Ancient art, or whatever is preserved of it today, comes in many shapes, and perhaps some of the most wondrous are geoglyphs – large designs that span at least four metres, and often extend to areas so large that the motif or shape can only be discerned from a high-above vantage point, or even a plane.
In southern Peru there is a plateau known as one of the most arid locations on our planet, the Nazca desert. Over 1,800 years ago, as the Roman Empire was starting to crumble in Europe, here along the Pacific coast of South America the Nazca culture was flourishing. They were known for their beautiful multi-coloured ceramics and textiles, and were technologically accomplished. A testament to that are the most famous geoglyphs in the world.
The Nazca lines, as they are known, run for many metres across an area of roughly 450 square kilometres. There are several hundred of these ancient geoglyphs, depicting stylised, schematic drawings of animals, people, different shapes and elements of nature. These motifs are so large, you would need to scale a nearby hilltop to make sense of what the picture shows. Some of the largest ones measure several hundred metres in length.
The designs were made by digging shallow trenches, roughly 10-30 centimetres deep, into the surface of the desert. The Nazca people creating these lines removed the dark iron oxide coated pebbles off the surface of the desert, revealing the light clay earth underneath. This clay contains large amounts of the mineral lime, which would harden upon exposure to moisture. This geological quirk has protected these lines for hundreds of years, preventing erosion from the wind or other natural forces.
While it is not clear what these geoglyphs were used for exactly, there are hypotheses that the Nazca lines were somehow linked to cosmology or astronomy, or perhaps served a ritualistic purpose. This incredible collection has been listen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s one of the most important cultural symbols in Peru.
Because of the structural make-up of the lines, erosion is a constant risk faced by the desert plain. Besides, even just walking across the surface can disturb the dark pebbles, creating unintentional smudges on the landscape. Thus human access to the site is strictly prohibited, and even those who are allowed to visit – for example, for research purposes – are required to wear special footwear.
Considering all this, what Greenpeace activists recently did is a complete abomination. As one of their latest idiotic stunts (also known as “vandalism“), designed to draw attention during the UN climate talks in Lima, some activists decided to sneak into the protected area, and set up a large message next to one of the most distinctive designs, the hummingbird. The bright yellow cloth letters read “Time for Change! The Future is Renewable. Greenpeace.”
Well, duh. Does a message like this really warrant extensively damaging an archaeological monument? They might as well go and graffiti their names all over the Egyptian pyramids or some such. You can see before and after photos over at Gizmodo, clearly indicating the damage done to the nearby area.
Peruvian officials are understandably furious, and even though the executive director of Greenpeace US has issued an apology, I think it will be a long time before the organisation manages to scrub this latest blemish from its name. I think it will be at least as long as the Nazca lines have decorated the Peruvian desert.