At Virginia Tech, Christine Fiori is the associate director for the Myers-Lawson School of Construction. In the classroom, she teaches subjects including building materials and the use of heavy equipment in construction operations.
But she also has another area of expertise: The Inca Road. In fact, she is one of the only known civil engineers to have studied the road and its construction. Over four years, she has taken an in-depth look at the simply built road that has stood the test of time for more than 500 years.
She is sharing her insights at the Smithsonian on Nov. 14, and following that, she is traveling to Peru with a crew from the Discovery Channel to provide expertise for the show “Strip the City.”
She will be co-presenting with fellow researcher Clifford Schexnayder of Arizona State University during the “Engineering the Inka Empire: A Symposium on Sustainability and Ancient Technologies,” Nov. 14 at the National Museum of the American Indian. The event can be viewed by live webcast.
Fiori began submitting grant proposals in 2007 to support her and Schexnayder’s research on the construction of the Inca Road, which extends from Quito, Ecuador in the north past Santiago, Chile to the south. “You would think, that in 500 years, someone would have been looking at the engineering and construction aspect of the road. There has been a little work done here and there, but no one has done the work we did,” she said.
Working on a grant from the National Science Foundation, Fiori organized four years of research trips to study the road in depth. As they studied sections along the way, Fiori and a team of researchers and students from a variety of disciplines learned about the challenges of working at 14,000 feet above sea level, ranging from altitude sickness and equipment failure to the challenge of strapping a large communications satellite to a burro for the journey along the road. Their work was documented in a video released by the NSF.
As an engineer, working with researchers from very different backgrounds including anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians has provided new insights on road construction, including, in some cases, why branches of the road seemingly lead to nowhere.
“It’s been really interesting to work with archeologists and historians,” Fiori said. “We would be walking on the road, and suddenly there would be seemingly random offshoots just leading to a small stream or a field. The archeologists would be able to explain why people were coming to that particular spot; in some cases that it’s taking you to places with religious rituals, for example. As engineers, we were asking about very specific design parameters, but they would explain that the road goes where the road goes; that it’s guiding you.”
One of the biggest takeaways from an engineering perspective is that in order to build such a long-lasting, sustainable road, the Incas worked with nature rather than trying to control it. “We learned a lot of things, but that was the biggest one for us. They engineered with the elements, versus what we try to do today. They built in harmony with nature; they didn’t try to control it. They controlled views and they were really good at controlling water, but they respected the forces of water and wind,” said Fiori. “They treated the world as sacred, so any of the roads that they built, they minimized the amount of cutting they had to do. They were just brilliant in the way that they built this.”
Fiori also says she feels that these are important lessons that can be applied to modern construction techniques. “Natural forces, in one shape or form, is part of the Incan religion, and they had a completely different perspective on how to build things than we do. We don’t have to give offerings every time we start building, but we really do need to look at how to better build with the environment, which is what the whole green and sustainability movement is gearing towards,” she said.
Fiori and Schexnayder are currently collaborating to design an exhibit on the Inca Road for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The exhibit is expected to open in 2015.