Gold, Myths and Rituals

Between the years 200 and 850 AD, a series of chiefdoms and kingdoms emerged in the valleys and deserts of the northern of Peru.

The Luxonomist. 23/03/2015
Gold and silver bowl
Gold and silver bowl depicting a mythological scene. Chimú, 1100 – 1470 d.C. Gold, silver and copper 8,2 x 11,7 x 11,7 cm © Archivo Museo Larco. Click for more information

The purpose behind the exhibitions that ”la Caixa” Foundation has dedicated over the years to the great cultures of the past is to enable audiences to discover ways in which men and women from different places and times have attempted to resolve the great universal questions, and to broaden our understanding of the world through studies of the most recent historical and archaeological research.

Behind great empires lie the bustling activities of different peoples and cultures, networks of relations and exchanges, contacts and influences between civilisations. The exhibitions that ”la Caixa” Foundation organises in the field of archaeology and history bear this idea very much in mind. Alongside the Egypt of the Pharaohs, Nubian and Coptic Egyptian culture are also presented.

Sculptural bottle
Sculptural bottle representing serpents. Cupisnique, 200 – 100 a.C. Ceramic 21,1 x 12,2 x 15,2 cm © Archivo Museo Larco. Click for more information

Alongside Rome, Etruscan art. Alongside classical Greece, the rival Achaemenid Empire. In this way, the complexity of cultures from the past helps us to understand the complexity of today’s world, the diversity of ancient peoples, the diversity in the society of our own time.

Moche Art from Ancient Peru. Gold, Myths and Rituals joins this long list of exhibitions organised by ”la Caixa” Foundation in recent years with a view to expanding our understanding of how societies in ancient Peru before the time of Inca domination understood and organised their world. Moche art from the north coast of Peru is highly developed. Those that created these works reveal not only mastery of their art but also great knowledge of cosmological and mythological narratives that enabled them to explain the world.

Their magnificent creations show us how this society expressed its stories, beliefs, myths and rites in ceramics, and how their leaders displayed their power and divine ascendancy through attire adorned by the attributes of sacred animals.

Ceremonial vessel
Ceremonial vessel with stepped and spiral design motifs. Moche, 100 – 800 d.C. Ceramic 27,1 x 14 x 14,2 cm © Archivo Museo Larco. Click for more information

The exhibition, organised and produced by ”la Caixa” Foundation, brings together 200 masterpieces of Pre-Columbian art from the collection conserved in the Larco Museum in Lima. Fine ceramic vases, jewellery and ceremonial objects, magnificent textiles and feathered works, as well as different objects for ritual uses, made from wood, stone, shell and bone precious metals; all this not only reveals the mastery of these artists from ancient Peru, but also helps us to see how the indigenous peoples of this region understood the world.

The exhibition ends with a section devoted to the mythological hero of Moche society, a character known to researchers as Ai Apaec (the god of creation).

Sculptural bottle 2
Sculptural bottle representing a captive anthropomorphous deer. Moche, 100 – 800 d.C. Ceramic 24,2 x 20,9 x 12,3 cm © Archivo Museo Larco. Click for more information

The show also includes an important series of objects related to fertility rites, a crucial subject in a society whose main concern was to ensure the continuity of society. Moche culture, many centuries before the Inca expansion In 1532, the Spanish conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizarro, reached South America and found that much of this vast territory was under the rule of the Inca emperors.

Due to the profuse writings of historians, priests, visitors and colonial administrators, the Incas were the most widely-known Peruvian culture until the twentieth century. However, civilisation had emerged in the region thousands of years before the rise of the Incas. In fact, Peru is one of the few places in the world where civilisation emerged approximately 5,000 years ago.

Ceremonial vessel representing a mythological decapitator being
Ceremonial vessel representing a mythological decapitator being. Moche, 100 – 800 d.C. Ceramic 25 x 17,8 x 14,9 cm © Archivo Museo Larco. Click for more information

On the north coast, the abundance of marine resources enabled settlers to find a permanent source of food. Fishing catches were increased by the domestication of cotton, 5,000 years ago, and the manufacture of nets. With food assured for the growing population, these vast fish stocks also provided the coastal dwellers with a valuable resource for trading with their neighbours in the highlands, vital for access to their water supplies. This made it possible to build works to irrigate the arid soil along the coast.

The coastal communities, under the leadership of authorities whose political and religious power was constantly growing, shaped the green valleys that now embellish the Peruvian coastline, becoming agricultural societies. Over the course of 3,000 years, the Cupisnique, Moche, Lambayeque and Chimu cultures all flourished in this region. However, throughout their history, the northern settlers maintained relations with other societies in the centre (Lima, Chancay), to the south (Nazca, Chincha) and in the highlands (Recuay, Huari) of the central Andes.

Ceremonial whistle vesse 2
Ceremonial whistle vessel that represents a scene of a ceremony of consumption of chichi, an alcoholic maize drink, dance and worship to the ancestor. Chimú, 1100 – 1470 d.C. Ceramic. Click for more information

Nowadays, shining things do not surprise us. We live in a world in which many things shine, from lights to mirrors. Nor does sound surprise us, as everything makes a noise. However, it is important to remember that, in ancient times, only the wind, the water and certain animals made sounds, and the only things that shone were the stars in the Funeral mask with the face of Ai Apaec.  Sound and brightness were considered supernatural due to their ethereal and intangible nature. 

After the discovery of shiny metals such as gold and silver, the ruling elites took control over mining activities and the production of metal objects. Moreover, these elites monopolised the use of precious metals, controlling not only production, but also the transmission of the mythological messages contained in these objects, which were exclusively used by them. The jewellers that made such ornaments occupied a privileged social position, very close to the rulers themselves. They were the creators behind magical processes in which elements from nature were transformed into bright objects which made sounds and would, it seemed, last for all eternity.

Nose ornament
Nose ornament representing a person with a rope. Moche, 100 – 800 d.C. Gold and turquoise 4,2 x 0,9 x 7,4 cm © Archivo Museo Larco. Click for more information

The jewels produced by silversmiths and goldsmiths were used to adorn the chiefs, who appeared in ceremonies shining like the Sun and the Moon and sounding like the forces of nature. This confirmed their divine nature and their status as representatives of the gods on earth. 

Gold and silver were very important to Andean cultures, though not for their economic value, but because they expressed the power of the stars and their descendants, the rulers. Gold shone like the Sun; silver, like the Moon and the stars. These stars ruled the skies, day and night, and as such were considered sacred by ancient Peruvian societies.

Nose ornament representing an ancestor
Nose ornament representing an ancestor exalted on a staggered structure. Click for more information

Moche Art from Ancient Peru. Gold, Myths and Rituals. Place: CaixaForum Barcelona (Av. de Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, 6-8). Dates: from 5 March to 7 June 2015.

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