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Remote Sensing the Mysteries of Ollantaytambo

Look closely: many mysteries are contained in this photograph of Ollantaytambo, Peru. I took it “from the hip” during my visit to the ancient city. Only recently, while magnifying photos like this, did I discover several details that I overlooked while on site. Remote sensing at its simplest – through a telephoto lens!

(Above) View of Ollantaytambo, looking north.

The original “wide shot” photo shows portions of Ollantaytambo’s spiritual, military, and agricultural sectors. I’ve “zoomed in” on various aspects of the image to create four, more detailed, shots.

(Above) Using the original wide-shot photo, I zoomed into four specific areas or features of the ruins.


The first of these focuses on an area of the Sun Temple, comprised of massive (10-30 tons) red rhyolite blocks that are precisely carved and set without mortar (yet joined so tightly that a razor blade cannot be inserted between them). Note: 1) the odd rectangular protrusions on the largest of these monolithic stones (similar features can be found on other large polygonal stonework throughout the Andes (and world); 2) large, finely carved stones near the bottom right of the photo; and 3) and contrast between the quality and style of these large stones and the much smaller, more crudely shaped and assembled rocks that surround them. Was this “mixed” style of masonry used during the same period? Or does it reflect different builders or construction eras?

(Above) Looking in the direction of the Sun Temple. Note the massive, precisely areved stones on the left and bottom right.


The second “zoomed in” image shows a colossal, half-buried stone – what almost looks like a stele. Observe its perfectly straight edge. Likely, this stone weighs several tens (or possibly hundred) of tons. When was it carved, and why? Was it abandoned during transport up the hill, or did it tumble down as a result of erosion or human-caused destruction during the reign of the Incas, Spaniards, or sometime after (or before)?

(Above) Slanting towards the bottom right of the photo is what appears to be a half-buried stele.


The third “zoomed in” shot includes more of the megalithic stones for which Ollantaytambo is famous. Note the precision edges and angles, as well as the bulbous protrusions along their bases (the purposes of these lumps are still widely debated). Obviously, a great deal of skill and energy were required to carve, transport, and set these stones. Conventional theory holds that the Incas accomplished this without iron tools, work animals, or the wheel.

(Above) Finely carved stones with bulbous protrusions (bottom of stone on left); compare this with the much cruder style of masonry in the terrace wall.


The fourth and final “zoomed in” image shows an Inca-era building and surrounding ruins. Note the high thatched roof, use of smaller stones assembled with mortar (pirca style of masonry) and adobe coating, and even what appears to be a carved statue atop the wall (center of photo). Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to hike up and take a closer look, so I can’t say whether the statue is a crumbling pillar or something more. But in his 1530s chronicles, Pedro de Cieza de Leon wrote of Ollantaytambo: “Among these rocks there can still be seen figures of lions and other wild animals, and of men with arms in their hands that look as though they were guarding the entrance, all skillfully carved.”

(Above) Inca-era building and wall. Is the stone in the middle of the photo a statue of an animal?


Ollantaytambo’s history is shrouded in enigma and legend. No European actually witnessed megalithic construction here or elsewhere in Peru, and theories about the true ages of this massive stonework (and methods for building them) rest chiefly upon Inca lore, limited archaeological investigation, and plain old guesswork.


Originally published 5/8/2019 here. ©Beyond the Range. All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.

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