NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- After days of whacking around the Peruvian jungle in 1911, Hiram Bingham III came across one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the New World.
He didn't realize what he had found.
Today's visitors to the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University are luckier -- the museum is putting on the largest exhibit ever seen in the United States on the Inca and their mysterious mountain settlement, called Machu Picchu.
Bingham, a historian, was looking for the fabled Lost City of the Inca when he found Machu Picchu.
What it was
Modern Yale researchers have concluded that Machu Picchu was a royal palace for the Inca elite, used as a vacation home when the Inca capital got too cold in the summer.
They reached their conclusions by examining the pottery, textiles and decorative objects taken from burial tombs at the site, as well as from the stunningly precise stonework that was used to build the resort.
"We have a much clearer idea of the kind of settlement the Inca created," said archaeologist Richard Burger, the former director of the museum. "It makes perfect sense as a royal estate."
The exhibit includes hundreds of artifacts, most of which haven't been seen before by the public, as well as a short film, a scale replica of the settlement and dioramas of daily Inca life.
The exhibit runs through May 4 at the Peabody Museum, then travels to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston and Chicago.
During three trips from 1911 to 1915, Bingham's crew hacked back the jungle and uncovered artifacts from burial chambers that showed the sophisticated and diverse life the Incas enjoyed before the Spanish conquest.
Bingham was a historian, not an archaeologist, so he made some incorrect assumptions about what Machu Picchu was, Burger said.
The stonework at Machu Picchu was as fine and beautiful as the royal Inca palaces at the capital, Cuzco, and gave the first clue that Machu Picchu was no ordinary Inca city.
Peruvian archaeologist Lucy Salazar examined the pottery and other artifacts closely and discovered that many items came from far corners of South America and from other cultures that mingled with the Inca and served the emperor.
Much of Machu Picchu's stonework, textiles and pottery displayed the geometric motifs reserved for Inca royalty. A tunic found at the site was made of the wool of the wild vicuna -- a wool that only Inca royalty were allowed to wear, Salazar said.
The estate was built around 1450 by Pachacuti, the first ruler of the Inca empire. Pachacuti was the Alexander the Great of South America, amassing an empire that stretched from southern Colombia to parts of Argentina and Chile.
Resort for the elite
At Machu Picchu, the emperor and his descendants would escape the cold summers at the capital, enjoy the mountain views and participate in religious rituals. An observatory on the site helped the emperor's astronomers track the heavens.
The palace was built to house a few hundred people -- not the thousands that would be seen in an Inca city -- and there was no farm at the settlement, Salazar said, so provisions had to be hauled in from the countryside.
The Spanish, who cared more about Inca gold and silver than Inca civilization, made little mention of Machu Picchu in their journals, which is why Machu Picchu has always seemed somewhat mysterious, the researchers said.
No fine examples of Inca gold and silver work were found at Machu Picchu by the time Bingham arrived, Salazar said. Almost all the metalwork was melted down into ingots to be brought to Spain, but the Peabody has borrowed from other museums some examples of Inca work that was found in other cities.
Some of the fine work on display includes a silver llama, figurines and paired silver drinking cups that were used in ceremonies to drink corn beer.
Corn beer played an important role in Inca life -- it was consumed at ceremonies and was a major food source for the people. The exhibit displays some pottery kegs for beer and other vessels used to store and drink it.
In graves at Machu Picchu, Bingham's crew found shawl pins, shaped like fans with long prongs for fastening a cape, made of silver and other metals.
Machu Picchu was abandoned around 1545, as Spanish soldiers began to conquer the Inca. Residents fled to the capital or the surrounding jungles to survive.
"It was like the Taj Mahal," Burger said.
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