World-renowned archaeologist visits Savannah
Armstrong Atlantic State University's Office of International Education welcomed its favorite archaeologist back to Savannah in February, as Dr. Constanza Ceruti returned to the Savannah campus for a series of lectures on the Sacred Mountains of the World. Armed with nearly 100 photos showing her at or near the summits of these famous peaks, she explained their archaeological significance and the myths surrounding their creation.
During her career, Dr. Ceruti has distinguished herself as the world's only female high-altitude archaeologist and has climbed over one hundred mountains taller than 17,000 feet. When she's not busy exploring the world's highest peaks, the Argentine native works as a Professor of Inca Archaeology at Catholic University of Salta. She is the author of six books, more than sixty academic publications, and has lectured and traveled throughout the world.
Dr. Ceruti is most famous for her co-discovery of the world's best-preserved frozen mummies on the summit of Llullaillaco, the world's fifth highest volcano which lies on the border between Argentina and Chile. Her passion for mountain exploration has taken her literally around the globe.
Surrounded by an auditorium filled with students and visitors, Dr. Ceruti began her photo journey at the Ganges River in India.
“ I see the mountains even if they are not there,” she said. “In India I notice the shape of the temples. Looking at them closer, we see a resemblance to the peaks of the mountains of the Himalayas. The Himalayan mountains are conceived as the abodes of mountain deities and Mount Kailash, the most sacred mountain in Asia, is the home of the Hindu God Lord Shiva.”
Dr. Ceruti said that religious traditions made some mountains strictly off-limits to climbers.
“People are not welcome on peaks like Mount Kailash because this is considered sacred ground,” she said. “Instead, they are allowed to make a procession around the foot of the mountain- a circular ambulation. You do it clockwise if you are Buddhist or counterclockwise if you are a follower of shamanism. Even if you are just walking or hiking, you have to be very careful to approach and walk in the correct manner.”
From the Himalayas, Dr. Ceruti took her audience to Egypt and the Middle East.
“Egypt doesn't have impressive mountains, but we do find famous funerary monuments like the great pyramids which have the shape of mountains,” she said. “Due to problems with looting, later monarchs decided to to hide their burial chambers inside the mountains in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. Also, in Southern Sudan, we find structures which resemble small volcanos that have the same properties as pyramids. Of course, the Middle East is also home to one of the most sacred mountains of the Bible, Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.”
From there, Dr. Ceruti took her audience to the frigid highlands of Norway where mythical creatures called trolls continue to play an important role in mountain lore.
“In Southern Norway, the people believe that giant trolls have modified the landscape to build natural structures like chairs and cathedrals in the mountains,” she said. “These trolls have low inhibitions and are full of mischief. They use their long noses to smell children and parents threaten them with being eaten by trolls if they misbehave. But in the Northern areas, the Laplanders have a much more intimate connection to the landscape and regard the mountains as sacred.”
Next stop on her photographic journey was Australia's famous Ayer's Rock, a sandstone monolith nine kilometers in circumference and 300 meters in height.
“The aborigine people call this rock Uluru and they have many myths about its powers,” Dr. Ceruti said. “Because rainfall is scarce in that part of the world, the stone acts as a giant umbrella when it rains and the people use the wtaers which collect in its pools for many of their important sacred ceremonies.”
As part of the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire', New Zealand is home to many active volcanoes. Dr. Ceruti discussed the Island's complex mythology and gave a logical explanation for its reputation as a warrior nation.
“The original Maori settlers came from French Polynesia around 800 years ago and they found these giant birds called Moas which they ate to extinction,” she said. “Since there were no other natural animal proteins available they had to guard their resources and protect themselves from overpopulation.”
These volcanic mountains play an important role in the nation's mythology.
“A priest named Ngatoro-i-rangi climbed the highest mountain called Tongariro and claimed all the lands he could see for his ancestors,” Dr. Ceruti said. “Because he was freezing cold, he sacrificed his female slave named Ngauruhoe and this brought the fire to make the volcanoes active. Another story tells about a mythical woman who was New Zealand's greatest mountain climber. She became so distraught when her boyfriend fell off a cliff and died that she cried a river of tears which froze and became a glacier. In the South, the myths say that a giant took an axe and carved the mountains into the shapes we see today. ”
Next, Dr. Ceruti took her audience to the Hawaiian Islands whose volcanic mountains are also steeped in mythology.
“Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the world if you consider the part that rises from the floor of the Pacific Ocean,” she said. “On its summit, we find an altar to the snow maiden Poliahu who lives there. When she is cold, the mountain is covered with snow and the weather is no good but when she goes away the weather is much improved. Also, the Haleakala volcano is very sacred mountain in Maui. According to legend it was here that a god captured the sun and forced it to slow its journey across the sky in order to give his people more daylight hours for their work.”
Dr. Ceruti said there is a reason why the representations of Gods on the Easter Island all face the ocean.
“The Moai are these giant human faces that were carved from the volcanic rock and transported to the seashore where their their eyes could watch over and provide protection for the people who lived there,” she said.
In Mexico, Dr. Ceruti visited pyramids shaped like mountains.
“We know that early Mesoamericans like the Mayans believed in a rain god named Chaac,” she said. “The Mayans built pyramids in his honor and used caves underground as places of offerings and sacrifices. These were quite bloody and designed to frighten the Mayan peoples. Other sacred mountains in this region include Mount Popocatepetl and Mount Iztaccíhuatl. These snow-covered summits are called “The Sleeping Woman” and represent the two breasts of a mountain goddess.”
Dr. Ceruti concluded her lecture with a visit to the Andes Mountains of South America.
“In Peru we find one of the most sacred mountains in the world, a place called Apu Ausangate,” she said. “This mountain is famous for the celebration of El Señor de Qoyllur Rit'i where as many as 70,000 people climb up into the mountains to pay their respects to a sacred rock that features the image of Christ. The people bring miniature models of things like cars and trucks, wedding rings, fake money and animals like llamas. These models represent all the real things that people are praying to receive in real life.”
In her explorations of the mountains of the world, Dr. Ceruti has endured lightning storms, blizzards, frostbite, and 60-mile hikes but she doesn't seek adventure for its own sake.
“What I have learned from these people is the enormous respect they have towards the mountains, a respect that is tinged with fear, reverence, and affection,” she said. “They see the mountains as being alive. We have a lot to learn from mountain people regarding having a deeper connection with the natural world and the care that is needed to preserve it.”