LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT
THE ANCIENT PERUVIAN VICUS CULTURE
2,000-YEAR OLD ARTIFACTS ARE UNDERVALUED
AND HAVE GREAT POTENTIAL FOR APPRECIATION
By Stephen F. Beiner
One of the pleasures of collecting ancient art is that a collectorís life is never dull. There are always surprises along the way as I search for new treasures to purchase and as I do research on the pieces that I own.
Over 15 years ago while on a buying trip to New York, I came across a compelling artifact: a double-bowl with brown burnish and geometric patterns; the man sitting on top of the front bowl has a hooked nose, slit eyes, protruding ears, and a round hat. I was fascinated to learn that the piece also served as a whistle. I was told that it was made by the Vicus culture in northern Peru over 2000 years ago. I purchased it and did no further research on the culture. The Vicus artifact simply sat on the shelf in my loft giving me pleasure every time I looked at it (and sometimes blew into it to make it whistle).
My first surprise came on a recent trip to Peru when I found that each of the museums I visited in Lima and around the country prominently displayed a small collection of Vicus artifacts. I was pleased to find that the piece that I bought years ago was as good or better than any of the pieces on display in Peruís leading museums. A second surprise was that while each museum had tens, if not hundreds, of Moche artifacts, each possessed only a handful of Vicus pottery.
My interest now heightened, upon my return from Peru I started to research the Vicus culture to find out why more Vicus pieces were not displayed in Peruís museums. What I discovered was fascinating. I found that exceptionally little has been written about the Vicus culture, perhaps because very little is known about it. Vicus, as a separate culture and ceramic style, was first generally recognized in 1961 when grave robbers began to plunder large cemeteries at Cerro Vicus in the Piura Valley, on Peruís far northern border with Ecuador. In the year following, thousands of Vicus vessels were looted from the few cemeteries near where the first artifacts were found. Because virtually all of the Vicus artifacts were found as a result of such plundering and almost no Vicus ceramics have been excavated by archaeologists, little reliable information is available about the evolution of the Vicus style. Radiocarbon-dating of Vicus ceramics suggests that they were contemporary with the early Moche style and date back to approximately 400 BCE.
Consistent with the Moche and other north coast traditions, the Vicus style is three dimensional, with bottles in the shape of, or mounted by, humans, animals, or supernatural creatures, depicted in a heavily stylized, abstract manner. The humans often have large hook noses, slit mouths and protruding ears; they are often depicted naked, showing their male sexual organs. The animals are often whimsical with perky alert ears, and eyes that are either hollow or circular bumps outlined in white paint. While similar to the early Moche pieces, the Vicus artifacts are nevertheless quite distinct; their color, modeling, and surface decoration seem more Ecuadorian. Only as further archaeological information becomes available, will scholars be able to reconstruct the precise antecedents of the Vicus style and determine its role in the evolution of the Peruvian ceramic tradition.
Vicus ceramics appear to have been modeled by hand. Before firing they were often painted with white or red slip, which normally does not completely cover the underlying brownish buff clay. Vicus ceramics usually were highly burnished. After firing, nearly all of the vessels were elaborately decorated with designs or details in organic black pigment, generally applied with a resist technique. The organic black decorations accentuate the sculptural forms and create handsome patterns on the bowls.
The predominant Vicus vessel forms are bottles, including double-chambered whistling bottles. Whistles and whistling bottles were made as early as 1000 BC in Peru, and have continued to be produced throughout the centuries; they are still made by native potters today. Whistles and whistling bottles were well established in the ceramic tradition of Ecuador centuries before they first appeared in Peru, and it is likely that they were introduced into Peru from the north. A ceramic whistle is fashioned from a hollow sphere of clay, generally one to three centimeters in diameter, which has a small hole in one side. The clay tube is then positioned adjacent to the outer surface of the bottle so that as a stream of air is directed across the opening, it resonates, causing a whistling sound. Such whistling mechanisms were often incorporated into Vicus bottles. When one blows into the spout of the Vicus bottle, the air passes through the chamber and into the tube that forms the whistling mechanism, creating the whistling sound.
What were these whistling bottles used for and why the whistle? Most scholars indicate that the whistles were probably used in some "cultic" observance. When someone says that an object is "cultic" or its use is cultic, that means one of two things: (1) its actual use is unknown and (2) it was probably used in some ancient religious ceremony, the exact nature of which is unknown. With that as a definition, clearly the Vicus whistling bottles were cultic in nature.
And then came my final surprise, a very pleasant one. Buoyed by the recollection of the Vicus pieces I saw in the museums of Peru and armed with the somewhat scant knowledge from my research, I set out to purchase additional Vicus objects. Many of the pieces of ancient art that I purchase are obtained from auctions in New York, London or Tel Aviv, which forces me to compete for them against art dealers and collectors from around the world. I far prefer to purchase ancient art from collectors or from their estates, when possible. Jean-Eugene Lions was one of the most prominent dealers in ancient Peruvian art in the 1970s when it was still permissible to export artifacts from Peru. In the early 1980ís when the law changed and it was no longer legal to export Peruvian artifacts, Jean-Eugene Lions emigrated from Peru to Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in Geneva last year and his personal collection of Peruvian artifacts were imported to the United States (with full customs approval) and, for the most part, sold at public auction in New York. A handful of the Lions collection was offered for sale privately rather than at public auction, including four unique and exquisite Vicus objects. I am happy to report that I purchased all four.
The Vicus pieces from the Lions collection are all dated to approximately 400-100 BCE and come from Vicus, Department of Piura, on the north coast of Peru. They typify the best of the ancient art from Vicus. The first is a double-body whistling vessel made for liquid, with a spherical back connected by a strap handle and tubular channel to the anthropomorphic front spherical vessel, which contains the whistling chamber. The figure on the front vessel is a Chicha-bearer, carrying an urn filled with the corn/beer on his right shoulder. His body is decorated in post-firing white pigment which depicts the jewelry which adorns the figure. He is shown with torso clothing and adorned with gold jewelry, but without a loin cloth so that his genitals are exposed. His legs are similarly decorated and he wears a three-lobed crown on his head. He has a hooked nose and prominent ear lobes, which are standard Vicus artistic canons. The second artifact is also a double-body whistling vessel and was probably used together with the previous vessel as a processional device or a shamanic tool. Each of these vessels was individually handmade, probably by the same Vicus artisan. The second Lions vessel depicts a "cup bearer" who is dressed in a waistband design tunic and is also naked below the waist. He too has the standard Vicus characteristics of a prominent nose and ears and coffee-bean eyes.
The third artifact is also a double-body whistling vessel with both strap handle and tubular communion connections between the two separate containers. A fully-sculpted feline stands proudly on the cylindrical base decorated with negative resist and positive white geometrical designs.
The fourth artifact from the Lions collection is perhaps the most compelling and my personal favorite. It is a rare, ring-bottom vessel, peculiar to the Vicus culture. It was found in the northern Sechura desert, near the modern town of San Miguel de Piura. A torrential El Nino event in 1982 washed away this and most of the other Vicus sites. The vesselís round bottom is intended to allow the piece to rock when touched. The head and arms of a monkey extend from one end of the ring and are connected by a strap handle to the opposing single spout. After firing, a white pigment was applied to selected locations of the vessel below the monkey, depicting an 11-segmented, 10-legged sky serpent with a bifurcated head. Additional white pigment surrounds the monkeyís eyes, covers its ears and gives it a most friendly appearance. I smile each time I pass this monkey-faced ring-bottom Vicus vessel.
Each of us hopes that we can identify a stock which has yet to be discovered by the general public and whose price will soon explode to high multiples of its present price. I believe the Vicus culture offers this opportunity in the realm of investing in ancient art. In short, I think it is a "sleeper," having all the qualities of objects that may very soon appreciate greatly in value: (1) the artifacts are approximately 2,400 years old; (2) little has been written about the Vicus culture and it has therefore escaped the notice of all except the most knowledgeable collector; (3) most or all of the Vicus ancient sites have been destroyed and probably no new Vicus objects will be discovered; (4) archaeologists have just now begun to investigate and research the Vicus artifacts, bringing a new and growing appreciation of the unique ancient Vicus culture. I will continue to enjoy my Vicus vessels as long as I am destined to own them, knowing that while they will continue to give me pleasure, they have great potential for appreciation.
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.