Peru: a journey in time

An exhibition about a 200-year-old country covers a lot of ground, John Westbrooke reports

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It’s just two centuries since Peru gained independence from Spain, and the British Museum has set out to introduce us to a country that’s still not well known in Britain.

It should be more familiar: it’s big, twice the size of France; it has history and archaeology and dramatic scenery, from the Amazon rainforest to the Andes mountains, the Pacific coast and arid desert. But chances are all most people will have heard of are the Incas, the “lost” city of Machu Picchu, and the Nasca lines in the desert, strange designs visible only from the air.

It has a very different culture from Europe’s: Mesoamerican civilisation sprang up entirely separately from those in the Middle East, South Asia and China. The curators point to its different traditional conception of time, not split into past, present and future but all three running concurrently. This is awkward for a museum (and not easy to follow), and they have wisely decided to tackle it chronologically, from 2500 BC, when civilisation began to emerge, to roughly the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1632.

The Peruvians also managed without writing (they kept accounts with pieces of knotted string) and currency, things we might think necessities of life. Conversely, they stuck with things long out of use in Europe, such as human sacrifice. One of the most unsettling objects on display is the 2000-year-old Nasca Mantle preserved, like many of the exhibits, by the dry air.

It’s a funerary blanket in which a body would have been wrapped for burial, embroidered with neat rows of figures that look as if they came from old videogames. Each wears a slightly different tunic and headdress, all have the same posture except that alternate lines are reversed, and each holds a rod in one hand and a ball in the other, till a closer look reveals that the “balls” are severed human heads.

One psychogeographical explanation sometimes offered for the seemingly bloody way of life in the Americas (Mexico’s Aztecs and Mayans were keen on sacrifices too) is that, unlike East-West Eurasia, the Americas run North-South, covering a wide range of climates, especially with the Rockies and the Andes disrupting airflows. As a result, the locals have more extreme and unpredictable climates and a greater need to appease the weather and harvest gods with human blood.

The Moche people of Peru sometimes sacrificed the losing side in a battle, and yet the fighting was purely ritual: Peruvians were less likely to die in a war than Europeans. The Moche weren’t out to seize land or conquer people, just to restore a balance between life and death. Our response is likely to be “Yeah, right”: all this is hard to process with modern western ways of thinking.

We might be more in tune with the idea of grave goods representing veneration of the dead, such as a striking copper funerary mask on show here, though one piece of pottery depicting a copulating couple is harder to explain.

The Peruvians also used hallucinogens. One painted pot shows a musician with a snake headdress and a supply of San Pedro cactus, ready to contact the spirit world. Other people would (and still do) ritually consume chicha, a drink made from fermented purple maize, or chew coca leaves, good for fighting hunger and tiredness as well as altitude sickness in the high Andes. A couple of little vessels show figures clutching containers of lime – a powder made from limestone, not from the fruit – which would be added to the leaves to increase the hit.

The galleries follow the succession of Andean civilisations from the Chavin in about 1200 BC to the Incas. Objects depicting deities as cats, birds and snakes reflect the sky, Earth and underground. There’s a maize god, honouring the grain that’s been basic to Peruvian food and drink for six millennia. Some pottery is stylised, other busts have remarkably lifelike features

Other exhibits look at the response of Peruvian civilisations to their surroundings. Divers would seek sacred spondylus shells 30 feet or more down on the ocean floor, used for fertility rituals or as inlay in jewellery. Peruvians have been fishing the coast for 3,000 years, and a video shows a modern coracle being built just like those in ancient pottery. Out in the desert, the Nasca created designs in the sand by removing stones to reveal the soil beneath – not as alien landing strips, as was once surmised: we see how similar they are to other Nasca decorative work. (It’s still impressive to do it in a place only a drone can see, all the same.)

The Incas were the best known of the Andean civilisations, but also the last, in place for only a century. (Strictly speaking, the Inca was the emperor, ruling many subject tribes with different names.) They were the Romans of their day, inspired by earlier civilisations such as the Wari, builders and administrators rather than innovators. But they did set up a road system covering 25,000 miles, enough to go round the planet, and the giant stones cut for their walls are so precise you couldn’t fit a knife blade between them.

Contrary to popular belief, they did invent the wheel (kids’ toys had them) but didn’t need it: on narrow Andean highways, there were no animals to pull carts except lightweight llamas. But one exhibit is a vessel in the shape of a sandalled leg, a tribute to the human carriers and messengers who could cover almost 2000 miles from Quito to Cuzco in relays in five days.

Although the precious metal work on show here is not especially remarkable – the highlight is a little gold llama from about 1500 – Peru was almost comically rich by now. As a ransom for the last Inca emperor, the conquistadors demanded that an 88 cubic foot room be filled once with gold and twice with silver; they took the lot, so much silver that they used it for horseshoes, and killed him anyway. The great Peruvian civilisation was over.

Despite the thousands of years it covers, this isn’t a huge exhibition: 120 objects on loan from Peru and from the museum’s own collection. But for those most of us who know little about the empire of the Andes, it’s a splendid introduction.

“Peru: a journey in time” is at the British Museum until 20 February 2022. Adults £15; 60+ half price after noon on Monday (must book); other discounts are available.

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