Happy 159th Birthday Max Uhle (1856-1944): Father of Peruvian Archaeology

March 25, 2015

“In Americanist studies the first thing that had to be done was to introduce the idea of time, to get people to admit that the types could change over time.”

-Max Uhle, May 15, 1923

Max Uhle at Pachacamac, Peru, with view of niched walls P and Q, seen from the west. 1896.

Today, March 25th 2015, marks the 159th birthday of the German archaeologist, Max Uhle, who excavated in Peru for the Penn Museum from 1895 to 1898. Called the “Father of Peruvian Archaeology,” Uhle  is best known for introducing the chronological sequencing of differing strata to pre-Columbian and American archaeological research. His work in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile helped establish the framework for the chronological periods now recognized in Andean pre-history studies.

Max Uhle grew up in Dresden, Germany and studied linguistics as a doctoral student focusing on medieval Chinese grammar, an interest he never again explored. According to his biographer, John Howland Rowe, this period in his early career occurred at a high point for Peruvian research with the publication of Das Totenfeld von Acón in Peru (The Necropolis of Ancon in Peru), which inspired Uhle to pursue Andean archaeology.

After extensive work at museums in Dresden and Berlin, Uhle finally embarked on his first field expedition at the age of thirty-six, an overland trek by mule from Buenos Aires through northwestern Argentina and Bolivia. In the last decade of the 19th century, Uhle conducted ethnographic, linguistic and archaeological research projects throughout South America, sending his reports and findings back to the Berlin Museum. He was instrumental in mobilizing political and popular support to stop vandalism at the site of Tiwanaku, in northern Bolivia, and his attention to the preservation of prehistoric monuments extended throughout his career.  Beginning in 1895 the Penn Museum came to sponsor Uhle’s work in Peru, surveying and excavating around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and the sites of Ancon and Pachacamac in Peru.

Caballitos or reed boats of the fishermen at Eten, Peru. Photograph by Max Uhle, 1896. Penn Museum Archives

Uhle’s observation that the artifacts he found had gradual changes (in design, style, materials)  in differing strata signaled that cultural changes were occurring over time. Put simply, that artifacts of similar style found in one layer (considered contemporaneous) were either older or earlier than the artifacts found in the strata above or below. His conclusion seems obvious to us today, but Uhle was actually helping to lay the foundations of modern Andean studies. This chronological sequencing allowed American archaeologists to construct a timeline of pre-Columbian Andean history.

Uhle’s year-long excavations in Peru at the sacred site of Pachacamac, some 25 miles south of Lima, yielded one of the Penn Museum’s largest collections of ceramics, lithics and well preserved organic remains including textiles, wood, basketry, shell, feathers, and other materials. The ancient site, a destination for Andean pilgrims to worship their central, creator deity, Pachacamac, contained temples, pyramids, palaces, plazas, and the oracle of Pachacamac. When the Inka empire moved into the area in the mid-to-late 15th century, they recreated Pachacamac as an administrative center, building a Temple of the Sun and various buildings to support the new imperial presence at the site.

Upon finishing his excavations, Uhle returned to Philadelphia to write up his results with the help of his translator and wife, Charlotte Dorothee Grosse, working together in their apartment on the 3400 block of Sansom Street. Shortly after his return, in 1900, the Uhle’s transferred to the University of California, where many of his papers and collections are held by the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum. In the early part of the 20th century, Uhle took on a number of positions in South America, including general director of the Museo de Historia Nacional in Peru, president of the the Sociedad Chilena de Historia y Geografía in Chile, and chair of Ecuadorian Archaeology at the Universidad Central in Quito, Ecuador. Uhle returned to Germany in 1933, where he continued to publish until his death at the age of eighty-eight in 1944.

Uhle’s 1903 volume on his Pachacamac excavations, published by the University of Pennsylvania, has been called the “finest single-site archaeological report in Americanist studies of its time” (Willey 1991: xii), and continues to be influential in the field. His incredibly detailed and accurate plans of the site were the basis for a 4D reconstruction and flyover by students in Prof. Clark Erickson and Prof. Norm Badler’s collaborative anthropology/digital media design course Visualizing the Past/Peopling the Past. In 2011, a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services supported two post-graduate fellows in a project to conserve, photograph, and rehouse 3,600 textile and ceramic objects from the Pachacamac collection (a process they documented in a series of blog posts).

Filmed in the 1950s, the archival footage below shows the site of Pachacamac obviously not by Uhle himself, but you can still get a sense of the site from this later footage.

A few of Max Uhle’s finds:

Animal, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 29454
Animal, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 29454
Mummy Mask, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 26684
Mummy Mask, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 26684
Border Textile, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 29684
Border Textile, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 29684
Figurine, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 26960
Figurine, Andean, Peru. Museum Object Number: 26960

Further research published in Expedition Magazine on the Andean collections at the Penn Museum:
Rags and Tatters Among the Textiles of Peru” Ina Vanstan
Two Stone Figures from the Andes: Question: What Part?” Alfred Kidder, II
Ancient Peruvian Textile Arts: Patchwork and Tie-dye From Pachacamac” Ina Vanstan
The Mummies of Pachacamac: An Exceptional Legacy from Uhle’s 1896 Excavations” Stuart Fleming

Andean Ceramics: Technology, Organization, and Approaches, Izumi Shimada
Textiles from Beneath the Temple of Pachacamac, Peru: A Part of the Uhle Collection, Ina Van Stan

Special thanks to Anne Tiballi who contributed to this blog post.