A five-year study by British archaeologists sheds new light on the enigmatic drawings created by the Nazca people between 100 BC and CE 700 in the Peruvian desert.
The Nazca Lines are located in the arid Peruvian coastal plain some 250 miles south of Lima. They have attracted a host of theories purporting to explain them ever since they were discovered during the 1920s – notably the bizarre ideas of Erich Von Daniken who supposed they were made by visiting extra-terrestrials.
British archaeologists Dr Nicholas Saunders of the University of Bristol and Prof Clive Ruggles of the University of Leicester combined the experience and knowledge gained by walking the lines (they walked more than 900 miles of desert in southern Peru, tracing the lines and geometric figures), studying the layers of superimposed designs, photographing the associated pottery and using satellite digital mapping into the most detailed such study to date. The results have been published in the journal Antiquity.
In the midst of the study area is a unique labyrinth originally discovered by Prof Ruggles when he spent a few days on the Nazca desert back in 1984. Its existence came as a complete surprise.
“When I set out along the labyrinth from its center, I didn’t have the slightest idea of its true nature,” Prof Ruggles explained. “Only gradually did I realize that here was a figure set out on a huge scale and still traceable, that it was clearly intended for walking, and that I was almost certainly the first person to have recognized it for what it was, and walked it from end to end, for some 1500 years. Factors beyond my control brought the 1984 expedition to an abrupt halt and it was only 20 years later that I eventually had the opportunity to return to Nazca, relocate the figure and study it fully.”
Invisible in its entirety to the naked eye, the only way of knowing its existence is to walk its 2.7 miles (4.4 km) length through disorienting direction changes which ended, or began, inside a spiral formation.
“The labyrinth is completely hidden in the landscape, which is flat and virtually featureless. As you walk it, only the path stretching ahead of you is visible at any given point. Similarly, if you map it from the air its form makes no sense at all.”
“But if you walk it, discovering it as you go, you have a set of experiences that in many respects would have been the same for anyone walking it in the past. The ancient Nazca peoples created the geoglyphs, and used them, by walking on the ground. Sharing some of those experiences by walking the lines ourselves is an important source of information that complements the hard scientific and archaeological evidence and can really aid our attempts to make anthropological sense of it.”
The arid conditions have ensured the remarkable preservation of Nazca’s fragile geoglyphs for a millennium and a half. Nonetheless, segments of nearly all of the lines and figures – including the labyrinth – have been washed away by flash floods that occurred from time to time in the past. And, of course, people through the ages have walked across the desert plateau to cross from one valley to another.
The archaeologists have studied the integrity of many lines and figures within the study area.
“Meandering and well-worn trans-desert pathways served functional purposes but they are quite different from the arrow-straight lines and geometric shapes which seem more likely to have had a spiritual and ritual purpose. It may be, we suggest, that the real importance of some of these desert drawings was in their creation rather than any subsequent physical use,” Dr Saunders said.
Certainly, the pristine state and well-preserved edges of the labyrinth suggest that it was never walked by more than a few people in single file. In fact, the survival of many geoglyphs seems remarkable given the proximity of the area to the pilgrimage center of Cahuachi, in the nearby Nazca valley, and the fact that people carried on walking across the pampa during the ensuing centuries right up to modern times.
Even if the labyrinth was not unique when it was built, it may well be the only such construction whose integrity has been preserved to the extent that it still can be recognized in today’s landscape.
“Excavations commonly uncover objects undisturbed for centuries and even millennia. But it is hard to conceive many places on the planet were you could still discover a human construction that has lain hidden on the surface of the ground for as long as 1500 years, simply by walking along it and seeing where your feet take you,” Prof Ruggles said.
Bibliographic information: Clive Ruggles and Nicholas J. Saunders. 2012. Desert labyrinth: lines, landscape and meaning at Nazca, Peru. Antiquity, vol. 86, no. 334, pp. 1126–1140