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Corihuayrachina; Victoria’s Secret Revealed; Extreme Archaeology in the High Andes with the National

A view of mountain tombs near Choquequoirao


A large crew of wranglers, field workers and assorted specialists supported by mules, horses and helicopters descended on the Vilcabamba range near the ceremonial site of Choquequirao to conduct a month long exploration and study of a sizable Inca period settlement during June, 2001. Background- Having passed nearby on various adventure tour supported expeditions, we had long suspected that a prominent cone shaped mountain and nearby ridge area contained interesting Inca possibilities but saved investigation until we could do it properly. We preferred not to enter a new area without being able to study and protect it. Once a trail is opened, a site is quickly looted after the investigators leave. Peter Frost, a Cusco based writer and Inca authority who had accompanied me on previous expeditions and as adventure trek guide for our company located several looted burial chambers on a ridge leading to the mountain. He and travel associate Scott Gorsuch became fascinated with the idea of exploring the top of the mountain. They approached me with the idea of forming a new project with proposal for National Geographic sponsorship. Scott, a California psychologist is an experienced, eager grant writer so the project was born. Peter invited in a team of experienced Cusco archaeologists headed by Machu Picchu specialist Alfredo Valencia. We brought in Barry Walker and local Manu Expeditions to outfit and staff the field work. Barry was not along in the field but coordinated with us almost daily via satellite phone in Cusco. Peter served as the administrative director of the project and deserves the credit for pulling the NGS grant together. Alfredo, Peter and I shared leadership in the field. Alfredo was titled 'Principal Investigator' and as such was overall in charge of archaeological coordination, excavations, permits, etc. I was in charge of the expedition and operational affairs, coordinating camp staff, workers and logistics in my role as Co-Leader. The three of us ( Peter, Alfredo, Gary) coordinated general activities and the agenda in the field. Alfredo, archaeologists, Carlos Silva, Zenobio Valencia and I also headed excavation teams for the different sectors of the site.

It was my responsibility to map and determine the extent of the site. Archeophysicist Meg Watters from US based Geophysical Survey Systems flew in with a Ground Penetrating Radar Unit (GPR) requiring extensive site preparation before her arrival . Basically it was a team effort that worked well

We marched in overland with NGS film crew and a long string of mules in tow, passing through the large ceremonial site of Choquequiro then out several days more into the wild Vilcabamba beyond. At our destination the advance trail cutting team reported that we had hit the jackpot. The mountain was covered with ruins. A permanent camp was set high up and exploratory teams were dispatched to determine the extent and locations of structures and features of interest. This was a preliminary investigation with plans for ongoing future excavation. Our goal was to identify and sample selected areas within the time we had available. We identified several large constructed platforms as likely places to use the radar to advantage. My main task was to clear the area of debris, survey and stake out grids needed to use the radar unit effectively. Most of the others scrambled up an about investigating the mountain top as the point of principal interest. As suspected the summit was lined with chambers but sadly all seem looted and empty. After Alfredo arrived by helicopter with Meg Watters, we divided the site into several zones for selected excavation. One team, lead by Zenobio worked the summit platform on the mountain while Alfred and Carlos worked a group near the lower extent of the site. I worked with Meg and the GPR unit, scanning a platform lower down, then several of the platforms high up. I also excavated several areas which we thought contained burial chambers. Our excavation was in the form of test pits mostly determined by anomalies indicated by the GPR

Getting about was difficult. the work areas stretched from about 3100 meters to well above 3800 meters on steep mountain slopes and ridges interspaced with cliffs and dense cloud forest vegetation. However, We did manage to roughly map out the site and determine its extent. Results from GPR scanning were disappointing. Although covered walls were revealed beneath the lower platform indicating that it had once been a building most other anomalies proved to be only disturbed soil and rocks. The reflective nature of the high mica content, metamorphic rock seemed to create many unproductive readings.. History

Victoria or Corihuayrachina as we decided to name the site, lies above an Inca road which led to Choquequirao from the interior of Vilcabamba. The extenuation of Cerro Victoria’s ridge to the east contains rich silver deposits. The ridge within a few hundred meters of the summit is pockmarked with mine workings that may date back to Inca times. Some were last worked as late as the 1980s and certainly were worked during the colonial period. The nearby ( 1/2 day walk) colonial era village of Yanama was the base for the mining. As a result, most but not all of the burial chambers and structural remains around and associated with the Corihuayrachina complex were looted over several centuries. We speculate that the Corhuayrachina site may have at least in part served as support community for nearby mining during Inca times.

archaeologist Gary Ziegler at a early inca period mountain tomb

It is unlikely that any of the early visitors to Choquequirao found Corihuayrachina. The site lacks monumental constructions that would have attracted attention. Although only 4.5 air miles distant, it is a world away across a deep canyon with connecting Inca routes long lost and severed. The site was never documented, reported or known to the outside world until our present investigation. Site Description

The site is situated in several clustered groups separated by considerable distance and altitude and numerous scattered individual remnants along the flatter areas and ridge tops of the large mountain (Cerro Victoria). All are on the upper third of the mountain above 3000 meters. Below this the slopes generally fall away too steeply to have supported living areas. We did look but found nothing. The remains are all on the west and south facing sides, the east/north side being extremely steep with exposed rock cliffs. The total site complex fits within two Kilometer squares on the new government topo map for the region. Preliminary conclusions Most structures at Corihuayrachina are circular, many with low walls of 1/2 meter or less. These are common throughout the Vilcabamba. We have always though that these were pre-Inca but here we have Inca or Inca influenced pottery found within the floor debris. One of the groups is clearly rectangular Inca architecture and a well made rectangular building which we think is a colca or storehouse sits high up on the slopes of Cerro Victoria.

I believe that most of the round structures that I examined were dwellings but there were several types and sizes in different locations. Some were simple low wall affairs that I believe served as retaining platforms for wooden houses now long gone. Other large ones could have been corrals for llamas. Some features such as the large ridge top platforms are ceremonial but we found no obvious ceremonial architecture within the complex.

Our consensus for the moment is that the rectangular group represents an Inca administrative center within a settlement of imported foreign workers or Mitayos. We examined what seems like an unusual number of burial mounts and chambers scattered throughout the site. All were low status, containing human remains and few burial accouterments such as pots, tools, ornaments which are normally expected in such burials. This influenced our opinion that the inhabitants, at least the ones that were interned here had very few processions From my experience, the site has the layout and `feel' of a temporary or hastily built settlement of low status workers, perhaps imported from some conquered region, incorporating an Inca administrative compound. The site may have had several periods of occupation and abandonment, sometimes with large numbers of inhabitants and other times with few or none. However, we don't have enough data to conclude this yet. It is likely that the settlement was occupied during early and later Inca times.

Pottery samples collected includes pieces from early transitional through classic Inca to very late Vilcabamba style (after the arrival of the Spaniards). Unfortunately, samples collected for carbon 14 dating were contaminated and proved inconclusive. Nothing of Spanish or colonial origin was found It is reasonable to say that the site was certainly occupied by the last Incas and was a part of a network of unknown sites that we are just now piecing together with on going expeditions and research. It will be interesting to see what it’s relationship was to Choquequirao.

As of this writing, The Expedition Council of the National Geographical Society has generously extended funds for additional field work at the site. Perhaps we will have more answers when this is completed.

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