If your idea of ancient Peru is all death cults, mountainous Incan cities, and that curious era where seemingly every UK high street had Peruvian pan-pipe players at weekends, then the British Museum is about to change your mind radically.
In fact, the Inca’s of which so much is written occupies barely a 10th of the lifespan covered by this exhibition which ranges from around 1,200 BCE up to the Spanish Conquest – some two and a half millennia of history.
The timing of the exhibition also coincides with Peru’s own 200th anniversary of independence from the Spanish Empire, and as an exhibition it’s largely chronological in layout, starting with the oldest known civilisations in the Andes.
The chronology that’s familiar to us would be strange to the Andeans who made the objects on display who often saw the past, present, and future as parallel lines and happening concurrently. All exist together and what we call the past could be affected by the actions of the present, which is partially why there’s such a strong focus on death and ancestors in their cultures.
But there’s not a lot of bloodshed in this exhibition, not overtly at least.
It’s more a display of remarkable art, much of which would not look out of place in a posh modern art gallery, and yet it’s hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
A funeral mask is the match of anything out of Ancient Egypt. A maize deity holds the crop that was cultivated some 6,000 years ago and has been a part of the local diet ever since. A cluster of animals including a very fierce-looking cat are around 1,500 years old but look as if they were made last week. The pottery musicians are almost certainly going to inspire a Doctor Who episode soon.
One of the more striking objects is a muscular leg in a sandal, a celebration of the running skills of the Chasqui in Incan society – the runners who carried messages between towns. It’s said that a relay of runners could carry a message some 3,000km in just 5 days. Many of the road routes created by the Andeans are still in use today — just as Roman roads still underpin road layouts here in England.
One of the largest items on display is a large funerary blanket that’s in remarkable condition for something made some 2,000 years ago. It’s almost hard to accept the age as we’re just not used to seeing fabrics dating to the time of Christ surviving, let alone looking as if they have just come off the weaving frame.
There’s a disconnect going on throughout the exhibition. Everything is so well preserved that it feels to be maybe a couple of hundred years old at most, but so much of what we’re seeing is older than England itself. It’s as if rather than just fragments of history and myth about the Iceni, we had a full department store of items from the time of Boucida, along with perfectly preserved clothes and household goods.
The deep past of the Peruvians appears modern. It’s a contrast that the ancient Andeans may have appreciated with their unique view on how the past and present interact.
What makes the objects on display so captivating to look at is their, to our eyes, otherworldly appearance. This is largely thanks to the lack of outside influences on the Andean civilisations, who are considered to be one of five civilizations in the world deemed to be “pristine”, that is indigenous and not derivative from other civilizations.
As an exhibition, it’s not overburdened with too much history, and that’s probably a good decision as the ancient societies of the region are so little known that it would be overwhelming to have it all dumped on you in one go.
Visit and admire the handicrafts of the Andeans, and learn a little about the cultures that created them.
The exhibition ends with modern textile shawls woven in Peru and Bolivia showing how the past lives on in modern Peru. Well, actually the exhibition ends with a gift shop, but you already knew that.
This is the sort of exhibition that the British Museum does so very well – educating, entertaining, eye-opening.