregular stone blocks, not nearly as finely jointed as the wall portions to its left and to its right. This is possibly suggestive of later repairs, or even of the presence of a doorway in this part of the wall, that was later closed. [Photo by Author]
Near the North-East corner of the second (upper) megalithic platform, the lower platform forms an angle with it that mirrors the similar angle on the North-West face of Acropolis. The lower wall here is not even one meter tall, and would have certainly served no defensive purpose. [Photo by Author]
The Western side of the Acropolis is delimited by a low wall, less than 3 meters high, which nevertheless shows some remarkably accurate megalithic construction (compare with the dry stone wall to the left, which is of much cruder construction). [Photo by Author]
Another view of the lower megalithic platform, from the North-East. It is unclear whether the wall was actually meant to be higher (as the layer of stones placed here above the level of the platform would appear to suggest), or was only meant to act as a monumental retaining wall for the platform itself. [Photo by Author]
      Above this second platform, the natural bedrock was laid barren and cut into what would appear as canals and trenches up until the top of the hill. There, the peak is occupied by a large pyramid-like structure, consisting of four super-imposed terraces, all sharing the same trapezoid shape with the exception of the top platform, which is a perfect square. From the uppermost platform, located almost at the center of a spectacular natural amphitheater of mountains, the view stretches far away to embrace the entire Sierra de Huatla and the plains of Cuernavaca. Although some larger stones were employed in the construction of this pyramid, and a few well cut stone blocks are visible on some of the terraces, the workmanship is generally poorer than the rest of the megalithic platforms, employing smaller and more irregular stones.

Above the second megalithic platform and along the rather irregular path leading up to the top of Cerro del Venado, the natural bedrock lies (perhaps artificially?) exposed. The very deep trenches and pits cut into it might not be entirely natural, and could instead be part of an abandoned attempt at sculpturing the summit of the hill into terraces. [Photo by Author]
The uppermost platforms on the Cerro del Venado, all built of smaller, less regular stones, rise directly from the natural bedrock underneath them. [Photo by Author]
The view from the top of Cerro del Venado stretches over the entire Sierra of Huautla. [Photo by Author]
The very summit of the Cerro del Venado is occupied by this massive four-tiered pyramid. Each level is trapezoidal in shape, retained by high dry-stone walls which, although lacking the megalithic precision and monumental appearance of the lower platforms, have survived remarkably intact the ravages of time over many centuries. Some larger stones of rather regular appearence, perhaps belonging to an earlier, megalithic, stage of construction, are to be found amidst the dry-stone masonry of this pyramid. [Photo by Author]
      The general feeling is that an impressive surge of construction led the unknown inhabitants of Chimalacatlan to build the massive megalithic walls and platforms that we see today, designing an entire system of terraces and platforms around the summit of the hill, only a small portion of which was however completed by the time the site was apparently abandoned. 
Construction on the site might have resumed at a much later point in time, perhaps centuries later, when the more crude constructions were added, which included the ballcourt game on the Mesa del Venado, and the terraced pyramid which occupies the summit of the hill and incorporates several partially carved megalithic blocks that were likely part of some older, perhaps unfinished structure occupying the summit.

A lost civilization?

      In spite of the little interest that currently sorrounds the ruins of Chimalacatlan and their impressive megalithic constructions, a much larger controversy was sparkled by their early discovery at the end of the XIX Century. 
Indeed, the first mention of the ruins of Chimalacatlan in the Sierra de Huautla might date back to the early times of the Spanish conquest. A passage in the Relacion Historica de la Nacion Tulteca, composed between 1600 and 1608 by Fernando de Alva Ixtlixochitl, one of the early native historians of the New Spain and descendant of the old kings of Texcoco, seems to refer to vestiges of a very similar kind to the ones of Chimalacatlan, also in the province of Cuernavaca. 

Describing some of the most ancient seats of the Toltecs, Ixtlixochitl describes the ruins in this terms:

"In Cuauhnahuac [The ancient name of what is nowadays the city and district of Cuernavaca - NdA] they built a palace with a city, a most ancient and famous work, a palace all built of large stones, of large cut stones without mortar, nor plaster, nor wood, but all of stone, carved and jointed together." [6]

Of course, the Toltecs mentioned in Ixtlixochitl's account must not be the historical Toltecs, but rather the "mythical" Toltecs, to whom all kinds of wonderful and prodigious things were attributed by the Aztecs and by the later inhabitants of the Central Mexican highlands. 

      The modern discovery of the ruins of Chimalactlan must however be attributed to a certain Don Lorenzo Castro, Cura of Tlaquiltenango, who discovered the ruins towards the end of the XIX Century. 

      The then bishop of Cuernavaca, Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete, informed of the discovery, also took a very keen interest in the enigmatic ruins of Chimalacatlan, to the point of identifying them with the long lost capital of the Olmecs, or Tamoanchan, a mythical place believed by the Aztecs to be the seat of the Mesoamerican equivalent of the Garden of Eden and the birthplace of the first Mesoamerican civilizations, if not of mankind itself [7]

      Doubtless, the links between Chimalacatlan and the Olmec civilization run much deeper than the legendary accounts, and are also stressed in a recent paper by the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Antropologia (INAH). [8]

      According to the authors, the ruins of Chimalacatlan might date to the middle Pre-Classic period, that is to say, to a time between 800 and 600 BC, due to their striking similarity with other sites in the state of Guerrero, especially with the early Olmec site of Teopantecuanitlan, where large megalithic stone blocks were also used in the construction of a set of sunken patios and courtyards. 
Other sites with megalithic stone architecture might also exist in the remote wilderness of the Sierra de Huautla, but knowledge of these sites is still very scarce. The sites of Huautla and Mesa de los Tepalcates seem to share similar architectural features with Chimalacatlan, including the use of large megalithic stone blocks measuring over 2 meters in length. As of now, however, almost no documentation exists of these sites outside of the above mentioned report.

A view of another one of the monumental platforms at Chimalacatlan, towards the summit of the Cerro del Venado. Some of the stones used in the construction are fairly large, although the workmanship is not nearly as accurate as that of the lower megalithic terraces. Similar ruins are said to exist at several other places in the remote wilderness of the Sierra de Huautla. [Photo by Author] 
Evidence of ancient quarrying at Chimalacatlan. A large rectangular block still lies in its trench next to several other ones at various stages of completion. The quarries were located uphill from the main megalithic platforms, at a distance of some one hundred meters. [Photo by Author] 
Additional quarrying is visible near the summit of the hill of Cerro del Venado. Aerial and satellite photographs do indeed show large, regular trenches cut in the natural backrock where the hill was likely intended to be cut into additional terraces and platforms, none of which was however completed at the time most monumental construction at the site suddenly ceased. [Photo by Author] 
Again near the Western side of Acropolis, the contrast between the megalithic stone wall to the right and the much cruder dry-stone wall to the left is almost suggestive of two entirely different epochs of construction. [Photo by Author]
A view of the main ceremonial stairway approaching the Acropolis from the North-West. The height of the megalithic stone wall to the left diminishes with the slope from as much as 7 to 8 meters at the North-West corner to as little as 2 meters towards the top. [Photo by Author]
      Interestingly, the very modern day name of the municipal capital of Tlaquiltenango (from the nahua, Tlakiltenamko), where the village and ruins of Chimalacatlan belong to this day, literally means "polished" or "dressed walls", with the hieroglyphic for the city name showing a set of regular, polished constructions accompanied by the depiction of a tool commonly used for polishing stone. No significant ancient remains survive in the town of Tlaquiltenango itself, except for its Franciscan (and later Dominican) convent, built in 1540 and one of the oldest still standing in the Americas, also likely built on top of Pre-Columbian ruins and re-using much of the ancient stones. 

      Still to this day, the area is filled with legends of a once large and populous city, simply known as La Ciudad Perdida - The lost City, believed to have since time immemorial vanished in the unexplored mountain ranges and ravines of the Sierra de Huautla. There are even rumors of underground tunnels and caves that would lead to the fabled lost city. One such tunnel is rumored to connect the present day convent of Santo Domingo in Tlaquiltenango to the Churches of Zacatepec, Tetelpa, Galeana, Las Bovedas and Jojutla, which also occupy the sites of former Pre-Columbian settlements.[9] 

      It is not know who the original inhabitants of Chimalacatlan and its nearby sites were, but it is very likely they imported their megalithic technique and refined architecture from some other place, perhaps from the Olmec heartland on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. 
The absence of artifacts clearly relatable to the megalithic structures also significantly compounds the problem of the origins of their builders and the question of their date. 


[1] The Quiriguà Stela E, believed to be the largest at any Maya site, measures 10.6 meters (35 ft) from the base to the top, and weights between 59 and 65 tons. Source:

[5] One of the most extensive studies of pre-Columbian architecture in Mesoamerica (Maria Teresa Uriarte, Pre-Columbian Architecture in Mesoamerica, INAH Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 2009), fails to mention the site altogether.
[6] Fernando de Alva Ixtlixochitl, Obras Historicas, Oficina tip. de la Secretaria de Fomento, Ciudad de Mexico, 1891, p. 38
[7] Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete, Tamoanchan: El Estado de Morelos y el principio de la civilizacion, Imp. El Mensajero, Mexico, 1911
[8] Mario Cordova Tello, Juan Pablo Sereno Uribe, Sur de Morelos: Chimalacatlan, INAH,
[9] Morelos Turistico, Turismo Tlaquiltenango,

mercoledì 24 dicembre 2014

The Dimensional Gateway of Ñaupa Iglesia

The secret Temple of Gold
A view towards the entrance of the main cave of Ñaupa Iglesia, with the rock cut doorway in the foreground and the very strangely carved "altar" overlooking the valley on the cliff side. [Photo by Author]
Early in 2014 we learnt of a “secret” ruin that was supposedly discovered a few years ago somewhere in the mountains above Cusco, Peru, along the Sacred Valley. As the source refused to provide coordinates for the site, the only information available were a few rather intriguing pictures of what looked like a sealed rock-cut doorway and a name, Ñaupa Iglesia.
We eventually managed to pinpoint the site’s exact location with the help of Google maps and indications from a local guide. For anyone interested, the actual coordinates for the site are: 13.292214S;  72.232222W

Much less know and significantly less travelled than its more famous counterpart at Hayu Marca (The “Gateway of Aramu Muru” near Ilave, on Lake Titicaca), one can reach this site only with the help of an expert local guide or a good GPS.
A short detour from the Sacred Valley, on a branch of the road connecting Urubamba to Ollantaytambo, takes into a deep and somehow hidden valley resembling a canyon with towering cliffs. One needs to leave the car at a small river crossing, and then walk a few minutes along the railway tracks until you reach a tiny pathway leading up to some abandoned agricultural terraces likely dating to Inca or pre-Inca times. The climb from this point takes a good 15 minutes, and can be very steep at points.
The steep trail leading up to Ñaupa Iglesia from the valley underneath, amidst towering cliffs. [Photo by Author]
The entrance to the main cave of Ñaupa Iglesia, overlooking the deep canyon underneath. The "altar" is visible in the foreground (in the shade), together with a wall with niches of much cruder construction. [Photo by Author]
What awaits about halfway to the top, carved into the cliff face, however, is very much worth the effort. There lies a monument unique in its kind in all of Peru, a rock-cut temple or shrine containing a beautifully carved monolithic altar overlooking the valley and a rock-cut doorway, also carved from the living rock.
There are also walls with niches in a style closely reminiscent of Tiwanaku architecture, but of much cruder construction, on both sides of the shrine.  
This strange ruin is known to the locals by the name of Choquekilla or “The temple of Gold”, or “Ñaupa Iglesia”, meaning the “Church of the Ancients”. The Ñaupas are inhabitants of the spirit world, or of worlds before our own, and can travel across the spaces by manifesting themselves around sunset or dawn at certain sacred locations. According to Andean lore, a meeting with the Ñaupas can be extremely dangerous, and their secret dwellings as well as the portals through which they cross into this world are better left undisturbed.
The rock cut doorway that in the old Andean traditions would have served for the Ñaupas to cross into our world from other spaces. Some offerings and candles have been placed on the threshold by local shamans. [Photo by Author]  
Another view of the rock-cut doorway of Ñaupa Iglesia, looking into the cave. The cave ceiling appears to have collapsed at some point, burying under a deep pile of rubble whatever was located at the opposite end of the cave. [Photo by Author]
The rock-cut doorway truly looks like a gateway into another world, and one would truly need magical powers to cross the solid rock wall sealing it. The most interesting feature, however, is the very peculiar “altar” located at the entrance of the cave. It is very finely carved in a way that reminds of the stepped Chacana, symbolizing the three worlds of Andean cosmogony. Unfortunately this beautiful altar was apparently blown up, allegedly by treasure hunters looking for buried gold, so that now the carvings appear incomplete. Or was it? Looking up closely, one notices several perfectly drilled holes piercing the altar stone. These holes were supposedly used for sticking dynamite or other explosives to blow up the hard stone in search of gold. One wonders whether another explanation exists for the presence of these perfectly drilled holes. Were they part of the original construction? This is not unlikely, given the fact that similar perfectly drilled holes are also found in hard stone at other sites in Peru and Bolivia, most notably at Tiwanaku, Cusco and Ollantaytambo.
The very strange "altar" located at the entrance of the cave. It has a strikingly modern design, almost reminescent of some ancient and strange piece of machinery. The very fine and neat carvings also extend to the rock floor and to the other sides of the "altar" (unfortunately broken and defaced by what must have been a powerful explosion - perhaps a disastrous attempt by looters to find buried treasure by breaking up the altar). Interestingly, the stone of which the altar is made appears to be of an entirely different composition than the surrounding sandstone. [Photo by Author]
Another frontal view of the "altar". The perfectly drilled hole on top of the main carved face can be clearly made out. The grooves and cuts in the floor (which is of one piece with the monolithic altar stone) are suggestive of some kind of object or artifact being placed on hinges in front of the "altar", which now appears to be lost. [Photo by Author]
There are also more interesting holes and marks on the natural bedrock leading to the altar, suggesting that an object or artifact of some sort was placed right in front of it and likely fastened to the stone floor. One would almost be forgiven to think that the altar was in fact a sort of device meant to control the opening and closing of the doorway right behind it, perhaps in some altered state of consciousness.
Aside from the gate, the cave appears to have partially collapsed, and some other rock-cut surfaces suggest it might have once extended further into the mountain.

One is left to wonder what the purpose of this strange and somehow sinister shrine could have been, and we have no doubt that the same crowds that now gather around the gateway of Aramu Muru and other similar places in Peru and South America will soon discover also this still remote and secluded location. Perhaps this will also serve to bring to it the attention it deserves from the archaeological community. 

A Journey into the X-Zone

The Mysterious "Zona-X" of Cusco
A view of the idyllic landscape sorrounding the "X-Zone" of Cusco, which extends just a short distance from the great megalithic fortress of Sachsayhuaman. What seems just a natural landscape is in fact littered with the signs of a very mysterious past: carved stones, altars, shrines and the entrances to several underground tunnels and caves. [Photo by Author]
Unknown to many of the tourists who visit the nearby fortress of Sachsayhuaman, overlooking the ancient city of Cusco, Peru, a short cab ride (or a very scenic walk) will take you into the hearth of the “X-Zone”.

It is difficult to describe what the “X-Zone” actually is. At a minimum, it is an impressive collection of megalithic ruins, a maze of underground tunnels and strange rock-cut monuments. But there is also a more sinister side to it, related to mysterious disappearances and sightings. This is, by the way, not surprising for an area so isolated and rich in caves, both natural and man-made.

The first approach to the X-Zone is from the road connecting Sachsayhuaman and Q’enko to the nearby ruins of Puca Pucara and Tambomachay. The area is immediately recognizable as a large rocky outcrop surrounded on one side by massive polygonal walls, very much reminiscent of the walls of Sachsayhuaman.
There are extensive signs of quarrying, and there is no doubt the area was used as a stone quarry at some point. There are elements, however, that point to a much different function for the area before it was turned into a stone quarry. Many of the walls of the rocky outcrop appear to have been cut into regular shapes to form little chambers, shrines and doorways.
There is a sense of extreme antiquity here, which is further reinforced by the severe erosion and weathering of many of the stone surfaces. Interestingly, many of the neatly carved chambers and doorways which are now fully exposed to the elements appear to have been once underground and to have only been exposed by quarrying or erosion.
A set of niches and rock-cut doorways, highly suggestive of a funerary arrangement (the niches served perhaps to contain mummified bodies or other offerings). Much of the superstructure of this chamber seems to have been quarried away, leaving the rock walls exposed to the weathering agents. [Photo by Author]
A carved rocky outcrop, also in the vicinity of the "X-Zone", likely used as a quarry for the nearby fortress of Sachsayhuaman. [Photo by Author]
These carved walls and chambers show remarkable polish and many unusual features also found at several pre-Inca sites around Peru (See my previous entry – The Vitrified Ruins of Ancient Peru [2]), including partial vitrification.

The most unique and unusual feature of the “X-Zone”, however, is the maze of tunnels that extends deep underground inside the rocky outcrop. It is likely that this might correspond to the area known from ancient sources as the “Chincana Grande”, or the “Great Chincana”, a word meaning labyrinth or maze in Quechua. The X-Zone would appear to be a much more likely candidate for this than the other rocky outcrop which is more commonly known by the same name closer to Sachsayhuaman (there are actually two Chincanas near Sachsayhuaman, one called the “Chincana Chica”, on the Rodadero hill facing the giant megalithic fortress, which consists of some short tunnels that can be rather effortlessly explored, and a large rocky outcrop commonly – but in our opinion mistakenly – identified as the Great Chincana, where several shrines and steps have been carved into the rock, yet bearing no trace of tunnels or other features that might justify such a name).

The mysterious subterraneans of the Incas

Many legends relate to a maze of tunnels and ancient passageways supposedly existing underneath the city of Cusco and dating to a time possibly earlier than that of the Incas. According to a long established tradition, dating back to early colonial times, these tunnels are supposed to connect the temple of the Sun in Cusco (the famed Qorikancha) to the giant megalithic fortress of Sachsayhuaman, as well as to many other places as far as Tiwanaku in Bolivia. [1]

According to a famous story, reported among others by the historian Garcilaso de la Vega, vast treasures were concealed in these tunnels in the days of the siege of Cusco by the Spaniards, including the fabulous Sun of Gold that once shone in the innermost shrine of the Qorikancha of Cusco.

Other more recent tales, although somehow harder to verify, relate of entire expeditions vanishing without a trace into the maze of tunnels underneath the city in search of the fabled gold of the Incas. 

Doubtless, the “Zona-X” is the closest neighbor to the maze of tunnels that is the matter of such legends and fairy tales. Everywhere one sees the entrances to countless tunnels and underground passages, often branching out in multiple directions and intersected by other smaller tunnels. Some of the galleries are very neatly carved, with regular outlines and polished walls and ceilings; some even have steps carved in the floor, leading to unknown depths. In other cases, however, the galleries resemble natural caves, the workmanship is very rough and the course irregular.
A neatly cut stone surface. Was it part of some underground chamber or hypogeum now exposed by quarrying and erosion? Note how the carved walls and ceiling end abruptly where the rock appears to have been cut, [Photo by Author]
A curiously shaped niche, which was apparently left unfinished. [Photo by Author]
One very large gallery crosses almost the entire length of the rocky outcrop, covering a distance of a few hundred feet. It is unusually large and spacious, reaching at points an apparent height of over 3 meters. There are niches carved in the walls, which also bear signs of vitrification and have a mirror-like appearance. Even this gallery is intersected by countless smaller tunnels, some leading up and partially obstructed, others leading down, deep into the bowels of the Earth. Not even the local guides know where many of these tunnels could lead. One older guide that we interviewed at the site claimed he was able to follow one such tunnel for over 20 minutes, down to the point when the heat and the lack of oxygen would make it impossible to go any further. Yet he would ensure us that the tunnel continued steeply going down towards some dark abyss of unfathomable depth. Other guides would confirm the tale and swear that if one were to follow these tunnels to the end, he would emerge exactly from underneath the Qorikancha or somewhere near the Cathedral of Cusco. 
One of the countless tunnels that can be found in the X-Zone. This one appear to be a natural cave that was then artificial enlarged and is also intersected by several other passages and tunnels. [Photo by Author]
A neatly carved tunnel entrance, also laid exposed by erosion and quarrying. One can see the walls of some kind of antechamber leading into the tunnel, which has now lost its original roofing (one of the roofing stones can still be seen right above the entrance to the tunnel, tightly inserted between the two rock walls). [Photo by Author]
The many shrines and rock-cut altars one finds at the site doubtlessly testify to the importance and sacredness of the place in ancient times. A small temple was built on one side of the rocky outcrop, although the poor workmanship of its construction, mostly consisting of loose stones, would place it well into Inca times.

A visit to the “X-Zone” is also easily complemented by a visit to the nearby Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Monkeys, which also hold many fascinating secrets and unexplained features (See my previous entry – The Vitrified Ruins of Ancient Peru [2]). 


The approximate coordinates of the site are: 
13.496427 S, 71.974033 W (from Google Maps) - A sign near the entrance points to an area of the archaeological park of Sachsayhuaman called Lanlakuyok. Due to the isolated position of the site, we highly recommend hiring an expert local guide. 

[1] The Koricancha Project is currently investigating some of these reports, which have already led to some highly promising discoveries and findings. More details can be found on the Project's website:

sabato 6 settembre 2014

The Vitrified Ruins of Ancient Peru

And I may say, once and for all, carefully weighing my words, that in no part of the world I have seen stones cut with such mathematical precision and admirable skill as in Peru, and in no part of Peru are there any to surpass those which are scattered over the plain of Tiahuanaco.
[Ephraim George Squier, Incidents of Travel and Exploration in the Land of the Incas, 1877, p. 279]
Cusco, the famous stone of the twelve angles, masterpiece of megalithic stone masonry. [Photo by Author]
Ever since the time of the discovery by Europeans of the remarkable megalithic ruins of ancient Peru, travelers and scholars have wondered at the remarkable workmanship and precision of the stone cutting and dressing techniques employed by the ancient Peruvians.

The megalithic architecture of the Andean altiplano of Peru and Bolivia is indeed remarkable. It has the same clear and neat lines that only ancient Egypt was able to express, and then only briefly over the course of the IV Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Yet, very often, what is labelled as “Inca architecture” has little if anything to do with the Incas, a people conquered by the Spanish conquistadores in 1533 and whose empire stretching over much of today’s Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and parts of Argentina lasted for almost two hundred years since the late XIII Century AD or the beginning of the XIV Century AD. Indeed, most architectural historians and archaeologists have now come to recognize in the megalithic architecture of the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands the legacy of much older civilizations, including the Wari and the Tiwanaku empires, whose history already stretched back several centuries (perhaps even millennia) by the time the Incas became lords of  the land. 

Over the last couple of decades, architectural historians such as Jean Pierre Protzen and Stella Nair have addressed the mystery of how a civilization with no knowledge of the wheel and which only possessed rudimentary copper tools and chisels could have quarried, transported, dressed and fitted enormous blocks of hard granite, porphyry and andesite stone with the almost supernatural precision that one can see in the ancient sites of Peru and Bolivia. [1,2]
Even though their experiments have been able to shed some light on the techniques that, even with very rudimentary tools, could have been used to craft perfectly planar surfaces, accurate right angles and millimeter wide joints, many aspects of ancient Andean stone cutting and architecture remain unexplained.

One of the most puzzling and debated issues with Andean megalithic architecture is the apparent vitrification of the stone surfaces one notices at several ancient sites. If rocks were indeed vitrified, as some historians claim, their ancient builders ought to have possessed some yet unknown means by which they were able to soften, melt and in some cases vitrify enormous masses of rock, making it extremely easy to carve stone as hard as granite and andesite in any kind of desired shapes and angles.

The most prominent features of these “vitrified” rocks include:
  • A shiny, glossy appearance that reflects light like a mirror
  • The presence of a “layer” on the surface of the stone, where the apparent vitrification is visible
  • Evidence of vitrification in places where it would be illogical or simply impossible to achieve a similar level of polish by any other more conventional technique (such as hammering, chiseling or polishing with an abrasive substance such as sand or quartz powder)
  • An evident discoloration or change in color and texture of the stone in areas where the vitrification phenomenon is apparent
  • Marks in the stone or other evidence that might suggest that the stone was indeed molten or softened at some point during construction  
  • The presence of a residual magnetic charge in the stone, detectable by means of a compass (although it is unclear how this might be related to the vitrification observed, if at all)
  • The sockets where metal clamps would have been inserted to join together adjacent blocks of stone are often visible in stones that bear traces of vitrification (with the sockets or T-Grooves also showing signs of vitrification)

Below is an overview of some of the anomalies and apparent traces of vitrification we have been able to document at several Peruvian sites.

Cusco, Qorikancha
A set of perfectly aligned windows inside the Qorikancha, the “Golden Enclosure” of ancient Cusco. [Photo by Author]
The Qorikancha, meaning “Enclosure of Gold” was the most important state temple of the Inca Empire, in the heart of their capital city of Cusco. The ruins of the Qorikancha survive underneath the modern day church and convent of Santo Domingo, and are universally recognized as one of the finest examples of Inca stonework in the so-called “Imperial style” using large, squared blocks of granite or andesite. Indeed, a number of elements may suggest an even older origin for the temple, perhaps dating back to the time of the Wari and Tiahuanaco empires (these include the presence of T-Grooves designed to host metal clamps, typical of Tiahuanaco architecture but absent from Inca construction techniques, as well as some controversial astronomical alignments that might point to an even earlier construction date. [3])

The architecture of the Qorikancha is both imposing and austere. The interior is divided in a number of rooms facing a central courtyard, while the outer walls rest on an imposing series of terraces towards the river Huatanay (now little more than a streamlet), that culminate in an impressive curved wall likely built for some astronomical purposes. The stones that compose this outer wall show a remarkable degree of polish. Although these stones do not bear any clear signs of vitrification, their almost metallic finish and mirror-like polish is indeed remarkable.
The beautiful curved wall outside the Qorikancha, overlooking the valley of the river Huatanay. It was likely used for astronomical observations and also hosted a solar gnomon called a Intihuatana. [Photo by Author]
The wonderful outer wall of the Qorikancha facing Calle Ahuacpinta. It is possible to appreciate the very tight joints and the indenting between the stones.
Another view of the outer wall of the Qorikancha facing Calle Ahuacpinta. The horizonal joints are also vitrified. [Photo by Author]
The outer wall facing Calle Ahuacpinta is perhaps the most remarkable as it shows a number of features that testify to the extreme skill of the ancient stonemasons. The wall is entirely built of pinkish-gray granite, using neatly fitted and joined rectangular blocks. Even though the vertical joints are rarely perpendicular, the horizontal joints run almost perfectly straight. 

If observed from close enough, however, the joints reveal something truly remarkable. First of all, each stone possesses a slight, almost imperceptible indentation, so that even the horizontal joints are never truly horizontal, but designed in such a way that each stone would be “locked” in place by means of tiny indentations in each of the adjoining stones. Nevertheless, the joints are so tight as to be barely visible and not even the proverbial sheet of paper could be fitted in between two stones.

The amount of work required to achieve such a perfect fit while keeping tiny indentations between the blocks would be unconceivable by any modern standard, and can only find justification in the high seismicity of the region (perfectly horizontal and perpendicular joints would have caused the stones to slide during an earthquake, while the tiny indentations would have kept them tightly into place). In addition to this very peculiar fit between the blocks, the joints (especially the horizontal joints) appear to be vitrified. A shiny, vitrified layer can be seen at night between the joints or by pointing a flashlight parallel to the wall. There is no explanation as to how this level of vitrification was achieved or why. From a structural point of view, however, the vitrification of the joints would have conferred the wall an almost indestructible strength making it extremely resistant even to the most violent earthquakes.

Vitrification, however, is not limited to the joints. A few stones in the interior of the Qorikancha also show evidence of glazing as if covered by a vitrified film or layer that reflects light. Oddly enough, this coating seems to have been hammered or chiseled away at some point, leaving the stone with a much rougher appearance (why or when this was done remains the subject of speculation, although this might be a consequence of the walls being stuccoed and painted during colonial times).
A dark corridor inside the Qorikancha well expresses the severe and monumental character of this structure. [Photo by Author]
A partially vitrified stone block inside the Qorikancha. Interestingly, the vitrified layer seems to have been deliberately hammered and chiseled away at a later date, possibly during colonial times. [Photo by Author]
Inside the Qorikancha, several stones and niches bear traces of perfectly drilled holes and grooves whose purposes is unknown (it has been speculated they might have held golden plaques, doors, hinges or other ornaments). Some of the holes were drilled in the hard granite for a depth in some cases exceeding 50 centimeters and with a diameter of up to 4 or 5 centimeters.
A remarkable niche inside the Qorikancha, with drilled holes and mysterious grooves. [Photo by Author]
Cusco – Sachsaywaman

The gigantic fortress of Sachsaywaman dominates the city of Cusco from a hill. Some of the stones used for its construction weigh in excess of 250 to 300 tons, and are fitted together with remarkable accuracy. Many of the stones employed in the construction of the fortress appear molten, as if they had been artificially softened and fitted into place, some of them even bearing partially vitrified “scars” suggestive of the application of very intense, concentrated heat.
One of the megalithic gateways leading into the great fortress of Sachsaywaman, above the city of Cusco [Photo by Author]
Some of the strange marks or scars visible on certain stones at Sachsaywaman appear to be the product of intense heat applied to the stone and are also partially vitrified. [Photo by Author]
The most remarkable signs of vitrification are however found on rocks on the hill facing Sachsaywaman (called Rodadero because of the round shape of the vast stone amphitheater that was carved into its summit). A particular rock platform called the “Throne of the Inca” has perfectly planar, partially vitrified surfaces cut in steps, which also appear to be heavily magnetic. Many of the nearby stones are also carved into steps, often forming long stairways, niches and altars. 
The “Throne of the Inca” facing the fortress of Sachsaywaman, on the hill of Rodadero. The steps show signs of at least partial vitrification and bear significant magnetic anomalies. [Photo by Author]
Even though the severe weathering of the rock surfaces would have removed or concealed any sign of vitrification, the rocks (some of them weighing hundreds of tons) appear to have been cracked and split by intense heat that permanently altered the color and texture of the stone. Where the stone has been somehow protected from the weather, vitrification is however evident. 
A carved rock surface on the hill of Rodadero, above Sachsaywaman. This enormous rock appears to have cracked under the effect of extreme heat. It is surrounded by other fragments of stone showing similar cracks and fractures, which must have once been part of some colossal fallen construction. [Photo by Author]
A vitrified tunnel near the Chincana Chica on the hill of Rodadero. Not the mirror polish on the walls and on the ceiling. [Photo by Author]
An area with numerous caves and tunnel called the Chincana Chica contains several tunnels whose walls and ceiling are entirely vitrified to an almost mirror-like polish. The purpose of this strange network of tunnels is unknown, but their extreme antiquity is testified by the fact that many of them, including several chambers that must have once been underground, are now open to the air as they have been exposed by the erosion and quarrying of the rock above.   

Cusco – Q’Enko
The great cave of Q’Enko. The surfaces of the altars and tables show clear signs of having been vitrified. [Photo by Author]
A detail of a vitrified stone surface on the side of one of the altars in the cave of Q'Enko. Vitrification appears as a thin layer on the surface of the stone. [Photo by Author]
Q’Enko is located on a rocky outcrop a short distance from Sachsaywaman and is divided in two areas called Uchuy Q’Enko (meaning “Little Q’Enko) and Q’Enko proper. Uchuy Q’Enko has more of the strangely carved rocks and cyclopean walls reminiscent in style of the constructions of Sachsaywaman. The rock surface contains many carvings that might have once been chambers and corridors that are now open to the air and badly weathered. The extreme weathering of the stone is even more puzzling if one considers that it is entirely composed of very hard andesite stone, a rock very similar to basalt. One particular trench cut into the rock is very much suggestive of a portcullis system connected to a small canal, with parallel grooves clearly visible on both sides of the trench.
The main cave of Q’Enko, believed to be used in funerary rituals, contains several tables and altars (for lack of any other suitable functional explanation) whose surface is entirely vitrified.

Cusco – Temple of the Moon (and Temple of the Monkeys)

The little know Temple of the Moon (and the nearby Temple of the Monkeys) are two rarely visited sites located in the vicinity of Q’Enko. The so-called Temple of the Moon is in fact a large rocky outcrop containing many caves where altars and other structures have been carved into the living rock. The most remarkable of these caves, containing a large ceremonial platform or altar and accessed through a short descending stairway, is entirely vitrified both on the walls and the ceilings. Vitrification of the rock surface is so extensive that the stone shines and reflects the light like a mirror. One can see his own image reflected on the walls and the ceiling as if they were entirely made of polished glass. Similar traces of vitrification are also found on a large altar inside the Temple of the Monkeys, where erosion has left exposed a system of underground chambers and passageways.
The steps leading into the cave of the Temple of the Moon. Note the mirror-like reflection of the stairway on the left wall. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the cave of the Moon, from inside. All the walls and ceilings are entirely vitrified. [Photo by Author]
A view of the Temple of the Moon, from the outside, carved into a rocky outcrop a short distance from Q’Enko. It is possible to see what were clearly the walls and ceilings of chambers that are now entirely exposed to the elements. [Photo by Author]

The great fortress of Ollantaytambo rests on a steep terraced hill dominated by the gigantic megalithic walls of the temple of the Sun, guarding one of the accesses to the Sacred Valley near Cusco.
The large megalithic wall of the Temple of the Sun of Ollantaytambo. Each one of the six porphyry monoliths that compose the structure weights in excess of 70 tons and comes from quarries located at a distance of over 5 Km, on the opposite side of a deep ravine. [Photo by Author]
Ollantaytambo is most famous for the six giant porphyry megaliths, each weighing in excess of 70 tons, which form the façade of the Temple of the Sun (the original appearance of this massive megalithic structure is still the subject of speculation). Similar to the Qorikancha, Ollantaytambo shows signs of different epochs of construction, with the megalithic phase being the earliest and the most refined. Enormous blocks of stone lie scattered around the summit and at the base of the hill, many of which were later reemployed in the much cruder construction of the late Inca period. Interestingly, some of the stones must have been already badly weathered and damaged when they were reused. Several stones also possess T-grooves for holding metal clamps, which are strongly reminiscent of Tiahuanaco architecture.
Smaller stones were inserted between the larger megaliths, possibly for aesthetic or symbolic reasons. The joints between the smaller stones and the larger monoliths are also vitrified. [Photo by Author]
A T-Groove can be seen on a large porphyry stone lying in front of the megalithic wall of the Temple of the Sun. Also note the thin vitrified layer covering the left side of the stone. [Photo by Author]
A perfectly drilled hole in a fallen block of porphyry at Ollantaytambo. Notice the thin grooves and tool marks left inside the hole. [Photo by Author]
The cyclopean masonry leading up to the top of the hill is the finest in Peru, showing a level of polish and accuracy which is almost unparalleled in the ancient world and gives it the appearance of polished metal rather than stone. The protruding bosses that one can see on the surface of many of the stones (and which are also a prominent feature in megalithic buildings in Cusco and elsewhere) were certainly used for the lifting and transportation of the colossal blocks of stone, even though one wonders at the reason why they were left to protrude out of the stone even after the stones had been dressed and fitted into place. Perhaps construction was abandoned and the building was left unfinished at some early stage of completion, but this is hard to reconcile with the degree of polish and the perfect finish of other parts of the wall.
Ollantaytambo, the polygonal wall on one side of the terrace of the Temple of the Sun. The stones have an almost metallic polish. The large, jambed door visible in the picture above once gave access to the upper terrace. One can also notice the stone bosses protruding from the stones.  [Photo by Author]
Among the stones found at Ollantaytambo are pink-red porphyry, gray andesite, black basalt and diorite. No doubt, the chromatic effect of so many different colored stones would have been beautiful. The joints between the stones, including the largest monoliths, appear to have been vitrified as they are coated in a thin reflective layer. This can clearly be observed where certain stones have been removed from the construction. Not only was the edge of the joints vitrified, but the whole stone surface experienced a similar process. What is interesting is that vitrification was apparently limited to the joints or the contact surface with the adjoining stones, but is not usually present on the outer face of the stone (which is polished, but not vitrified). This would suggest two rather obvious conclusions at this point:
  • Vitrification served some functional or structural purpose, and was not done for aesthetic reasons (otherwise the outer face of the stone, the only one that would have remained visible, would have been subject to vitrification too)
  • Vitrification, being only superficial and only in portions of the stone that would have been hidden from sight and therefore not exposed, must be intentional and not the consequence of fire or another catastrophic event

One last point of contention is whether the vitrified layer is indeed part of the stone or rather constitutes a separate vitreous substance applied to the stone (perhaps as a sort of cement or concrete).

This last question is not easily answered. Even though the vitrified surface appears almost as a layer on the stone, it nevertheless appears to be the result of some physical or chemical transformation of the stone itself rather than being just attached to it. Also, vitrification is not only found in masonry, but also in the natural bedrock, in caves and tunnels.   
A large cliff was vitrified and carved into steps and niches at the feet of the hill leading up to the temple of the Sun. The stone surface is polished to a mirror perfection. The texture and coloration of the stone in the part that was carved and vitrified appears different too. [Photo by Author]
Sadly, very little analysis has been done to determine the composition of the vitrified layer and whether it is chemically or physically different from the stone itself. Some samples collected from a set of vitrified caves and tunnels at a site called Tetecaca, above the city of Cusco were purportedly analyzed by the University of Utrecht, Holland. Microscope photographs have revealed two clearly distinct regions, the vitrified layer and the stone underneath. The presence of a transition layer, which is also clearly visible in photographs, suggests however that the vitrified surface and the stone body are not separate but are indeed one and the same, although the surface of the stone has certainly undergone a physical transformation.

Interestingly, however, the chemical composition of the surface layer appears to be at least partially different from that of the body stone, as it contains elements not present in the natural rock samples. This suggests that a kind of glaze composed of mostly silica was applied to the stone under conditions of extreme heat and pressure. [4]    

Even if these results were confirmed with more evidence from other sites, it remains to be explained how a similar glaze could be applied to the stone and how the required temperatures (well above 1,000 degrees Celsius) and pressures could be reached and maintained in the open air outside of a large furnace.

Note: Other vitrified stones are found in the city of Cusco itself and in the nearby sites of Tambomachay, Chincheros and the “Zona X” (which will be the subject of a future article). Vitrified stonework is also found at Machu Picchu, although limited to the joints between the stones of the Temple of the Three Windows and the Main Temple plaza.

[1] Jean Pierre Protzen, Inca Architecture and Construction at Ollantaytambo, Oxford University Press, 1993
[2] Jean Pierre Protzen and Stella Nair, The Stones of Tiahuanaco: A Study of Architecture and Construction, The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2013    
[3] Rolf Muller, Die Intiwatana (Sonnenwarten) im alten Peru, Berlin, Verlag von D. Reimer, 1929
[4] Jan Peter de Jong, Evidence of Vitrified Stonework in the Inca Vestiges of Peru,