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TOPIC: Tracking the Golden Chain

Tracking the Golden Chain 8 years 6 months ago #5691

Tracking the Golden Chain
11 August 2005 | 0 comments | Travel & Leisure | by Aramco ExPats

Atahualpa, Governor of Ecuador:

“If all the gold that is buried in Peru … were collected, it would be impossible to coin it, so great the quantity; and yet the Spaniards of the conquest got very little, compared with what remains…. If, when the Spaniards entered Cuzco they had not committed other tricks, and had not so soon executed their cruelty in putting Atahualpa to death, I do not know how many great ships would have been required to bring such treasure to old Spain, as is now lost in the bowels of the earth and will remain so because those who buried it are now dead.”
– Pedro Cieza de Leon, Chronicle of Peru, 1555

Novelist Evan S. Connell, in his nonfiction book A Long Desire, explores a number of enduring human quests and dreams, from the search for the lost continent of Atlantis to the mystical pursuits of alchemy. Probing the Spaniards’ relentless pursuit of gold in the 16th-century empire of the Incas, he turns to a little-known treasure called the Golden Chain of Huaina Capac.

In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his small band of soldiers captured the Inca ruler Atahualpa and held him for ransom in the northern Peruvian town of Cajamarca. Atahualpa offered his captors amazing quantities of gold for his release – enough to fill the large chamber where he was being held. Treasure began streaming into Cajamarca on the backs of hundreds of pack-llamas from all parts of the Inca empire. When the room was finally filled with artifacts of gold, the Spaniards reneged on their pledge and killed Atahualpa. More treasure was en route to the town, but when the Incas heard that their leader was dead, they hid the remaining gold in caves, lakes and other places.

“Among the fantastic treasures reported on the imperial highway,” said Connell, “was a gold chain about 800 feet long – either a chain or a multicolored rope embellished with gold plates – which was so heavy that 200 Indians carried it. This chain, or rope, was held by dancers during important festivals, and is said to have been cast into a lake just south of Cuzco. But a thing like that – how could you throw it into a lake? How far could 200 men throw it? My own opinion is that it was buried.”

A golden chain 800 feet long? Perhaps it was even longer: One description sets its length at 350 yards, or 1,050 feet. One of the earliest accounts claims the ceremonial cord was as thick as a man’s wrist. If made of pure gold, it must have weighed a ton or more. Estimates of two tons are common. One writer believes it weighed ten tons! (This would mean each of the 200 dancers would have carried 100 pounds of chain – an unlikely burden for a dance ritual.) Whatever the case, the chain’s pure gold value would be reckoned in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars today. Its historical value as the grandest surviving Inca artifact would render it virtually priceless.

The story of Inca gold has been told many times. The tale of the Golden Chain is less often recounted. In fact, among the historians and other experts who have discussed it since the 16th century, the actual existence of the artifact is a matter of controversy.

The 16th-Century Spaniard Garcilaso de la Vega
Explorer Alain Gheerbrant, editor of a chronicle that describes the Golden Chain, observes: “Several other chroniclers have mentioned this famous chain, although none, needless to say, can boast of having seen it.” Gheerbrant edited an English version of The Royal Commentaries of the Inca by Garcilaso de la Vega el Inca (1539-1616), son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador captain. For Garcilaso, the Golden Chain was real, though he had to admit he had never seen it himself; the chain had disappeared years before his birth in 1539. He had received the story from the “old Inca,” his mother’s uncle. Garcilaso himself had seen physical evidence of the conquistadors’ determined search for the incredible artifact.

According to Inca tradition, the chain was crafted on orders from the Inca ruler Huaina Capac to celebrate the naming ceremony of his son Huascar. Garcilaso says Huaina Capac himself conceived the idea of the chain, as a fitting embellishment on the traditional Inca naming ceremony for his own first-born son. In the central dance of that ceremony, “men formed in line, facing the reigning Inca, at a certain distance from him, and some two or three hundred in number. Each one held the hand, not of his immediate neighbor, but of the one following him, and thus they formed a sort of chain. They then began to advance little by little toward the king, in slow rhythm, taking, alternately, one step backward and two steps forward, as in those Spanish dances called double step and repeat. It occurred to the Inca that it would be still more meet, solemn, and majestical, if they were to execute this dance, not by simply forming a chain with their bodies, but by holding in their hands a chain of real, solid gold.”

Pedro Pizarro, a cousin and page of Francisco, and Agustín de Zarate, a royal accountant who arrived in Peru in 1544, agreed with Garcilaso that the chain really existed. But a historian of the 17th century, Fernando de Montesinos, thought it was only a legend: “Everything that is said about the origin of the name of Huascar, especially the story of the golden chain, is pure imagination.” However, modern scholars have questioned Montesinos’ reliability on other subjects, so his debunking is not definitive.

One of the most reliable of the early historians, Father Bernabé Cobo (1580-1657), a Spanish Jesuit who spent most of his adult life among the conquered Incas, accepts the story of the chain’s origin as true and relates the account as history. He vividly describes its use in the name-ceremony dance, with two hundred Inca nobles holding it, “spread out like a wing.”

Berkeley professor emeritus John Howland Rowe – a leading expert in Peruvian archaeology and an admirer of Cobo – is skeptical about the existence of the Golden Chain. He told this writer that if such a ritual artifact actually existed, it was probably not a chain but rather a rope. The Incas had no experience with link chains prior to the Spanish conquest, he says. It could have been a fiber rope, adorned with gold plaques or other decoration, Rowe concedes. This is consistent with the Huascar story: His name means “rope.” Garcilaso says this word was used because the Inca language lacked a more exact term for “chain.”

Though no pre-conquest chains have ever been found, the concept of metal links was not unknown in the Inca realm. One of the peoples the Incas had conquered, the Chimú of northern Peru, used gold links in many of their artifacts, and even crafted shirts of tiny gold plates held together by links – a kind of decorative “chain mail” for the aristocracy. Examples of these shirts and other artifacts with golden links survive in museums to this day.

Whoever is right, the story of the chain “has remained very popular in Peru, where many seekers of huacas [treasures] still hope to find it some day,” Gheerbrant notes. “It is represented in certain keros (M. Valle collection, Lima), but as these are of the colonial period they do not prove that it actually existed. Our present knowledge does not enable us to draw any definite conclusions.”

Keros were Peruvian drinking cups carved from wood and painted with Inca ceremonial scenes. One fine example depicting Inca dancers holding the Golden Chain – but apparently painted after the Spanish conquest – is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Coricancha, or the Inca Temple of the Sun
The legends of the conquest speak of a number of priceless treasures, mostly of gold, that were hidden by the Incas to protect them from the treasure-hungry conquistadors. The golden objects that were sent to ransom the ruler Atahualpa were only a small fraction of the treasures held by the Inca state. One of the most famous of the missing artifacts was a huge golden image of the rayed sun – perhaps with a human face – that occupied a central place of honor in the Coricancha, the great Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, the Inca capital.

Also missing was the famed “Garden of the Sun,” a life-sized facsimile of a country garden, complete with rows of corn, sheep and shepherds – all fashioned of pure gold. The chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1532-1589) placed this garden near the Temple of the Sun: “They had a garden in which the lumps of earth were pieces of fine gold. These were cleverly sown with maize – the stalks, leaves and ears of which were all pure gold. They were so well planted that nothing would disturb them. Besides all this, they had more than twenty sheep with their young. The shepherds who guarded the sheep were armed with slings and staves made of gold and silver. Pots, vases and every kind of vessel were cast from fine gold.”

At the time of Atahualpa’s death, another treasure vanished from the Coricancha: the mummies of 13 Inca emperors, coated with gold, studded with jewels and seated on golden chairs (which themselves rested on a huge gold slab). The gilded mummies had been placed around the temple, along with large gold plaques mounted on the walls that illustrated each ruler’s life. A conquistador named Juan Polo de Ondegardo claims he discovered three of these mummies some 26 years after the conquest. Their “gold suits” and jewels were gone, he said, the bodies broken into pieces. The remaining ten mummies, the 13 golden chairs, the huge slab and the illustrated gold plaques have never been recovered. Some traditions say they lie concealed in a vast network of tunnels beneath Cuzco and the surrounding area.

Colorful tales about hidden tunnels beneath the cities and mountains of the Andes region have been recounted since the days of Pizarro. Some speak of passages that extend hundreds or even thousands of miles, connecting subterranean repositories packed with treasure. The mystic theosophist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who traveled to Peru in 1848, claimed she learned from a local informant about an incredible tunnel network containing Inca burials and artifacts that extended from Cuzco northwest to Lima on the Pacific coast, and then southeast into Bolivia – a distance of more than a thousand miles. The flavor of such legends is captured in this passage about secret tunnels near Sacsayhuaman, an Inca fortress near Cuzco, from anthropologist Dr. William McGovern’s book Jungle Paths and Inca Ruins (1927):

“Near this fortress are several strange caverns reaching far into the earth. Here altars to the Gods of the Deep were carved out of the living rock, and the many bones scattered about tell of the sacrifices which were offered up here. The end of one of these caverns, Chincana, has never been found. It is supposed to communicate by a long underground passage with the Temple of the Sun in the heart of Cuzco. In this cavern is supposed, and with good reason, to be hidden a large part of the golden treasure of the Inca Emperors which was stored away lest it fall into the hands of the Spaniards. But the cavern is so huge, so complicated, and its passages are so manifold, that its secret has never been discovered.”

Garcilaso recounts several stories about Spanish efforts to recover the hidden treasures of the Incas. Early in The Royal Commentaries, he recalls a tale involving a small lake – believed by many Peruvians today to be Lake Urcos, near Cuzco. The unnamed lake cited by the chronicler was about half a legua (or Spanish league) – 1.3 modern miles – in circumference. It was very deep, surrounded by high mountains, and located some six leagues (15.6 miles) south of the Inca capital. Lake Urcos is actually about 29 miles south of Cuzco – suggesting that Garcilaso either got his measurements wrong or was referring to another, closer lake. Modern geological survey maps reveal at least one small, unnamed lake or lagoon – a cocha, in the Incas’ Quechua tongue – at about the right distance from Cuzco. But this lagoon has apparently not attracted the attention of modern treasure hunters. Could it be the one Garcilaso describes?

“It is well known that, on the arrival of the Spaniards, the Indians threw a great part of the treasures from the Cuzco temple into this lake, among other things, the famous gold chain that Huaina Capac had had made,” the chronicler relates. “Some twelve or thirteen Spanish inhabitants of Cuzco having learned this fact, formed a company among themselves to dry up this lake, and thus retrieve these treasures.”

After conducting soundings, probably with a weighted rope lowered from a raft or boat, the Spaniards found that the lake was up to 24 fathoms (144 feet) deep – not counting the thick, silty ooze that presumably covered the treasure.

“That seemed a great deal,” Garcilaso writes, “so they decided to dig a tunnel east of it through which the water could find outlet. They started working in 1557 and, after having dug a gallery more than fifty steps long, encountered rock as hard as silex, from which they got discouraged and abandoned their project.” End of story.

Garcilaso claims he personally saw the tunnel, and had even entered it several times. “There are numerous other places, “ he adds, “in the mountains, the lakes and the caves, where the Indians are supposed to have hidden treasures that can never be recovered.”

Not all Spaniards of that era thought the Golden Chain lay at the bottom of a lake. For example, some searched for it at Sacsayhuaman, about two miles north of Cuzco. Garcilaso says conquistadors leveled most of the fortress’s inner structures to secure finely hewn stones for their own houses. “Indeed, they did it so quickly that I, personally, saw almost nothing of it,” he reports, “except for the three great enclosing walls, that were too enormous for them to touch, although I have been told that they attacked them recently, in order to discover Huaina Capac’s famous gold chain, which they believed had been buried there.” They found nothing.

The chain’s hiding place – if indeed it exists – remains undisturbed to our day. There have been many attempts to track it down, in lakes and caves throughout the old Inca empire. One legend placed the chain and other treasures at the bottom of Lake Titicaca, on the Bolivian border. In 1968, scuba pioneer and oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau searched for the fabled chain during an eight-week exploration of that lake’s murky depths – but he found no Inca gold at all.

Other attempts have received less publicity. An innkeeper in the Cuzco area told this writer in the mid-1980’s that he’d talked to a number of treasure hunters who passed through his establishment on their way to Lake Urcos and other alleged resting places of the Golden Chain. Some of the expeditions were serious, others were less so, he said. None of them, needless to say, was successful.

There is another theory about the fate of the chain: Some believe it was in fact found by the Spaniards shortly after the conquest of Peru but was seized by pirates who captured a Spanish galleon carrying the King’s share of the treasure – the “royal fifth” – from Panama to Spain. According to this theory, the likeliest hiding place for the Golden Chain today is a small island off the coast of Honduras, called Roatan. Ringed by a dangerous reef and fringed with mangrove swamps, Roatan was a favorite base for Caribbean pirates in the 16th and 17th centuries – including the famed British buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan.

In the 1960s, treasure hunter Howard Jennings and two companions scoured Roatan Island with metal detectors in search of Inca treasures believed hidden by pirates. Jennings was convinced this island was the final resting place of the Golden Chain of Huaina Capac. Amid the crumbling ruins of a pirate fort near a lagoon at Augusta (now called Fort Frederick), they discovered a buried wooden chest. The hinges of the chest’s lid were rusted shut, so they smashed it open with a shovel. The coffer was filled with silver coins and a golden chain – one of normal size, not the immense ritual artifact of Cuzco.

In 1995, adventure novelist Clive Cussler took a stab at the Golden Chain legend and its fictional discovery in his book Inca Gold. Cussler builds his tale on a piece of actual history: the Inca civil war between Atahualpa and Huascar, both sons of Huaina Capac, shortly before Pizarro and his men trekked into Peru. Huascar had been designated ruler after his father’s death, but Atahualpa, who governed the province of Quito in the north, challenged his brother for the throne and war erupted.

Atahualpa, based at Cajamarca, was on the verge of victory when the Spaniards arrived. Atahualpa’s troops had captured Huascar in Cuzco, and they were ordered by Atahualpa to bring his defeated brother to Cajamarca. Huascar’s royal entourage brought great treasures from Cuzco with them, perhaps as appeasement gifts for Atahualpa. En route to Cajamarca, Atahualpa’s generals, on orders from their ruler, brutally murdered Huascar. The royal entourage fled, and according to Bernabé Cobo, they threw Huascar’s treasures in a lagoon called Cochaconchuco, 33 leagues (86 miles) south of Cajamarca. Not long afterward, Atahualpa himself was seized, held for ransom and executed by Francisco Pizarro and his men.

Cussler’s Inca Gold diverges from this historical account. His thesis is that before Huascar was captured by Atahualpa’s troops, he dispatched the bulk of his treasures, including the Golden Chain, far to the north for safekeeping, and that they were eventually buried beyond the Aztec kingdom of Mexico. The theory is pure fiction, but it makes for a great thriller.

While Father Cobo asserts that some of Huascar’s treasures ended up at the bottom of Cochaconchuco, he doesn’t specifically mention the Golden Chain in this context, even though he describes the artifact earlier in his chronicle. Besides, the identity of this lake is uncertain. There are many small mountain lakes in Peru, and few retain their original Inca names.

In the eyes of Peruvians and most treasure hunters, Lake Urcos remains the prime candidate for exploration in connection with the Golden Chain. Urcos still awaits the definitive scientific expedition – one using the most modern technology, including advanced sonar, aquatic magnetometers, mini-submarines and/or high-altitude diving techniques. Perhaps someday archaeologists will pinpoint the Golden Chain on the lake bottom, beneath a thick layer of black silt, and will devise a sophisticated flotation strategy to bring the artifact to the surface.

On the other hand, the chain may not be there. It could lie at the bottom of another lake, or behind a sealed rock wall in a forgotten tunnel. Or it may not exist at all, except as a marvelous tale born in the 16th century and passed down by generations of Peruvians.

Take your pick. One thing is certain: As long as the slightest hope remains, the search will continue.

Robert W. Lebling, Jr. is head of electronic publishing for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. His academic background includes studies in the history, politics and anthropology of Arab North Africa and Al-Andalus. His new book on natural remedies will be available this fall in the Aramco ExPats Suq. This image is hidden for guests. Please log in or register to see it.
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Re: Tracking the Golden Chain 8 years 6 months ago #5732

  • Kanacki
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Thank you for the interesting post.

You mentioned an innkeeper in Cusco in your story? Was if the owner of the cross keys Irish Pub Cuzco?

Thanking you in advance,

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