Golden era: Peru shines a trea­sured ex­hi­bi­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture - BY ROLAND FLAMINI

The Na­tional Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety has a long as­so­ci­a­tion with Peru: Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Her­man Bing­ham, who has been called a real-life In­di­ana Jones, was on as­sign­ment for Na­tional Ge­o­graphic when he dis­cov­ered Machu Pic­chu, the lost city of the In­cas, in 1911.

But there are more than 10,000 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites through­out Peru re­flect­ing its many com­plex civ­i­liza­tions where wealth and power flour­ished, and the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Mu­seum cur­rently houses an ex­hi­bi­tion of ar­ti­facts from a cul­ture that thrived a thou­sand years be­fore Inca dom­i­nance.

Peru­vian Gold: An­cient Trea­sures Un­earthed couldn’t be more aptly named.

The 90 or so an­cient ar­ti­facts on show, ex­ca­vated from royal tombs in the moun­tain­ous north­ern coast of Peru, re­flect “the spe­cial re­la­tion­ship [the re­gion] had with one of the most iconic metals in the world — gold,” said ar­chae­ol­o­gist Fred Hiebert, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s guest cu­ra­tor.

That hasn’t changed much across the cen­turies, but to the an­cient Peru­vians, gold was some­thing much more than a com­mod­ity. They lit­er­ally revered gold as the sweat of the sun, the sym­bol and source of power. In Peru­vian civ­i­liza­tions, all gold was the property of the king, and gold ar­ti­facts were buried with him to honor his royal sta­tus.

Hence the collection of head­dresses, breast­plates, fu­neral masks, or­na­ments, ceram­ics and tex­tiles show­cased from the Sican (A.D. 750-900) and Moche (A.D.100800) pe­ri­ods.

Both are over­shad­owed by the bet­ter known and pow­er­ful Inca civ­i­liza­tion, but judg­ing from the ex­hi­bi­tion, the Si­cans and Moches were skilled met­al­lur­gists who pro­duced some of the most strik­ing and beau­ti­ful ar­ti­facts of any An­dean civ­i­liza­tion.

One finely made gold mask from the Moche pe­riod shows a hu­man form hold­ing two drag­ons with cat’s heads bear­ing large fangs (the cat was a sa­cred an­i­mal).

“This one piece is sym­bolic of an­cient Peru, with hu­mans and an­i­mals, and you get to see it all in one piece,” said Mr. Hiebert.

The main show­piece is El To­cado, the largest and most elab­o­rate pre-Colom­bian head­dress ever dis­cov­ered.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary gold head­dress from the mid­dle Sican pe­riod (around A.D. 900), in­cor­po­rat­ing two caved an­i­mal heads and other dec­o­ra­tions, was dis­cov­ered in 1991 by Izumi Shi­mada, who also worked on the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion and who be­lieves that the head­dress was not just made to be placed in the tomb but had been worn by a king while he was alive.

Mr. Shi­mada has told re­porters that El To­cado is al­most the only ar­ti­fact in the ex­hi­bi­tion that had not been looted and re­turned to Peru. As if to un­der­score the point, next to one of the masks in the show is a photo of Peru­vian Am­bas­sador to the U.S. Harold Forsyth re­ceiv­ing the ar­ti­fact from the pres­i­dent of Italy. The mask had been ex­ca­vated il­le­gally and trans­ported to Italy, where it was even­tu­ally tracked down by the Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties.

The an­cient tombs have yielded a his­toric wealth of fu­ner­ary re­galia, in­clud­ing gold feath­ers and huge gold ear­rings. Also gold and sil­ver nose rings with carved cat-like fig­ures that would be the envy of ev­ery mod­ern-day hippy. But there are other ob­jects, in­clud­ing tex­tiles, to pro­vide a pic­ture of an ac­tive and thriv­ing civ­i­liza­tion above ground.

It is no won­der the ex­hi­bi­tion is val­ued at be­tween $3.5 mil­lion and $5 mil­lion, and has 24-hour se­cu­rity.

The ex­hibit has been or­ga­nized jointly with the Peru­vian govern­ment, with all the ob­jects on loan from three main mu­se­ums in Peru.

“Peru has a long his­tory of co­op­er­a­tion and part­ner­ship with the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety, which dates back to the early years of the in­sti­tu­tion,” said Mr. Forsyth. “Na­tional Ge­o­graphic has been in­volved in many of the most im­por­tant ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings to date and has been a de­pend­able part­ner.”


Mask of a de­ity, Moche (A.D. 100-800)

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