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The Story of Llactapata: Machu Picchu's Observatory

Gary Ziegler

A view of the LLactapata archaeological complex as seen from Machu Picchu

The Inca designers of Machu Picchu chose an impressive location on the eastern fork of two long ridges running down from the heights of the sacred ice peak Salkantay to build their architectural masterpiece. On the western ridge, some 4 kilometers distance, Inca planners located other groups of buildings and an agricultural settlement connected to Machu Picchu by a winding, stone lined pathway.

While working at Machu Picchu during 1912, Hiram Bingham and several helpers briefly explored the nearby western ridge. Bingham reported finding "the ruins of an Inca castle which deserved further study", then moved on toward Salkantay. During the five hours worked there, he drew a map of seven rectangular buildings with wall niches (trapezoidal openings) and a double jamb (double framed) entrance way, indicating an important or ceremonial function. Bingham called his castle, Llactapata, or high town in the andean language, Quechua.

Although other ruins were later reported on the ridge, no systematic exploration or study had been undertaken. The area was overgrown with dense cloud forest vegetation making travel nearly impossible. The few who later ventured there believed that Bingham had already studied the site of Llactapata and explored the region. They thought his castle was included in the few reported ruins. No one realized that a large complex of unknown, important ruins lay almost a stones throw away from Machu Picchu.

While researching material for a new publication of Bingham's Lost City of the Incas, historian Hugh Thomson studied Binghams unpublished field notes and obtained a copy of his Llactapata map. Comparing it with notes from others who had reported ruins in the area, I realized that Bingham's Llactapata, likely an important group associated with Machu Picchu, had not been found; the site remained lost to modern study.

In 2003, supported by the Royal Geographical Society in London, we formed the Thomson-Ziegler Andean Research Expedition with the goal of thoroughly exploring the region using modern methods, aerial photography and recent topographic maps.

National Geographic's Johan Reinhard, NASA archaeologist Tom Severs, Inca scholar, John Hemming, Inca researcher Vince Lee and many others helped with information and support.

J. McKim Malville, a specialist in archeo-astronomy from the University of Colorado and a team of volunteer helpers joined us. Using a Cessna aircraft, pack mules, old style machetes, modern two-way radios and satellite global positioning receivers (GPS), we undertook a massive effort to locate, clear and survey all man made features in a several square kilometer area centered around the likely location of Bingham's lost castle.

After days of difficult exploring, the team uncovered more than 80 buildings in a number of separated groups, along with walls, plazas, terraces and a connecting road network scattered over a large region that we named the Llactapata Archaeological Zone. We divided the zone into five sectors. Recent investigation has found more structures yet to be studied including the ruins of a large agriculture settlement.

Preliminary work at a remote site requires accurately locating each group or feature for future study along with the geographical relationship to other near sites like Machu Picchu. We use map co-ordinates from GPS instruments and general surveying techniques that all archaeologist learn to create a site map

Each group of buildings and individual structures are cleared of sufficient vegetation and rubble to be measured and photographed inside and out. Field measurements are then used to draw a diagram or plan of each group. We use the size, architectural style, alignment, type of construction and other factors to help form an interpretation of the original use and purpose. The next phase is to bring in a team to dig selected areas, test pits, then undertake careful excavations at locations indicated by the tests. Pieces of pots, pot shards, tools, burials, anything left by the occupants, is collected, carefully recorded and removed for study by specialists.

Our greatest reward was finding the group that Bingham had visited in 1912. The site features a central, long, walled corridor leading to a small overlook framing a spectacular view of Machu Picchu. To our amazement, the alignment measured 65 degrees. This is the direction, azimuth, of sunrise during the June solstice there (the few days when the sun is farthest from the Earth). More, the sun would be seen to rise directly over Machu Picchu during this most important of Inca ceremonial events called Intiraymi. While analyzing data some weeks later, Kim Mallville made a startling discovery; the group closely matches the Coricancha, the famous Temple of the Sun at Cusco. Bingham's castle was Machu Picchu's Sun Temple!

Many other structures and features show astronomical design and purpose. Most scholars believe that Machu Picchu was designed and built by Pachacuti's engineers as a ceremonial sanctuary and retreat. Llactapata was a carefully placed network of ceremonial and agricultural sites integrated with and supporting Machu Picchu.

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