Craig Morris

Inca archaeologist who revealed the secrets of Huánuco Pampa
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Craig Morris became a towering figure in Inca archaeology through 11 years of excavation of Huánuco Pampa, the largest surviving ruin of Peru's great pre-conquest civilisation. What made his work even more important was that Huánuco Pampa is the only place for which two Spanish visitas (of 1549 and 1562) survive. Visitas were detailed reports on the administration, population and taxation of the Inca empire - the conquistadors' equivalent to the Norman conquerors' Domesday Book; but only a handful still exist.

It was Morris's mentor John Murra who had the brilliant idea of combining this unique written ethnohistory with excavation of the huge, untouched site. At first Morris worked at Huánuco Pampa with Murra, then with Donald Thompson, and then alone. He and Thompson described their findings in Huánuco Pampa: an Inca city and its hinterland (1985).

Huánuco Pampa lies on a flat, grassy puna high above the upper Marañón headwater of the Amazon. As one of the most important provincial capitals along the Inca royal road, it played a role in Francisco Pizarro's conquest. But the Spaniards occupied it for only a few months in 1539: they could not tolerate its cold and altitude of over 3,700 metres (12,150ft). So the great ruin is tumbled but intact, with remains of 3,500 buildings covering two square kilometres (500 acres), never pillaged for its masonry and, being almost above the tree level, not overgrown by vegetation.

In his many seasons at Huánuco Pampa, Morris revealed how the Incas ruled their vast empire. He excavated the Inca palace, with a series of courtyards leading to the emperor's private quarters; a central usnu platform the size of Trafalgar Square in the midst of a plaza so vast that it would delight any totalitarian dictator; long kallanka barracks for passing armies or assembled peasantry; and a convent-like enclosure that clearly housed the secluded holy women because it was full of pots for the chicha drink they brewed and tools for the cloth they wove for their semi-divine ruler.

Morris's doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago in 1967 had been on Inca storage. Keeping foods and goods ready for emergencies was an important element in the Incas' good government; and at Huánuco Pampa Morris found row after row of some 500 storage huts.

Morris suffered from a weak heart, so that in recent years his doctors forbade his returning to his beloved Huánuco. The guardian at the remote and rarely visited site was trained by Morris; and he is held in reverent affection by the few people who live on that high plain. This is hardly surprising for, besides being a consummate archaeologist, Morris was a gentle, generous, good-humoured and very courteous man.

Born in Murray, Kentucky, in 1939, Craig Morris was attached to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for 31 years from 1975. During a decade as its Dean of Science, 1994-2004, he curated some famous exhibitions, including one on the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, "The Royal Tombs of Sipán" (1994).

Recently, unable to return to the high Andes, he worked on Inca sites on Peru's Pacific coastal plain. This work revealed how Inca viceroys built their administrative centres alongside the palaces of local Chincha lords. He postulated that paintings on the adobe walls of the Tambo Colorado complex, south of Lima, illustrated relations between the Incas and their subjects.

In addition to a corpus of academic papers, Morris co-authored with Adriana von Hagen important general books on the Inca empire, The Cities of the Ancient Andes (1998) and The Inka Empire and its Andean Origins (1993). A third, on the arts of the ancient Incas, is about to go to press with Thames & Hudson. Morris had many academic distinctions in the United States, including membership of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But he always kept a flat in Lima as well as New York, and Peruvian archaeologists regarded him as one of their own.

John Hemming