Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Landscape of Math

[a portion of the terraces of Moray near Cusq'o, Peru; the terraces consist of concentric rings giving way to sinuous ovals around a series of constructed depressions; no surface drainage is visible in the bottom of the depressions, but the soil has low salinity, suggesting a sophisticated and sturdy subsurface drainage system that has endured 500 years of no maintenance]

Near the former Incan Imperial capital and modern-day tourist hub of Cusq’o exists a strange construction- the series of concentric rings and seductive oval terraces at an elevation of 11,600 feet known as Moray.  The archeological evidence suggests that this was not a ritualistic religious site or military outpost but rather an experimental agricultural station.  The design and engineering of this landscape enabled the creation of different microclimates, providing wide ranges in temperature, sun exposure, and moisture over a tightly condensed area.  This probably allowed for Incan scientists to test a variety of crops within a microclimatic range similar to that which exists on the steep hillsides common to the surrounding region.

In Volume 7 of the 1894 Engineering Magazine, badass photographer and amateur archeologist Alice Dixon LePlongeon writes:

The Incas seem to have understood the law of fluids- known as equilibrium- their temples and palaces having been supplied through inverted siphons.  Their system of irrigation was so complete that much of the now arid land was productive during the Inca period (p 58).

[Alice Dixon DePlongeon photographing her husband photographing a Mayan frieze in Uxmal in 1881; this was some crazy pre-modernism postmodern photography]

Writing more specifically about Maras in 2011, civil engineer Kenneth Wright notes that the Incas employed the decimal system for counting and developed many other techniques and concepts related to algebra and geometry.  However, because they had no writing, the best evidence of their mathematical expertise is not written but material.  Wright notes that the Inca likely developed a mathematics that included complex division, “multiplication of integers, and use of fractions… Examples of this use of a reliable measuring system and mathematics are widely apparent in the engineering evidence left by the Inca builders.” 

Moray is located in the Sacred Valley, the former heart of the Incan Empire that was a major population corridor in the 15th century and served as a highly productive agricultural landscape.  The site of Maras is only 25 miles from Cusq’o, suggesting that it was sited to be near the political and intellectual elites living in the capital.  Through the intensification of microclimatic difference it seems likely that Maras worked as the testing bed for the agricultural products driving the Andean social system that would become known as the vertical archipelago thanks to anthropologist John Murra.

What strikes us as curious, and illuminating, is that this exaggeration and intensification of natural characteristics, features, and processes through landscape design employs many of the same conceptual tools that Frederick Law Olmsted would harness in designing public landscapes in North America 400 years later.  And both achieve similarly striking aesthetic effects, although Olmsted focused more on picturesque composition as a contrast to the industrial city, whereas the terraces of Moray achieve the sublime through their perfect geometrical terraces amidst the rugged Andes.  The result appears to be the work of alien construction geniuses with an eye for platonic forms and a taste for potatoes.


  1. They are indeed the original earth-art, and I was amazed when i visited them in 2010, just after I was at UVa (in fact I think Dasha recommended them to me??). but when I visited them I found the descriptions of them move like von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods. Variously described as horticultural laboratory, etc, I wondered how do they know this. Speculating on rationales of peoples with entirely different cultural bases is a kind of orientalism. WIth different types of rationality, what else might they mean. In the end, yes, its cool landscaping.

  2. Hi Julian. Good point. I think in anthropology they consider this the formalist v. substantivist debate (like the stuff Karl Polanyi wrote).

    I agree that it is only speculative. One thing that interests me about archeological sites like this is that people are trying to build a history through materials (as opposed to texts, which don't exists for these places). I don't know whether this can ever be historically accurate but as a designer it is interesting. Of course there are other interesting ways to engage these rather amazing places. But a speculative material history is one that might offer some promise.

    I'll admit that I am given to believing that indigenous folks living in the Andes had many of the same concerns as myself, and interpret mythical or naturalized forms through that lens. Regardless, we agree that it's an amazing landscape worthy of respect.

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