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CARETAS. Urubamba, Peru March 27 2002.
The Victoria's Secret Plot
If there's one thing the Lost City crowd likes almost as much as finding a
City, it's a furious quarrel about one. The Victoria's Secret plot spatsees
the National Geographic Society accused of apparently fraudulent claims and
is set in the heart of classic lost city country. It looks set to keep
daggers drawn for years.
By Nicholas Asheshov, in Urubamba
A big new argument has flared up over an Inca site 35km SW of Machu Picchu,
in the heart of the wild Vilcabamba.
The quarrel involves the National Geographic Society, no less, which a
couple of weeks ago trumpeted excitedly from its sedate Washington HQ,
'Lost Inca City Discovered in Peru".
The Geographic says that the site, Cerro Victoria, was discovered last year
by a Geographic expedition led by Peter Frost, a 56-year-old British tour
guide resident in Cuzco, and that it's a super new find in the tradition of
Machu Picchu itself, Espiritupampa and Choquequirau. It was "one of the
most important sites" since the Incas had marched off into the sunset "over
400 years ago"
Rubbish, growled the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, the influential
government body that rules over the ancient monuments of Peru, together with
a group of hard-bitten American and British explorers who know the
They say that the National Geographic is talking through its distinguished
hat and that its claim to have discovered a lost city is false and
fraudulent. "The National Geographic claim is, apparently deliberately very
very exaggerated," says Edwin Benavente, Director of the INC, Cuzco.
There is no 'city', or anything like one, at Victoria, the site that the
Geographic claims is a Lost City.
The explorers say that first of all it was Gary Ziegler, a 60-year-old
American archaeologist, geologist and mountaineer, who discovered it and
second that, actually, sad to say, there's nothing special about Victoria,
that it's nice for archaeologists and has great views. But it's just one of
a set of residential and administrative centres and mining camps scattered
throughout the rugged wilderness of the Vilcabamba.
They can't even agree on how big it is. Ziegler, who knows how to draw a
map, says it covers two square km. The NGS has gazumped it up to six square
The explorers add that there have been at least half a dozen discoveries in
the Vilcabamba over the past quarter of a century which are much more
significant than Victoria, or Corihuayrachina as the Geographic has chosen
to call it, will ever be. The explorers include Vince Lee, Robert von Kaupp
and Stewart White, as well as Ziegler himself.
Victoria's Secret, as Ziegler called it when he first showed it to me as we
stood at the mouth of the Victoria mineshaft a couple of years ago, is an
isolated, difficult cerro about seven km N of the massive, majestic
Choquequirau site, a genuine lost city if ever there was one. Victoria
rises up to 3,800ms asl (Choquequirau is at 3,000ms) and is at the end of a
ridge leading down from higher altitudes. It offers fine views of
snow-peaks, including the Pumasillo range, Arma and even across the vast
Apurimac canyon to Ampay.
It was just the sort of place that Ziegler thought the Incas would have put
one of their sensational ceremonial sites that are today the heart of
Peru's billion-dollar tourist industry.
Quarrels in exploration, and especially lost city exploration, are
so normal that it's difficult to think of any expeditions where there aren't
major quarrels before, during and after.
In the case of Victoria, the issues are unusually clear-cut. it's Frost vs
Ziegler, with the Geographic in the dock for grossly over-wrought claims.
So far it's Frost and, imcomprehensibly, the Geographic making all the
noise, while Ziegler has remained silent, "sitting on one of his horses in
Mexico, drinking tequila and smiling", according to one of his Cuzco chums.
The NGS is, of course, honorable, rich and productive and its voice is
powerful as well as pompous. But Ziegler, a nice fellow who dislikes
quarrelling with anyone, is a singularly distinguished, tough, quiet
American. He's a geologist, and archaeologist --he studied for a PhD under
Dr Jorge Muelle at San Marcos in the 1960s-as well as an international-class
mountaineer. He was a captain in army intelligence in Vietnam, and runs a
successful ranch in Colorado as well as one of the best adventure tour
operations in South America.
And Ziegler knows the Vilcabamba better today than any other explorer or
academic. On and off since 1964, he has mapped its Inca roads, including
dozens of minor sites, and climbed its mountains. He shares his information
and his efforts with friends and acquaintances with rare generosity and
This is perhaps the kernel, the core of the Victoria quarrel. The thing is
that Ziegler not only first identified Cerro Victoria, but organized and led
the expedition, backed by the Geographic, that explored it in June 2001.
Peter Frost was one of Ziegler's employees, a tour guide hired along with
the cooks and the arrieros to help take people through rough country on
Ziegler's safari-style archeo-tourism treks. Ziegler pointed Victoria's
Secret out to Frost, some of their tourists and camp followers like me.
Subsequently, Ziegler put together an expedition, including Peter Frost.
Today, guess what, the NGS press releases don't mention Ziegler, though one
typescipt lists him as a tail-ender, along with a British archeo-tourist who
paid to go along for the ride.
Instead, Peter Frost trumpets himself, and is trumpeted by the NGS and the
world's press, as the Leader. Ziegler has been airbrushed out. Actually,
according to Ziegler's technical report, Frost was just the Administrative
Director, though Ziegler generously allowed him to be one of three "Joint
Leaders", the other one being one of Cuzco's pack of hungry archaeologists
who can issue INC permits.
Frost was the one who filled in the NGS forms, applied for the money, and
got it. Getting money out of the Geographic is quite an achievement, worthy
of genuine respect in any of Cuzco's pubs.
But the real question is; what on earth is the Geographic, with more than a
century of experience including Machu Picchu and Hiram Bingham himself,
doing hyping up a third-rate settlement into a "Lost City"?
It seems that Peter Frost thought, a year ago, that Victoria's Secret was a
sure thing, maybe the last Lost City and, armed with the Geographic money
and the contract, on which he had carefully put his own name, he made a coup
In the field Frost started pushing Ziegler to one side. He wouldn't let
Ziegler, a pro-class photographer, use NGS film, for instance. He tried to
choose the camp-sites himself, a dozen other niggles, the kind of things
that however small loom huge in a camp out in the bush when the martini mix
is running low.
Ziegler took a deep breath and slid quietly off into the forest for a few
days elsewhere. What did he find? I don't know, but neither does the
Geographic nor much less Frost.
Through no one's fault, the luck of the draw, Victoria turned out to have
little in the way of worthwhilel secrets. Frost, the golpista, had been
allowed to grab power of an expedition that had turned into a nice-try
failure. It's one of those failures that amateurs and experts alike would
applaud because a lot of effort and money went into it. But fraudulent
claims of Lost Cities, and trying to cut out the real leaders, is just not
"The Geographic's claims makes it look as though we discovered a Temple of
Gold, a Lost Civilization or something. Were they talking about the same
place?!" complained Gordon D Oldham, a member of the expedition.
The Geographic had got so convinced that Victoria was the real thing that
it had sent in a film crew, the most expensive way of ensuring on an
expedition that things go even worse than usual.
Someone at the Geographic, probably someone in the film/TV Channel division,
must have decided that they could get away with a big Lost City claim and
handed it over to the office flacks.
On March 18, the National Geographic Society announced in Washington, and
Frost at a press conference at the same time in Lima, that they had found
what Frost described as "something special", and the Geographic as a "Major
Inca Discovery". The Geographic quoted Johan Reinhard, one of its
explorers-in-residence -funny title, by the way- the man who discovered
'Juanita' in the ice peaks above Arequipa, as saying that Victoria "is one
of the most important sites to be located in the Vilcabamba region since the
Inca abandoned it over 400 years ago."
Gosh! Newspapers, TV and radio stations all over the world picked this up,
as the Geographic knew they would. Here's John Noble Wilford of The New
York Times, breathing heavily as if he knew what he was talking about;
Every generation or so, explorers of the high Andes
of Peru come upon an elaborate sacred place or city that had been unknown to
archaeologists studying the Incan civilization. The most impressive still is
Machu Picchu, discovered in 1911, and no important "lost city" has come to
light since the 1960's. Not, it seems, until now...."
The NGS added: "Victoria is an enormous and complete complex of
archaeological sites, with great historical and functional significance."
This contrasts with the technical reports, with their photos, maps and
technical drawings at the INC in Cuzco which clearly describe a low-grade
dry-as-dust site of which there are maybe thousands scattered throughout the
Andes. Victoria is neither major nor important and, though it has been
seriously looted, it never was important. It comes nowhere near in
interest, size, beauty or significance to scores of sites in and around
Cuzco, including the Vilcabamba.
Alfredo Valencia's technical report in the files of the Instituto Nacional
de Cultura, makes no claims or comparisons of any kind for the site. It
includes a collection of architectural drawings, and photos. His
descriptions are similar to Zeigler's -see box. There is a nice, and
apparently unusual, platform 35 yards long at the top of the hill. But
Victoria is a set of agricultural villages and mining camps, and that's it.
Johan Reinhard is the real thing, perhaps the only person in the Inca
business -along with the great Gene Savoy, the foxiest of them all-- who's
as smart and physically tough as Gary Ziegler. But Reinhard was shaken and
back-pedalling furiously a few days later when told that Ziegler did not
share the NGS's loud-mouthed Lost City enthusiasm for Victoria. Actually,
Reinhard told Barry Walker, the British Consul in Cuzco, "I told the LA
Times reporter who called me (the only one to contact me directly), that it
appeared to me that it was an agricultural site (since it had no fine
masonry, no monumental structures, had terracing, etc.), and perhaps served
in support of the ceremonial center of Choquiquirao."
Well, vamos, which is it? Is it an exciting Lost City? or one of those, to
be frank, rather boring scrubby sites where an archaeologist or two will
someday study for a PhD?
Victoria was mostly a mining camp supported by maize and potato fields,
storage warehouses and llama pens. exploited for its veins of silver over
many centuries, pre-Conquest, Colonial and Modern. The preliminary
indications, at least from Alfredo Valencia's and Gary Ziegler's reports,
are that it was inhabited mostly by poor migrant forced-labour miners
brought in as mitimitaes, with an Inca admin. place, a municipalidad as it
were, with the additon of the Inca equivalent of the local parish church
-some platforms from which to take advantage of the site's fine all-round
views of several sets of snow-peaks.
Gary Ziegler has kept quiet but here are some main points from his own
report. It's kind of boring because that's the reality: Cerro Victoria,
apart from super views (but you get these almost everywhere in the
Vilcabamba), is boring unless you're an archeo-nut. The NGS film crew,
brought in at horrendous cost, were desperate, trying to find something
interesting to shoot. There were no mummies, and there are none of the fine
stone-work that are de rigeur in Inca ceremonial sites.
When the Ziegler-NGS 2001 Cerro Victoria Expedition went in last June, with
scores of mules, several dozen peones, arrieros, cooks, portable toilets,
helicopters, satellite phones and many crates of vodka, what Ziegler found
was merely "a support community", as described in his technical report.
The expedition's preliminary but quite elaborate investigations, including
ground penetrating radar (GPR), showed that Victoria was a camp for migrant
workers, similar to many, many others in Peru.
High points from Ziegler's Report
* Most structures at Victoria are circular, many with low walls of
1/2 meter or less... Some features such as the large ridge top platforms are
ceremonial but we found no obvious ceremonial architecture within the
complex..... The rectangular group represents an Inca administrative center
within a settlement of imported foreign workers or Mitayos.
*an unusual number of burial mounts and chambers scattered
throughout the site. All were low status, containing human remains and few
burial accouterments such as pots, tools, ornaments which are normally
expected in such burials. This influenced our opinion that the inhabitants,
at least the ones that were interned here had very few possessions
*the site has the layout and `feel' of a temporary or hastily built
settlement of low status workers *the site was certainly occupied by the
last Incas and was part of a network of unknown sites.
Nicholas Asheshov MA (Cantab), 92, is Chief Executive Officer of The Sacred
Valley Railway. He was a member of the National Geographic's 1963
Vilcabamba expedition (see, "Asheshov's Route", NGS Aug 1964)