Spirit of Ancient Peru

August 27, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight, the spirit of ancient Peru. Spencer Michels reports from San Francisco on a unique collection of art.

SPENCER MICHELS: Most people heading for this show at San Francisco’s De Young Museum probably thought it was about the Incas. It’s the Incas who surely are Peru’s best-known pre-Colombian people. But this exhibit was out to demonstrate that Peru’s past is far richer than that; that it’s crowded with complex and mysterious cultures going back 3,000 years, that produced intriguing riches.

For most of us even the names are unfamiliar: the Chavin living in Peru’s Northern Highlands; the Cupisnique, on the Pacific Coast; the Huari in the Central Highlands; Gallinazo and Moche on the North Coast. Most of these cultures and their artifacts are just beginning to come to light in a series of recent archaeological digs. And extraordinary things are emerging: relief murals a hundred feet long, carved in adobe, their meaning still not fully understood; tombs filled with buried pots, always placed there in multiples of five. Why? No one knows. These people left no written records.

Nevertheless, what they did leave, buried in graves, contains fascinating clues about the lives and beliefs of these early cultures. The show contains ornate jewelry and headdresses of gold, pieces the Spanish Conquistadors missed when they raided Peru. There are also some dazzlingly complex weavings. But the true stars are the ceramics, produced in huge numbers by all of these cultures. To tour this show with an archaeologist like Stanford’s John Rick is to enter into the beliefs and even the mental atmosphere of peoples who vanished hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.

SPENCER MICHELS: With more than a dozen cultures over this 3,000 years, is there anything tying them together, or are they all completely separate?

JOHN RICK, Stanford Archaeologist: There’s a great deal of continuity across that time. You see themes such as the puma, the feline, which seems to be very important throughout. Most have ritual significance, some from the jungle, such as the monkey you see here, and then some very obvious river and probably sea creatures.

SPENCER MICHELS: You know, monkeys don’t usually sit on fish, but that’s what this looks like. Is there a story here?

JOHN RICK: Undoubtedly, there is, and it’s probably not a very direct or natural one. What we’ve learned in looking at these objects is that many of the things that are represented, even if they’re from the natural world, probably represent something that is rather unnatural, that is, specific ideas about nature, myths about origins, and various other beliefs.

SPENCER MICHELS: Here’s an object of someone hitting a drum or a stone. It’s hard to tell which. What do you make of this?

JOHN RICK: Yes. Definitely that’s an Indian drum, and it probably represents, I guess, a ritual situation, music being produced. The Andes only had percussion, woodwind instruments, so they were not–they didn’t have the full range of instruments as we would know them. But drums were very important in a ritual context.

SPENCER MICHELS: Realism winds in and out of these artifacts like a subplot. This early figure from the Chavin period combines two faces–animal and human–in a single head. Its frightening power was apparently used in religious rituals in which men seemed to take power from the animal kingdom. Other ceramics from the culture called Moche are so realistic that it’s possible to identify them right down to the species: a squash, an owl, snails, or a toad. It’s tempting to see these as purely documentary. But Prof. Rick believes almost all Peruvian art has religious sources.

JOHN RICK: They’re not showing us everything. And what they show is repetitive and quite often is in the context of a series of very specific actions or their objects. So it looks like they’re abstracting certain elements out of nature and out of their culture which they want to put on display, which are probably of great political and ritual significance. And there are suspicions that these are fragments of a mythology, and they’re symbolizing them in many cases by just one element out of the total repertoire of actors and objects, which might have been present in those scenes.

SPENCER MICHELS: What do you make out of this amazing depiction of a lobster on some kind of a ball?

JOHN RICK: Well, probably the lobster is a river crayfish from the coastal rivers of Peru, but it’s doing–it’s certainly involved in some sort of a very different type of act, with its claws surrounding a flower-like object and around to its side are a series of painted animals, which are probably fish. In many cases you’ll see this same pattern over and over again. And you begin to pick up the consistency in the font patterns of the Moche. If they saw a crayfish, themselves, they probably would think of a scene that involved perhaps a flower, perhaps some fish. And that may represent a much larger context, political action or religious scene, something of the nature.

SPENCER MICHELS: Are you a little frustrated that you can’t really understand it and get to the bottom of it?

JOHN RICK: Well, frustration probably isn’t the word. Usually it’s more of a challenge. And it’s that consistency, it’s piecing that together that’s one of the rewarding parts of Moche archaeology.

SPENCER MICHELS: The rewards of Peruvian archaeology played a big role in the life of this man–Rafael Larco Hoyo–a wealthy sugar grower who was also one of the pioneers of Peruvian archaeology. Over 40 years he acquired thousands of artifacts, some of them found on his own plantations, buried in graves. He sponsored his own digs, wrote scholarly books, even built a museum in Lima to house his vast collection. A small portion of that collection was the source for this American exhibit. Through his pioneering research he built a time line that helps today’s archaeologists date their findings. This deer figure, for example, came from the same era as the more realistic animals like the lobster. But instead of realism, it blends human and animal elements.

JOHN RICK: Well, in all probability, it represents a deer that is not just a deer. It strikes you as a deer because the face and the antlers are so realistic, but when you work down below the head, and it all goes awry. There’s a rope around the neck, which most deer don’t tend to have. It has clear human hands; genitalia are human. The cross-legged position it’s sitting in is absolutely human. And this is directly analogous to the position Moche will show prisoners sitting in–a rope around their neck, probably waiting to be sacrificed. There may be a deer-enemy equivalence going on; that you could show a deer, and it really means these are our enemies, and we treat them like deer perhaps. You know, we hunt them and we kill them, and we consume them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Themes of capture and human sacrifice show up often in Moche art and provide perhaps the best clues to the major rituals of their life. In one bottle a human prisoner sits like a deer with a rope around his neck, his hands bound behind his back. One ceramic shows the whole scene as a group of sculptured figures. Yet, even here educated guesswork is needed.

JOHN RICK: It’s a great scene that amply demonstrates that the Moche society had a major element of military power in it. What you’re seeing here is the procession of a captive, bound by the neck. In all likelihood, the prisoner is being led forward by the person holding his neck rope in front. And they seem to be going between paired individuals with hands outstretched. So it appears to be not only the movement of a prisoner but there’s something ritualistic about it, something to be observed, as well as controlled by these lateral figures.

SPENCER MICHELS: What happens to this man with a rope around his neck?

JOHN RICK: If we look at a number of finely-painted pots where you get much more graphic information, you’ll frequently see a rope-tied prisoner being bled from the neck–a number of individuals cutting through the neck with sacrificial knives–bleeding captives’ blood into goblets. And then in later scenes, the contents of the goblets are being consumed by the leadership.

SPENCER MICHELS: It sounded like it was a pretty violent society.

JOHN RICK: Well, it may have been, but we have to keep in mind this is an early state. And early states are based on the concept that they can wield force against their citizenry to obtain compliance with state dictates. But once you get the people enough into that mind set, once, in effect, they’re domesticated and respond to the state appropriately, then the state probably won’t, in fact, have to use force any more than our own one does today.

SPENCER MICHELS: Most human figures in the show are highly stylized. Yet, 500 years into the Moche area, about 550 A.D., they started to produce a series of heads so detailed, so realistic, that there’s no question they portrayed living individuals. The question is why.

JOHN RICK: These aren’t any human beings. They’re almost undoubtedly leaders. I can’t help but believe that we’re dealing with the representation of an individual in power in which their face symbolizes the political system that they had, and, therefore, they’ve become a symbol of the state, themselves.

SPENCER MICHELS: In other words, he doesn’t need a puma or a jaguar to keep him in power?

JOHN RICK: Exactly. No longer does this person have to draw on nature.

SPENCER MICHELS: So this is a real portrait of a real leader, warts and all?

JOHN RICK: Exactly. Many times we’ll see disfiguration on the faces of individuals. In this case you can get the clear sense that this face is not being portrayed perfectly symmetrically. And it gives an expression of the mouth, for instance–you don’t know quite what the person will do next–but it’s so life-like that you really feel like that mouth may just move into a new–a new facial formation while you watch it.

SPENCER MICHELS: And when you look at all of this art and realize that it’s an area of the world and a history of the world that most people don’t even know about, it sort of tells you something about it all.

JOHN RICK: Yes. The message–it’s what’s so wonderful about Peruvian archaeology. The message does come through time. So much has been preserved. And these cultures were so productive of art. The amount to learn still is immense, but we have this possibility now to reach across time and make sense out of these people.

SPENCER MICHELS: The known and the unknown intertwine. Perhaps that’s the key to understanding the powerful appeal of these works with their sophisticated craftsmanship and their haunting imagery, imagery so vivid it seems to shout out at us but in a language just beyond our reach.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The exhibit closes this weekend in San Francisco and moves to Knoxville, Tennessee Museum of Art on September 26th.