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Sat May 16, 2020, 11:10 PM

Hitting the Books: Uncovering ancient civilizations with a plane and a prayer

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.

Andrew Tarantola, @terrortola
11h ago

Maximilian Müller via Getty Images

The early days of archaeology involved immense amounts of backbreaking work just to find sites at which to dig. In the time before GPS and satellite imagery, locating the ruins of ancient towns and villages was akin to finding a needle in a haystack hidden in a jungle on the side of a remote mountain. But Gordon Willey was no dummy. As the excerpt from Maps for Time Travellers by Mark McCoy shows, instead of traipsing through the Peruvian backcountry in hopes of stumbling across an archaeological site, he had the bright idea of using aerial photos acquired from the Peruvian Air Force to search for potential digs — all without leaving the relative comforts of Lima. His ingenuity helped revolutionize, and modernize, humanity’s search for its long-lost civilizations.

University of California Press

From Maps for Time Travelers: How Archaeologists Use Technology to Bring Us Closer to the Past by Mark D. McCoy. Copyright © 2020 by Mark D. McCoy. Reprinted with permission from University of California Press.

Gordon Willey grew up during the Great Depression in a middle-class household, and excelled in his studies in high school and college. But, in 1936, all his applications to graduate schools were rejected. Undeterred, he joined digs around the country and a few years later was admitted to Columbia University. Archaeology at this time was all about chronology: digging places rich in artifacts and using their changing styles to build up a culture history. And Willey did just that for his dissertation research in Peru, which he completed shortly before America entered World War II.

Next, Willey took a big, big risk. After the war he returned to Peru as part of a Smithsonian research team to undertake something that no one had done before. The target was Viru Valley, a place with a climate not unlike Southern California. The idea was to look for the foundations of ruins representing settlement across an entire coastal valley and reconstruct the pattern of where people lived in different periods (see figure 6).


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