Gold and the Incas: Lost Worlds of Peru review (NGA, Canberra)

A culture which depends on an unending stream of human sacrifices to sustain it and relies on a mono-culture (think of the Irish and the potato in the 19th century) is bound to have an end date. And so it proved for the Incas, the last — and the shortest — in a procession of civilisations which reached back to at least 3000 BC in a region we know as Peru. These cultures were highly stratified, built sturdy cities and were well developed agriculturally thanks to extensive irrigation systems.

Of these cultures the Incas have assumed the greatest historical prominence thanks to the gruesome end they faced when confronted with an equally brutal super power, the Spaniards led by Pizzaro in 1532.

The Spanish brief was simple enough. Get the gold, get the silver. So thorough was the mechanism by which it was plundered and extorted, that the influx of gold — and more particularly silver — to Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, destroyed its economy and destabilised Europe’s financial system for decades. It seems miraculous that these pieces on display escaped the Spanish melting pot.

Gold, that incorruptible substance which provides most of the exhibition’s excitement, is worked with astonishing skill. It held the same symbolic significance for the Incas as it did for earlier cultures like the Sumerians and the Egyptians. When polished it seemed to embody the sun — and the sun was the source of all life and prosperity.

Gold is a substance which, unlike copper, bronze or iron, does not degrade. After thousands of years of burial, when brought to the surface, it will look much the same. This is why delicate and fragile pieces from the ancient world grace our museums today, provided robbers or natural disasters did not interfere with tombs and burial sites.

Gold when pure is extremely malleable, that is to say, you can do almost anything with it. You can beat it into the finest leaves which will float on the breeze, draw it out into almost gossamer threads, hammer sheets of it over specially made dies in a sort of mass production line, emboss it, engrave it and cast it in moulds when it is molten.

From the exhibited works it seems the Incas had a preference for beating gold into thin flat sheets, rather than casting it into solid objects. Two dimensional shapes were cut and joined together with gold wires and sheets were stamped from behind to create surface patterns of stylised human heads, birds, animals, hybrids and gods.

Hundreds of copper discs, coated in a thin layer of gold were assembled to create the ceremonial pectoral (chest ornament) pictured above, which would have shimmered with every movement of the wearer.

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A forehead ornament, also created from thin gold sheet has squared rays suggesting those of the sun. The central (and repeated) embossed head wears feathered ear ornaments.

Holes were punched in such forehead ornaments to allow them to be stitched to bands of cloth.

The fanged feline face snarling from this forehead ornament is probably a jaguar. He is flanked on either side by stylised birds each upside down.

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A lifelike copper mask accompanied some dignitary to the grave and may have been a fairly accurate portrait of its owner. The face sports a mouthguard (a fairly unusual addition) and a diamond patterned band which may have represented a textile headdress. The eyes are inlaid conch shell and obsidian, a glassy volcanic material. While the gold additions retain their original colour, the copper has oxidised to green.

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The National Gallery itself owns this pair of funerary hands which are richly embossed with images of priests and water birds. They retain traces of red cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) which was the principal colouring agent in ancient Peru and indicated sacredness. Many temples were painted with it. It is also exceedingly toxic.

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One of the most exquisite items in this show is the pair of ear ornaments composed of gold mounts inlaid with tiny, carefully cut pieces of turquoise, mother of pearl and lapis lazuli. They depict a heavily armed Owl Warrior who is celebrated for his role in life:capturing men for sacrifice to the gods. Ear discs such as these were a mark of status and could only be worn by the elite — who naturally enough, did all the sacrificing.

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An elaborate sacrificial knife, called a Tumis is on display. It has a half-moon blade and a handle depicting an ancestral deity. The silver shaft has been foiled with gold to create a chequer board effect. This represents the duality of the sun and moon and day and night.

What we don’t see in the exhibition are the razor sharp flints and obsidian blades which were used to tear beating hearts from bodies. This might have been too obvious — even undiplomatic. But if nothing else they would have drawn attention to an unusual condition of a developed culture that had not exploited the techniques of either bronze or iron working on a practical scale but continued to use stone. Those metals made the most efficient and lethal weaponry and were prominent in contemporaneous European and middle eastern cultures.

Gold and the Incas is at the National Gallery of Australia until 21 April. More information is available at nga.gov.au

Images courtesy of NGA

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