Wisdom from the Past

April 17, 2015 Global Heritage, Sustainability, Technology Comments (0) 228

The problem here was not water.

We had a great panel discussion at the Legion of Honor last night and one moment that stood out to me was when I asked the four achaeologists to each describe a particular conservation challenge at their sites.  Dr. John Rick of Stanford, who works at Chavín de Huántar in Peru, talked about the challenge of water on the site.  Water is indeed one of the greatest challenges to preservation – the Chicago photographer/preservationist Richard Nickel famously said that old buildings have only two enemies:  water and stupid men.

But back to Dr. Rick and the water at Chavín.  What was his solution to water pooling up and eroding walls and artifacts?  Simple, find out that the ancients did millenia ago, because water (like stupid men) is not a new problem.  The builders and inhabitants of Chavin had in fact developed a sophisticated drainage system.  Modern conservators and excavators had blocked what they thought were “ventilation shafts” but were in fact regulating standpipes for the drainage system (like those ones behind the shower when you tear out the tile.)

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Chavín.

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lead pipes, Illinois c. 1874.

Of course the ancients had to deal with water, and if you look back a few blog posts, you will find me waxing on and on about water at Machu Picchu, at Angkor, and so forth.  You don’t get to the point of building great masonry monuments unless you have a society to back that up, and that society needs a water system.

I also saw an article this week about Lima, Peru, where I have traveled.  Here is a city of 8 million with like three little creeks and no rain.  How do you get water?  We can do clever things like fog harvesting and toilet-to-tap-purification and desalination.  What is the latest water technology to come out of Lima?  The Wari one.

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Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink….

It seems the Wari – who were the really important civilization in Peru long before the modish Inca – had a system of amunas, ancient stone canals which channeled water from the Andes into natural reservoirs and springs that could help the Wari survive dry times.  1500 years ago.

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here’s one at Pachacamac in Lima, oldest ceremonial site on coast.

Two lessons here:  1.  Don’t assume your modern technology is the only or even the best way to attack a problem – you are probably not the first one to encounter the problem.  2.  We conserve heritage for many reasons – history, education, jobs, identity – but also to learn about previous technologies that have been lost.  And there have been a few.

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Concrete.  It is how we build tall and supertall buildings today.  But it was still new technology a century ago.

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Unity Temple under construction c. 1907.

Or was it?  The French discovered concrete in the late 19th century.  Only the Romans had developed it two millennia earlier.

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Collosseum, Rome.

You see, one of the best reasons to preserve things is so you don’t FORGET how to make things.  Because we have.  Did you know that chrome plating was invented at Columbia in the 1920s (and perfected in Germany in 1937 and USA in 1950)?  It followed on other types of plating, like nickel, which had been developed throughout the 19th century.  Truly a modern wonder.  Except the Chinese did it 2200 years ago.

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What are we trying to preserve?  I love the debates about tangible and intangible heritage, about whether we preserve the artifact or the way of making it.  The Japanese Shinto temple is destroyed and rebuilt every two decades, but it is done so with original tools and technologies – that is what is being preserved.  When we stick epoxy and steel into Mount Vernon, we are preserving the artifact but not the technology.  There is much to be learned from an artifact that looks as it did, but there is also much to be learned from how that artifact was made.

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Peru.  I guess the drywall guys are late.

Have you seen those videos where some guys figures out how to block and tackle a Stonehenge-size menhir into place using pulleys and wood and a hole in the ground?  That is reverse engineering, which is a kindly antidote to wacky ideas about ancient astronauts.  The people of the past were not smarter than you, nor were they stupider.  They did amazing things with what they had at hand.

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And like us, they sometimes forgot.

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