They looked like enormous sleeping bats. Until you moved closer. Then the faces became visible under the layers of glass. He had seen exhibits similar to these before in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford; primordial insects trapped in amber. But these were unmistakably human heads. Those that faced him had their eyes shut; their hair was smooth, and their features, though distorted, were peaceful, and even beautiful. Taking out a rock-cloth, he rubbed the surface briskly. No sparks. It was difficult to see in the half-light. He had left his pocket torch back at the pensión.
It was only a beginning, but the past two weeks’ field-work had already yielded results. The guide, Jorge, knew the terrain blind. They had struck out every morning at daybreak in a battered Toyota pickup and had returned after dusk, laden with organic soil samples wrapped in aluminium foil. He had taken hundreds of photos of recent road-cuts. Each colour-coded cross-section was a diagram of geologic time; the distinctive dark grey colour and mafic compostion at the base was almost certainly late Pleistocene, whereas the younger yellowy-orange layers could be dated to somewhere around the end of the last Ice Age. Other deposits revealed the fallout from three small and seven medium size, maybe even larger, explosive Holocene eruptions, stretching over a period of 7,500 years, more or less. He would have liked to have gone on discovering and compiling the material evidence, but time was limited; the laboratory in Pasadena where the samples would be chemically analysed for carbon dating was becoming impatient. And not only this, but things had taken a strange turn – he was getting noticed.
The previous Sunday – Jorge’s day off – he had been picked up by the local police. They took him quite by surprise. He had spent the day out by the lagoon, taking a packed lunch with him and sitting there among the reeds, surrounded by flamingoes and volcanic ash. He had been dozing when a body came between himself and the sun. He looked up and saw the outline of a uniform.
– Está por acá! – the figure said, raising its arm.
Before he could get up onto his feet another figure stood over him. This one was shorter, also in uniform.
– Qué hace por acá, señor?
He started to explain that he had been sleeping and then interrupted himself and asked if there was anything wrong. The two policemen seemed uninterested and turned to each other instead. Then the smaller one said:
– Venga con nosotros, por favor.
Fifteen minutes later they were back at the little two-roomed barracks in the village. They asked for his passport and then he had to wait while they filled out a report in the adjoining office. Flies buzzed around a small triangle of sunlight on the floor. A little faded almanak reading “No hay mejor amigo que El Señor” hung askew on the cracked plaster wall and an ancient ceiling fan helped circulate the stifling air.
The lieutenant came back and asked him for his signature. He looked over the flimsy pink form quickly and saw that it contained nothing but the details of his passport, the date and point of entry to the country and the expected duration of his visit. The comments section was left blank.
The sun was low in the sky when he reached the dusty highway leading back to the village. A maze-like pattern of 4×4 tyre-tracks led off on either side, but he stuck to the public road, although this would considerably lengthen his journey. He knew that there had been no volcanic activity in the area for at least 8,000 years. He also knew that no human head could survive intact the massive temperatures and pressures generated in the lava flows produced by volcanic eruptions. This train of thought led him unexpectedly to the Hungarian archaeologist he’d met here the previous summer, who had told him to look out for old mine shafts strewn with shards of obsidian, that strange volcanic glass that Pliny named after the traveller who supposedly first discovered it. Over a couple of bottles of malbec in the hostel on New Year’s Eve, she had explained to him that you could learn a lot about pre-Columbian peoples’ economies and ways-of-life by studying the geographic distribution of bits of worked volcanic glass. It had been a highly valued commodity in a civilization where iron was unknown, she said, and was unique in that it had had both ritualistic and everyday uses at all levels of society. The earliest European chroniclers had mentioned with dread the macuahuitl, a thick wooden club with three obsidian blades on either side, capable of chopping off a horse’s head with one blow. She had seemed to relish this description, and drew her hand lengthwise across the side of her neck bearing her wine-stained teeth.
There was a bus leaving on Tuesday and another on Friday. The village would get busier in the New Year; prices for beds would be hiked up as backpackers arrived from the city, and this weekend, to celebrate a total lunar eclipse (due to occur shortly after 2am on Monday) cyclists from this village and the next would compete in a 50k road race that took in the surrounding countryside. There would be a festive atmosphere in town, with old folks sitting out on the porches chewing coca leaves and children dressed in traditional costume.
It was not till many years later that Claudia Svjerni, research professor of ancient civilizations at the Universidad Libre de Buenos Aires, recalled her drunken conversation with that scrawny, sun-burned Austrian. Taking advantage of the two week’s pre-term vacation, she took a plane to Mendoza to visit the newly opened Museo del Altiplano. The Museum, funded jointly by the Argentinian government and a Canadian mining consortium, had been purpose-built to house the by now infamous ´Wall of Heads`, a discovery made several years previously by two American meteorite hunters amongst the lunar-like volcanic plains of Catamarca. Despite the fact that almost 13 million dollars had been spent in transforming a disused train station into a state-of-the-art cultural-interpretive centre, curated by an international group of scientists, the exhibition had stirred up a considerable storm of dissent from the start. The exhibits had been labelled “kitsch” and “totally out of context” by the influential Revista Antropológica del Sur, and the city of Santiago de Catamarca had taken a lenthly, unsuccessful suit against the Federal government, demanding the return of the heads to their native province.
Claudia was pleasantly surprised to discover that the exhibition was for the most part well-laid out, informative, and despite the rather steep entry fee, apparently well worth a visit. Given the unprecedented nature of the find – over two dozen mummified human heads lodged in a shelf of rare transparent volcanic glass, and almost perfectly preserved after a period of over four hundred years – it was no wonder that controversy had ensued. The only thing that slightly grated on her nerves was the pan-piped music that greeted the visitor on entering the main hall. Nothing, however, not even the glass-cased array of obsidian projectiles, darts, knives, daggers and clubs, could prepare the visitor for the experience awaiting him in the last dimly lit, temperature-controlled room:
Twenty seven sleeping heads, each inserted in its bubble-shaped niche, lit from the left by spotlights that diffracted crazily through the glass. Some of the heads were in profile, but mostly they faced outwards. Her audioguide explained that, whereas no contemporary evidence had yet emerged to support this conjecture, the heads had almost without doubt belonged to an expeditionary force of Spanish soldiers. Whether they had been killed in Catamarca or elsewhere was unclear as no other remains had been unearthed. The cleaness of each decapitation made it likely that each neck wound had been caused by a single blow with a heavy obsidian bladed club, probably from behind. In modern times, due to the discovery that an obsidian blade can reach almost molecular thinness, this versatile material had found a less gruesome but equally clinical application, being used in open-heart and eye surgery. The sensible, matter-of-fact voice in her earphones continued – “It is thought that each of these heads represents a different phase in the lunar cycle. The indigenous people believed that the Moon was made of silver and that each night it arose from the centre of the Earth banishing the Sun from the sky until daybreak. It is probable that this expiatory sacrifice was occasioned by …” An awful sense of recognition came over her as she came to the final row of heads. There, a familiar face, a pale waxing gibbous, three-quarters full, was nested amongst its swarthier companions.