Peru: a journey in time @ the British Museum

This is a magnificent exhibition. I think the British Museum is my favourite museum/gallery in London, not only because of the beauty of the building, its sense of size and spaciousness, the awesome breadth and range of its holdings – but because it also combines two of my favourite subjects, art and deep history: art in the widest sense, from the high art of imperial courts to the folk art of Inuit or African tribes; and ‘history’ meaning 50 or 100 years ago, but 5,000 or even 50,000 years ago, the full depth and breadth of all human history.

Copper and shell funerary mask, Peru, Moche, AD 100 to 800. Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru. Donated by James Reid

What

In fact the quality of the objects on display in this exhibition is one of its most striking points. I’ve been to scores of exhibitions about ancient cultures and often the curators are forced, through lack of archaeological evidence, to display shards of pottery or fragments of swords and so on and reconstruct their appearance.

By striking contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition where the quality of every single piece on display was so high. Peru: a journey in time is an exhibition of physically complete, highly finished and dazzling masterpieces!

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

I was fascinated to learn that this is in large part because of the dry desert conditions of coastal Peru where a lot of its ancient cities were sited meant that all objects, even rugs and tapestries, remained beautifully preserved in the sand for centuries. Apparently these deserts are among the driest in the world, and the exhibition opens with a huge 4-minute video projected onto the wall showing aerial shots of (presumably a helicopter) flying over Amazon jungle, then the breath-taking Andes mountains, through winding river valleys and then, finally across the beautiful bone dry deserts and so to the sandy shoreline. I sat and watched the whole thing several times. It’s awesome.

The exhibition brings together over 40 objects transported from nine museums across Peru to join 80 other pieces from the British Museum’s own collection, many of them rarely if ever exhibited before, including beautiful pots and ceramics, gold headpieces and gauntlets, highly decorated fabrics used to wrap royal corpses and much more.

So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an extensive exhibition of such wonderful, beautiful objects from remote and ancient cultures most of us have never heard of.

Where

So where are talking? Right at the start the show features a big map showing the borders of modern Peru. I can’t find it anywhere online and this is the least worst available alternative. In the centre is the modern state of Peru with key archaeological sites highlighted. To the north is Ecuador, the north-east Colombia, to the east Brazil, to the south-east Bolivia.

Map of ancient sites in Peru

But the point is that, until a few hundred years ago, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1530s, all the South American states didn’t exist, in fact the modern state of Peru didn’t come into existence until 200 years ago (and the Museum does point out that the exhibition is by way of celebrating Peru’s bicentennary).

Before the 1530s the central part of the west coast of South America was ruled by a succession of native states and empires, the mountains of the Andes were more sparsely populated, though containing some towns and holy sites, and the Amazon rainforest was inhabited by countless indigenous tribes who have left little or no trace.

When

As to when, the big, big revelation of this show is that the Incas, who most of us have heard about, were only the last and relatively short-lived of a whole series of empires which rose to eminence and ruled various parts of the mountain and coastal regions of what we now call Peru for centuries, the first empires dating from thousands of years BC.

As the co-curator of the exhibition, Cecilia Pardo, puts it:

‘While the Incas are one of the most well-known civilisations from Peru, they were actually relatively recent in terms of the long history of this region. We’ll be taking visitors back many thousands of years earlier.’

The Museum provides an illustrated timeline:

And the exhibition is arranged in simple chronological order, with a room (or, since the spaces are actually marked off by fine bead curtaining) a ‘space’ assigned to the six most important empires or cultures. Each one is introduced by a wall label giving a brief overview of the culture’s dates, rise and extent, cultural practices, a map showing that particular culture’s centres, ritual sites, and one or more big big photos of a key site.

The wall labels are just the right length, but it still requires an effort to get the timeline clear in your head, to try and remember the names of the successive cultures and then to remember the cultural practices associated with each.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body, Peru, Cupisnique,1200 to 500 BC. Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni

The timeline can be summarised as:

  • 15,000 BC first humans arrive in South America
  • 2,500 to 1,800 BC first pottery remains
  • 1,200 to 200 BC Chavin culture
  • 900 to 200 BC Paracas culture
  • 200 BC to 650 AD Nasca culture
  • 100 to 800 AD Mosca
  • 600 to 900 AD Wari
  • 900 to 1400 AD coastal kingdom of Chimú
  • 1400 to 1533 Inca Empire

So the Inca ‘room’ is the last one in the show (well, there’s a kind of epilogue showing how some of the practices, patterns and designs of the earlier cultures linger on among peasants or high-end artists in modern Peru), and it goes heavy on the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu, with the usual breath-taking photos, architectural diagrams showing its structure and layout and so on. But we know about Macchu Picchu sitting atop its mountain, 8,000 feet above the tropical forest and the spectacular views which we routinely see in screensavers or travel brochures. (I’m always disappointed to be reminded that Machu Picchu, from the Quechua Indian language, simply means ‘old mountain’. As so often, the foreign words are so much more evocative than the bald English translation.)

But it’s the other spaces, devoted to the other cultures, which are the real revelation. Here they are in order with a few of the outstanding highlights.

1. Living landscapes

Introduction to the breath-taking but challenging environments of Peru, rainforest in the east, high Andes mountains, and desert down to the coast. Introduces ideas from the various cultures, suggesting how the peoples lived in tune with nature, developed agriculture, commerce and art, and their own theories of time and history, and of death and the afterlife.

2. Early cultures and the Chavin (1200 to 500 BC)

3. Life and death in the desert

How the Paracas and Nasca peoples lived along the south coast of Peru, one of the most arid places on the planet. the most outstanding achievement of the Nasca people couldn’t be included in the exhibition because it is the huge ‘geoglyphs’, outline shapes of animals which they carved in the desert. They did this by removing the top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath to create stylised depictions of animals and other natural objects. And there aren’t just a handful: to date between nearly 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones and archaeologists believe there are more yet to be discovered.

The Monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru. ©Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

As to the Paracas, the standout thing here was their cult of severed heads. One of the biggest exhibits is a big tapestry aid flat in a case which you can stroll round. At first I took that busy pattern to be of stylised figures, a bit reminiscent of  the early video game, Space Invaders.

Mantle depicting mythical beings holding severed heads. Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest. Restored with a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

It was only when I looked closer that I realised every single one these figures was carrying in their hand a severed head. At first I thought this was a gruesome proof of human sacrifice comparable to the Aztec cult of cutting human hearts out of the defeated in battle. This seemed to be confirmed when in realised several of the pots in this section also depicted figures holding a rope tied to the top of a severed human head.

And then saw a set of wood carvings (rare survivals from the period which have been in the British Museum vaults for over a century, apparently, and never before been put on public display). These were of naked figures (we know they are naked because they had prominent wooden penises) again with thick rope around their necks.

The curator explained it all. In most societies war means unbridled violence between large armies, all too often rampaging across territory and considering it a valid war aim to kill all civilians, destroy all buildings and agriculture. Not so the Paracas. According to the curator, if conflict arose between groups, representatives were chosen to take part in something more like the games in the Roman amphitheatre. The losers were not killed there and then but submitted to this ritual of abasement and execution. The penises are important not as symbols of fertility but because they emphasise the captors’ naked status.

The losers were taken by boat to a holy island just off the coast, where were priests or religious officials who performed the beheading according to rituals. This explains why this section of the exhibition included a beautifully complete and detailed ceramic of a boat being sailed, with a fully dressed sailor at the tiller and several naked captives on deck, all with the stylised short thick rope round their necks.

To return to the funerary wrapping, the curator now explained that the 70 or so figures depicted are gods or protective spirits of the afterlife, and the head each one is holding by a rope represents an ancestor of the person being wrapped in this covering. So, by the end of his presentation, I realised what a precious object this was and how highly charged with religious and ritual symbolism.

(The exhibition features half a dozen or so videos, each devoted to particular exhibits, and this funeral cloth was accompanied by a video showing exactly how it would have been used to wrap the body of its high status owner.)

4. The Moche (AD 100 to 800) and the Chimu (AD 1000 to 1400)

These two cultures dominated along the coast and inland valleys of northern Peru. The outstanding artefacts from the Moche period were the stunningly finished and lifelike pottery heads and figurines.

Painted pottery vessel in the form of a warrior holding a club and a shield, Peru, Moche AD 100 to 600. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

This is what I meant when I said that the exhibits are in astonishing condition. If these pots were from ancient Greece or Rome, you’d put up with half the decoration being scratched off, chips and fragments. But all the pottery heads and figurine included in the exhibition were in immaculate condition. They looked like they’d been made and glazed last month instead of two thousand years ago.

You might have expected that the portrait heads and figurines were stylised and stereotyped or standardised. But the curator  pointed out that archaeologists have discovered a set of pottery heads depicting a man with a distinctive facial disfiguration, and the three pots clearly show him as a youth, a mature man and an old man. In other words, these ceramic heads are portraits of real people. I found that breath-taking.

5. The Wari (AD 600–900) and Inca (AD 1400–1532)

The two great empires of the highlands of the Central Andes, this part of the exhibition overshadowed, as mentioned above, by stunning images of Machu Picchu.

6. The Andean legacy

The final part of the Inca space shows Western influences impinging on native traditions, Christianity apparently wiping out native religions and rituals, books written entirely by Spanish clerics (all the cultures listed above were illiterate so we can never know the detail of their beliefs or practices) giving a very one-sided account of the native peoples, often misunderstanding or distorting their beliefs and traditions.

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

But then the final (small) space is devoted to a more optimistic vision, showing how many of the native traditions, despite Spanish attempts at obliteration, survived and went underground, emerging centuries later in enduring traditions of arts and crafts, in native words and traditions kept alive in rural areas..

Why

Why go? Because it is a magnificent exhibition. All the exhibits are in stunningly good condition. The photos of the Peruvian landscape are breath-taking, made me want to jump on a plane and go see for myself. The sense of history it gives, of how deep history works, of the growth and overlap and intermingling of distinct cultures over long periods of time on similar or adjacent territories, fire the historical imagination.

If you like images of severed heads, this is the exhibition for you! And I haven’t even mentioned the frequency of other images and motifs taken from the natural world, such as the recurring motifs of pumas or panthers, and the sly presence of snakes in many images. For example, the stunning 2,500-year-old gold headdress and pair of ear plates decorated with embossed motifs of human faces with feline fangs and snakes’ appendages, part of an elite burial found at Kuntur Wasi.

It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Go.

A video review

Here’s a rather home-made but accurate depiction of what the exhibition looks like, made by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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