‘The first time I had in my hands the skull of an Inca mummy,’ wrote Julio Tello, ‘I felt a profound emotion. That skull… connected with my heart and made me feel the message of the race whose blood ran through my veins.’ For the future ‘father of Peruvian archaeology’ was a Quechua-speaking indigenous Peruvian.
Tello was born with boundless energy – and an aunt, Maria, who was a maid in Lima, at the presidential palace. In spring 1893, he took a four-day horseback ride to begin his education at the Colegio de Lima. His father died soon after and, though Maria continued to pay his fees, Tello had to work odd jobs selling newspapers and as a railway porter. He excelled at school nonetheless, and entered San Marcos university.
Tello later joked ‘I am not a professor nor writer, I am only a man of the fields, a huaquero [grave robber]’, yet he was highly trained (at Harvard after San Marcos, then London, Paris, and Germany) and utterly devoted to the science of archaeology. Simultaneously, he had an almost mystical reverence for his vocation: an excavation ‘reveals its secrets to be heard just once,’ he argued, ‘since the soil… does not return to its original state after being disturbed.’ During his horseback expeditions into the interior, Tello would work every day, beginning at 4am – and he would start university classes at an antisocial 7am.
Tello had recognised the importance of archaeology for nation-building in Peru, because ‘our present Hispanic-Peruvian civilisation cannot stand except on an indigenous pedestal’. This commitment to his country’s ‘autochthonous civilisations’ – against the prevailing notion of a migrant society having brought culture in from outside Peru – sustained him through presidential coups and an assassination, political turbulence that made any alliance brief and fragile.
Tello fought for Peruvian heritage within the government from 1917 to 1929, as the elected member for Huarochirí – a seat he was only allowed to take up after a 2,000-strong local protest in his favour. One president closed Tello’s university for three years, denying him access to his own research, and forcing him to take work as a secondary school teacher to continue to make a living. One of his opponents smashed with a rock two painstakingly reconstructed urns. And he was repeatedly called from Lima to ancient sites to foil the huaqueros.
Despite all this, Tello made time to found national museums, train a generation of archaeologists, make tens of thousands of finds (notably at Paracas, Nasca, Pachacamac, and Chavín de Huántar, where an obelisk bears his name), and lead the team that discovered Wiñay Wayna, on what is now the Inca Trail.
When he died in 1947, Tello was laid to rest in a mausoleum within the Museo Nacional de Antropología y Arqueología. ‘What I have done for my land,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘no one can erase…’.