ARTIFACTS FROM ANCIENT PERUVIAN CULTURES
ARE UNIQUE IN THEIR BEAUTY AND COLLECTABILITY
By Stephen F. Beiner
I have previously written about the unique excitement of exploring the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, which literally took us three days of flying to reach. I just returned from re-visiting Petra and Jarash in Jordan, requiring a mere 24 hours of travel. Of course, as the newly appointed Honorary Consul from Bulgaria to the United States, I continue to tout the great opportunities to explore Bulgaria, and its ancient Thracian treasures, which can be reached from the US in less than nine hours. But at the end of this month, I am off for a fast "puddle-jump" to visit and explore the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, the most spectacular archaeological site on the South American continent and to study the incredible ancient art in the many museums of Peru. Lima is only a four hour flight from Miami, not much longer than jetting up to the Big Apple.
I have for many years been an avid collector of "Pre-Columbian" art, a term which refers to the Native American civilizations before the time of Christopher Columbus. The Pre-Columbian Art designation (really "Prehispanic") is conventionally applied to the advanced cultures of Latin America which occupied the vast territory extending from Mexico to Peru. The northern center of Pre-Columbian civilization is called Mesoamerica and includes mainly Mexico and Guatemala. A comparable southern center evolved in the Central Andes, mainly in Peru and Bolivia, culminating in the Inca Empire. This article will provide a very brief overview of the incredible art produced by the various pre-Inca cultures.
The Inca called their sprawling empire "Tahuantinsuyu" or Land of the Four Quarters. On the eve of Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean, it probably surpassed both the Ming Empire in China and the Ottoman Empire as the largest nation on earth. Stretching down the mountainous Andean backbone of South America for more than 3000 miles, it was the largest native state to arise in the Western hemisphere and the largest empire of antiquity ever to develop south of the equator. Civilization in the Andes has long been equated with the Incas. Almost every account of Peru by 16th century chroniclers told of fabled Inca wealth and lauded their achievements in architecture and engineering, comparing them to the feats of the Romans. However archeologists working on the Peruvian coast and highlands have now shown that the origins of Peruvian civilization can be traced back 4000 years, three millennia before the Incas developed their enormous empire. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century, when scientific archeology was first undertaken in Peru, that the true antiquity of the native civilizations began to be discovered. We now know that the earliest monumental architecture in Peru is roughly contemporaneous with the pyramids of Egypt and pre-dates the large scale constructions of the Olmec in Mesoamerica by more than a thousand years.
The earliest ceramics that have been excavated in the Western Hemisphere appear to have developed independently in two distinct locations- the Caribbean coast of Columbia and the Pacific coast of Ecuador- and date from 3500-3000 BCE. Because these early ceramics were well developed, with sophisticated vessel forms and incised decorations, it is believed that they do not represent the beginning of pottery manufacture in the region, and it is anticipated that much earlier and more rudimentary ceramics will eventually be found .The earliest excavated ceramics found in Peru, dated to around 1800 BCE, were well made and therefore are probably the continuation of already developed ceramic traditions from the north. By 1500 BCE, nearly all areas of Peru were making and using ceramic vessels, notably with each region developing its own unique style. The Andes, home to the stately llama and alpaca that supply delicate wool for finely crafted, superb textiles, are the longest, most rugged mountain chain on the face of the earth, second only to the Himalayas in height and harshness. The dry climate, rivaling that of dynastic Egypt, has preserved many of the marvelous ceramics and textiles produced in antiquity, some of which have survived in near pristine condition.
During the "Formative Period," from about 1800 BCE to 100 BCE, many of the characteristic vessel forms were developed, as were the techniques for forming, firing and decorating ceramics. Certain features differentiating the ceramic traditions of the north coast from those of the south coast began during this period; these features continued to differentiate the two areas for the millennia to follow. Ceramics from southern Peru emphasized polychrome surface decoration, vessels with round bottoms, and characteristically the double spout and bridge bottle form. In northern Peru the ceramic emphasis was on three-dimensional sculpture, ceramic vessels with flat bottoms, and the characteristic stirrup-spout bottle form.
In the southern part of Peru, the predominant Formative Period ceramic style was Paracas, which flourished from 800 to 100 BC from the Chincha Valley in the north to the Acari Valley in the south, with its heartland in the Ica and Pisco Valleys. The Paracas ceramics in each valley had their own subtle characteristics, but all shared the general Paracas features: two-dimensional surface decorations (in contrast to the highly sculptured forms of the north), double spout and bridge bottles, and the spout and handle bottle. The few stirrup spout bottles, which were generally rare on the south coast of Peru except during this period, reflect a strong Chavin influence transmitted from the north. Resin paint was the hallmark of Paracas pottery. It was always applied after firing and as a flat color, with no attempt at blending or shading to create subtle differences of tone. Each color filled the entire area within the border of incised lines. Some Paracas ceramics are extremely well preserved with much or all of their original paint still fully intact.
In approximately 100 BCE, several very distinctive ceramic styles began developing in different regions of Peru. The Nazca style evolved from the Paracas style on the south coast, while the Moche style developed from the Formative Period styles on the north coast. The Vicus style appeared on the far north coast and the Recuay style became predominant in the northern highlands. The proliferation of regional styles during this period was accompanied by the flowering of the ancient Peruvian ceramic tradition; new techniques of forming and decorating were mastered and, added to those learned from the Formative Period potter, resulted in some of the most remarkable ceramics ever produced in ancient Peru.
Many Nazca motifs are similar to those in Paracas art, from which it evolved. An Anthropomorphic Mystical Being is depicted on some of the ceramics. The double-spout-and-bridge vessel of the Paracas period became the predominant Nazca vessel shape. The transition between Paracas and Nazca is basically marked by a change from resin paint applied after firing to fired slip paints, and by a shift from textiles to ceramics as the most important medium for expressing important subject matter. Nazca potters, often using six or seven colors, made some of the most brilliant polychrome ceramics ever produced in the New World.
The Moche style developed on the north coast of Peru between 100 BCE and 700 CE. Moche subject matter is amazingly varied; men, women, animals, anthropomorphized demons, and deities are depicted in a wide range of activities including hunting, fishing, combat, sexual acts, and elaborate ceremonies. Moche representations, both sculptural and figural, are finely detailed and exceptionally realistic; they therefore offer an extraordinary insight into the life and nature of this ancient culture. The most characteristic Moche vessel form is the stirrup-spout bottle, which is made with a great degree of artistic elaboration. Moche potters were the first to develop the techniques of press molding and stamping, which were to have a profound and lasting impact on Andean ceramic production. After firing, many Moche ceramics were further elaborated with organic black pigment that was painted and subsequently scorched onto the surface to provide details such as face and body paint, mustaches and designs on clothing. Some ceramics were inlaid with pieces of shell, stone or metal that was cemented into socket-like depressions made in the surface of the clay while the object was being formed.
My love for the ceramics of ancient Peru has to date been a long distance romance, limited to being a collector, student, and visitor to the great collections of Pre-Columbian art in Florida, New York, California, and Denver. I very much look forward to my two weeks in Peru, although I am somewhat daunted by the altitudes of the places I will visit: Machu Picchu at 8,300 feet and Cuzco at 11,000 feet above sea level. Armed with Diamox for altitude sickness, we will forge ahead (or upward as the case may be). I will let you know if it was worth it.
STEPHEN F. BEINER practices family law; wills, trusts, estates, and probate law; and art law in Boca Raton. Together with his wife, Dr. Judith Beiner, he owns the GRIFFIN GALLERY OF ANCIENT ART, Gallery Center, Boca Raton, Florida.