|The Pyramid at Caraburo today|
According to Larrie Ferreiro:
In many ways, the story of the pyramids of Quito mirrored the problems that had plagued the whole expedition: born of careful planning, lofty purpose, and backbreaking labor, the pyramids reflected the stunning arrogance of the expedition's members....(Ferreiro, Measure of the Earth, p.207)
|A view of the baseline from La Condamine's Memoir|
The monuments had been thoroughly planned even before the expedition left France. La Condamine had proposed their erection in early 1735: as a former Egyptian explorer, he naturally favoured the pyramid form. The Academy of Inscriptions composed suitable Latin inscriptions. The pyramids, each topped with a fleur-de-lys, were to house a small silver tablet engraved with the geodesic measurements. In the end they became elaborate memorials which cost more than the instruments and tools employed in the survey.
|La Condamine's plan of the pyramids |
La Condamine began work in late 1736 when he obtained and buried two millstones from a local windmill to mark the end points of the newly completed baseline. He did not return to the project until April 1740, when he left Jean-Louis de Morainville, the expedition draftsman, in charge of construction. It was an ambitious undertaking, fraught with logistic difficulty. The pyramids were to be two toises (thirteen feet) in height, faced with brick and filled with rubble. A six-mile long channel was needed to bring water to the site and the stones had to be hauled out of a ravine.
The major difficulties which arose, however, concerned over the proposed inscriptions. The original text produced by the Academy of Inscriptions had been uncontentious and the French press argued Spanish and even Peruvian translations should be supplied. It was La Condamine's final version of the wording which caused the problem, when he chose to refer to the two Spanish officers who had accompanied the expedition as "assistants". On their return from Lima in September of 1741, Ulloa and Juan took exception to this, informing him that they wanted equal status and should be described as Spanish academicians. La Condamine was not disposed to conciliation: "Only the French members of the Academy were charged with this mission, and we have always remained masters of our work"; to describe the Spaniards as academicians would be to award them "qualities which they did not possess". The local grandee, the Marqués de Valleumbroso, deemed the dispute worthy of "a new comedy by Molière". It seemed less amusing when the disagreement expanded into a protracted legal battle. The two Spaniards filed a complaint (petición) against La Condamine and demanded a Spanish crown at summit of pyramids. Finally in April 1742 the audencia in Quito upheld the officers' case; La Condamine reluctantly replaced the fleurs-de-lys but never altered the wording of his text.
|The Pyramid at Oyambaro|
The modern history of the monuments
La Condamine believed his pyramids had subsequently been dismantled by the Spanish authorities, but this was not the case. The offending inscriptions were erased in 1747, but the pyramids themselves were left to fall apart over time. When Alexander von Humboldt visited Peru in March 1802 he found the brickwork scattered, though the millstones were still in place. One of the stone tablets, which was once bore the inscription, still survives today in garden of Observatory in Quito. In 1836 the pyramids were rebuilt by the Republic of Ecuador to mark the centennial of the expedition: in 1936 they were again renovated. The Oyambaro pyramid can be visited today; the one in Caraburo stands on land now belonging to Quito International airport. Judging from the photos, they have both had a coat of paint within the last year or two.
|The surviving stone outside the Observatory in Chito, with the text of an amended inscription|
Below: The original text as given by La Condamine.
La Condamine, "L'Histoire des Pyramides de Quito" Journal du Voyage fait par ordre du Roi, a l'Equateur, (Imprimerie royale, 1751), p.219
Larrie Ferreiro, Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World, New York : Basic Books, 2011, p.209-11
On subsequent history:
G. Perrier, "Histoire des pyramides de Quito", Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 1943,
vol. 35: p. 91-122.
Ernesto Capello, "From imperial pyramids to anticolonial sundials: commemorating and contesting French geodesy in Ecuador", Journal of Historical Geography, 2018, 62: p.37-50