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Time Scanners: How was Machu Picchu designed? © Getty Images

Time Scanners: How was Machu Picchu designed?

Published: 31st March, 2014 at 14:00
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Ahead of his Time Scanners show on the National Geographic Channel, structural engineer Steve Burrows reveals some of the design secrets of Machu Picchu.

How can we learn more about history’s greatest buildings and the methods used to construct them? One way is 3D laser scanning, which captures the ruins in all their glory and recreates virtual replicas. In their new National Geographic programme Time Scanners, structural engineer Steve Burrows, who worked on Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium, and presenter Dallas Campbell use this technology to uncover the secrets of ancient sites around the world.


In the last of a series of interviews posted on , Helen Cahill caught up with Steve to find out more the 15th-century Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru.

When you were filming at Machu Picchu, what were you impressed by?

Machu Picchu is in a place of outstanding natural beauty. It is quite literally breathtaking – it's hard to breathe there because the air is so thin!

Imagine working in an environment where it’s hard to breathe, and you’re moving huge pieces of stone. Machu Picchu is actually a construction site – you can see how they cut the rock out of the top of the mountain. After that, they simply moved it the shortest possible distance. It was man trying to conquer nature in an incredibly difficult place to work.

On top of that, Machu Picchu only exists because of its water supply – they captured a stream coming down the mountain, and ran it down a series of fountains. That’s the reason why about 1000 people were able to live there.

What did you find out using the 3D laser scanners?

In Machu Picchu, the general view was that we knew everything about it. We knew where the water came in, how it was used, and we could see the whole building process. So, we asked ourselves: “what did they do for toilets? How did they get rid of the waste from 1,000 people?”

We found that there were caves in the rocks. The Incas captured their waste in what were effectively bedpans, took them to a building and then somebody walked down a spiral staircase and put them inside a cave.

Once they’d finished using their water for washing, drinking and all of their day-to-day uses, they allowed it to run down and through the caves – and it washed away all their toilet waste. It was exciting because the archaeologists said they’d never previously understood how toilet waste was dealt with in Machu Picchu.


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