Following a photographic exhibit on her work preserving and understanding Peru’s ancient geoglyphs, Maria Reiche’s descendant discusses the enduring legacy of the archaeologist and researcher.

The well-known Peruvian researcher Maria Reiche, known as “Lady of the Lines” for her studies of the Nazca Lines—a large group pre-Columbian geoglyphs in the Peruvian desert resembling animals and anthropomorphic figures, visible only from air—was actually raised a world away. Viktoria Maria Reiche-Grobe was born to Anna Elisabeth Neumann and Felix Reiche-Grobe in Dresden, Germany in 1903. 

Before she became a curator and protector of the Lines, which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Reiche planned to become an educator in Europe. In 1922, after many hard years in high school, Reiche was accepted in to the Technical University in Dresden to become a high school teacher. Highly intelligent and a determined student, Reiche took state examinations in mathematics, physics, geography, philosophy and pedagogy, and eventually learned five languages. She also worked at a high school in Dresden for a some time.

By the end of the 1920s, the political and social situation in Germany had become critical. The unemployment rate started to rise as a result of the global economic crisis; Adolf Hitler ran for German chancellor, but lacked the majority Parliamentary approval.  The rising nationalistic and fascist developments in Germany profoundly contradicted Reiche’s free thinking, humanistic worldview. The political situation was scary, shameful and outrageous for her. She wrote to her dearest sister, “I have the feeling that a large black cloud hovers over Germany.”

She began a daily search for job vacancies abroad, hoping for better possibilities and a self-determined life outside of Germany.

In the summer of 1931, Reiche she saw an announcement in the Hamburg weekly newspaper from the German consul in Cusco, Peru: Consul Tabel and his Peruvian wife were looking for a German teacher and governess for their two children. Reiche was selected from among nearly 80 applicants.

After Christmas in 1931, the young teacher traveled for six weeks—from Hamburg to Antwerp and via the Panama Canal, to Peru—teaching herself Spanish along the way by reading books aloud. She met Consul Tabel at the Callao harbor outside of Lima; together, they traveled several days to reach Cusco, a city in the Andes that was once the capital of the Incan Empire.

One of the Nazca glyphs./Wikipedia

When her contract expired one year later, Reiche was aboard passenger ship through the Panama Canal to Europe when she met a young Peruvian girl named Rosita Garcia, who was traveling with her father. Rosita invited Reiche to her place in La Punta for a few days in order to show her Lima.

At that point, Reiche did not want to return to Germany; Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party was in power and the political unrest was increasing. She postponed her trip overseas as long as possible and, conveniently, Rosita was a language teacher, which provided Reiche the gateway to get a part time job. Reiche would work as a language tutor and scientific translator. 

While Reiche only planned to stay a few extra days in Lima, she stayed in the region for years. Yet her ship ticket to Antwerp hadn’t expired and, in 1936, Reiche took Rosita to Germany. Quickly, Reiche was overwhelmed and upset by the goings-on in country: the summer Olympic Games, hosted in Berlin and later known as the Nazi Olympics, were used to downplay Hitler’s racism and tyranny; Jews and other ethnic minorities had lost the right to vote; and the Nazi party had completely taken over German Parliment. Reiche decided to go back to Peru. 

In 1939, Paul Kosok, an American archaeology and history professor from New York and the main expert on ancient cultures’ irrigation system, arrived in Peru. He was interested in the irrigation system of the southern coastal Nasza region, and thought that the Nazca Lines may be been irrigation ditches—he quickly concluded that the shallow trenches couldn’t have held water. 

After developing a professional relationship with Reiche, Kosok brought her to the Nazca site to study the geoglyphs. On June 22, 1941 the two encountered a turning point in their lives: they happened to be standing near one of the longest straight lines at sunset, and noticed that the sun set almost exactly over the end of one of the Lines. These geoglyphs, they determined, must be solstice lines. 

According to Reiche’s decades of analysis, the Nazca Lines represent a gigantic astronomical calendar, recording the passage of the seasons and predicting solar and lunar eclipses. The geoglyphs are enormous and clearly visible from heights of 1,500 feet. They plot the directions of the stars—the spider glyph, for example, is 150 feet long and associated with the constellation of Orion. The monkey coordinates with the Pleiades, covering over 300 feet. This was Reiche’s favorite figure and, like herself, displays only four fingers on one hand, a divine characteristic that is found in other drawings as well. Reiche, too, only had four fingers on one hand; she lost a finger to gangrene during her early years in Peru.

Maria Reiche in 1986./Wikipedia

It is evident that these figures and lines are man made, and were preserved for centuries  because their large scale made them unrecognizable from the ground. According to UNESCO, “the concentration and juxtaposition of the lines, as well as their cultural continuity, demonstrate that this was an important and long-lasting activity, lasting approximately 1,000 years.”

After Kosok left Peru in 1948, Reiche continued studying the Lines, mapping 18 other glyphs in order to determine where the lines led. Reiche employed charts to measure small distances, and then multiplied them by using stakes and long cords in the manner of giant compasses. She discovered that the Nazca had solved calculus equations, knew how to measure angles, and understood principles of geometry in order to create the Lines and trace perfectly proportioned figures on a gigantic scale. 

In her book The Mystery of the Pampas, Reiche described how ancient people used stones as markers for their glyphs, a theory she believed but didn’t originate. “This makes it possible to retrace the steps by which the ancient topographers laid out the accurate shapes of their complicated structures…huge regular curves of animal-figures were composed of segments of circles, whose centers were marked by stone which had, or was cut to, one hundred of the corresponding radius.”

There are different opinions about the Nazca drawings and their meaning. According to The New York Times, other scholars theorized that the lines had religious, social, and athletic significance, noting that many lines didn’t correlate with any stars. Reiche’s protege, Phyllis B. Pitluga, “contends that they are not shapes of constellations but of what might be called counter constellations, the irregular-shaped dark patches within the twinkling expanse of the Milky Way.”

Regardless of the cultural and scientific origins of the Nazca Lines, one thing is certain: the figures are evidence of the fact that early Peruvians were advanced culturally and scientifically, combating notions of a “primitive” ancient culture. 

In her book, Reiche alludes a very common thought process that occurs often as a result of a colonial mindset. “For once we have to leave aside the prejudiced studies of those elements which are commonly known as ‘primitive arte,’ …and dedicate our attention to means and methods employed by the makers of the great drawings,” she wrote. “We have to penetrate into their minds and follow the struggle for perfection and their way to reach it.” 

A wax figure of Reiche in her former home, which is now a museum./Wikipedia

It is so beautiful to read how Reiche respectful and warmly discusses the creators of the Lineas and geoglyphs. Her contemporary way of thinking about ancient cultures is progressive and extremely impressive to me. She also mentions the destruction of the Lines done by cars, which continues today and leaves “deep scars.” It is outraging how the Peruvian government does not care enough about our heritage, preferring to allow, for example, car races through the desert which may destroy this archaeological heritage. 

“Living in a small house in the desert so she could personally protect the delicate lines from careless visitors,” the Times continued, Reiche “shooed away intruders even as an old woman in a wheelchair. Over five decades she meticulously measured and mapped the intricate giant glyphs, swept away an accumulation of black dust to restore 1,000 of the lines to their original brilliance and used her own funds to hire guards and finance research projects.” 

Reiche became a Peruvian citizen in the 1990s as the result of her work studying and caring for the Lines. She was a free spirit and world renowned for her dedication to these ancient drawings. Because of the lack of interest from the Peruvian government, we as Maria Reiche’s family created the Asociación Internacional por el Arte y la Ciencia Maria Reiche Nasca Peru to spread her knowledge of and care for the conservation of the Nazca Lines. 

On July 31, 2019 we exhibited, in collaboration with the municipality of Miraflores and Larcomar, a part of Maria Reiche’s photographic collection titled, “The secret of the desert Maria Reiche and the Nasca and Palpa lines.” The exhibit was part of a tribute commemorating the 25 year anniversary of the Nazca Lines being registered as a site of cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

As an association, we have many projects on our list. We are seeking a monetary grant that would allow us to create an archive of all of Maria Reiche’s drawings, research papers, and documents. We hope to create this archive by the Latin American Bicentennial in 2021.  

As Maria Reiche’s great niece, I may have inherited her idiosyncratic free spirit. Like my relative, I care about our remaining nature and cultural heritage. Since I was a child, I’ve been curious, adventurous, and very passionate about what I do. Flipping Reiche’s narrative, I moved from South America to Europe to study—the first step to my ongoing adventure.   

Isabella Artadi is a hybrid artist-designer who is fascinated by colonial history and material culture. She was born and raised in Lima, Peru alongside her elder brother, Nikolas. Her parents are Freiin Gabriele von Gaisberg Schöckingen, a German woman, and Rolando Artadi Cogorno, a Peruvian man. After finishing high school and short technical studies in business, Artadi studied product design in Germany. She completed several exchanges and internships in different continents and countries, and is now preparing for her final project in collaboration with Merijaan, a Berlin based social start-up.