The subtitle to the British Museum’s wonderful exhibition on Peru is A Journey in Time, and what’s evident is that the timescale here is greater than those of us outside the country might have thought. “Peru” conjures up Incas, but what’s apparent is that the Incas were only at the tail end of the pre-colonial story. This exhibition begins about 1,200 BC with the peoples who inhabited modern Peru and ends with the last of the conquistadors, the Spanish.
Peruvian terrain varies from arid deserts by the sea, to the Andes, gateway to the forests of the Amazon. These features were incorporated into artefacts. Among the first exhibits are ceramics reflecting a three-fold world view – snakes for the underworld, cats (we’re talking jaguars) for the world of men, and birds for the heavens. There are ceramic vessels from the Moche people showing a snake with open jaws and a cat with formidable fangs.
These elements recur: an impressive gold headdress and inordinately large ear plates show gods with fearsome cat teeth. There’s a magnificent Inca tunic made of feathers (representing the birds and the heavens) on cotton which recalls the ceremonial dress of Pacific islanders in the ocean to the west.
These peoples had no script; their culture is in artefacts – and there’s a splendid leg-shaped vessel to represent the roads and paths people still traverse. The curators show how people today replicate elements of ancient life: there’s a film of the making of reed coracles next to a ceramic image from the Moche civilisation (which flourished in northern Peru from the 1st to the 8th century AD) of a god in a similar vessel.
The most striking pieces are fabric and ceramics, but we see from photographs images of the great lines and figures across the desert made by the Nasca. There’s also a fine Nasca textile showing hummingbirds flying in vivid colour on an indigo background and a lively Moche pottery bowl depicting actual weaving.
What’s evident is the importance of the dead among the living. The most macabre pieces are of men trussed on their way to being ritually killed – wooden images preserved in the guano that the British dug up in the 19th century. At the end, there are exquisite little objects, like a gold llama, found in Inca burial sites for ritually murdered children. An essay in the catalogue suggests these ceremonial terrors were no worse than deaths in European wars; the faces tell a different story.
British Museum, November 11 to February 20, britishmuseum.org