It may be the stuff of popular culture but whenever I think of the Incas, Aztecs or Mayans the first images that spring to mind are from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006). This drama of native American life in the days before the Spanish conquest may be one of the most brutal and disturbing movies ever made. It’s not simply the violence that makes the film so memorable – it’s the way this violence is embedded in a world-view that treats it as a virtue.
For the ancient civilisations of Central and South America, the maintenance of life – good rainfall and fertile soil – was vitally dependent on appeasing deities who had an unquenchable thirst for blood. The Aztecs are believed to have made hundreds of thousands of human sacrifices to the Gods, their preferred method being to tear the heart from a living victim.
The Incas were not such prolific butchers but they had their own rites of human sacrifice that demanded a constant stream of victims. Most of those unfortunates were warriors who had been captured in battle. Others were gladiators who had been bested in one-to-one combat by having their helmet removed by an opponent. When a king died, thousands of servants, officials, guards and concubines might be killed to accompany him to the afterlife.
The Incas also sacrificed large numbers of teenagers who were specially chosen for their purity and fattened up for years. It was considered such a great honour to be ritually sacrificed that parents nominated their children for this privilege. Taken to a mountaintop they would be strangled, hit over the head, buried alive or left to die of exposure.
Parents of teenagers may feel a certain sympathy with these practices, but by most standards the inherent cruelty of the Incas is almost inconceivable. Warfare was conducted partly for the usual reasons, partly with the aim of acquiring captives for sacrifice. There was a particular emphasis on cutting off heads, with the most fearsome deity being Ai Apaec, the so-called “Decapitator God”, often portrayed as a hideous grimacing figure with the arms of a spider.
Ai Apaec makes repeated appearances in Gold and the Incas: Lost Worlds of Peru, at the National Gallery of Australia. It is surprising to realise that this compact but fascinating show includes 198 artefacts, although many are small enough to be grouped together in display cases. As the title of the show suggests the emphasis is on the material culture of the Andes region over a period of some 2,300 years. We tend to refer to all these groups as Incas, but the actual Inca empire lasted only from 1400 to 1533 AD, when it was overturned by the Spaniards under the command of Francisco Pizarro.
Before the unifying rule of the Incas the catalogue lists 19 separate indigenous nations that lived within the boundaries of present-day Peru. These societies had different languages and customs, although in retrospect we can discern many shared traditions.
The earliest piece in the show is a Winged deity holding a severed head (c.1000 BC), from the Chavín culture of the Northern highlands, which lasted from 1500-200 BC. This fearsome cartoon-like figure combines the features of both a puma and an eagle. In one oversized mitt he holds a human head by its hair. We are told that the decapitation motif was relatively rare in Chavín art, but it seems the roots of the practice were laid early.
NGA curator, Christine Dixon, who has researched this exhibition thoroughly, writes that the collecting of ‘trophy heads’ became a major preoccupation for the Nazca (100-700 AD), who lived along the south coast. There is no general agreement among scholars as to whether heads were collected as symbols of martial glory or for ritualistic purposes. The two reasons don’t seem to have been wildly incompatible because everything in the civilisations of the Andes was invested with a broad religious significance.
The Nazca, who are known for the famous lines they engraved in the desert of Peru, also have the unenviable distinction of being one of the first recorded societies to bring about their own downfall by deforestation and poor management of natural resources. Victims of a massive El Niño event and their mania for agriculture, they virtually wiped themselves off the map, although the notorious quack, Erich von Däniken has argued that it had something to do with their close relations with aliens.
Perhaps the Prime Minister might put Von Däniken in charge of a committee of investigation if the government’s Direct Action policy fails to halt our own looming ecological catastrophe.
This may be all we have in common with the ancient civilisations of Peru. The NGA show hopes to lure visitors with the glimmer of gold, and with a glimpse into the exotic ‘lost worlds’ that have fired the imagination of pulp novelists since the Victorian era. While the great bulk of the Incas’ golden artefacts were plundered by the Spaniards and melted down for coinage, much of the remaining treasure has been systematically looted. Nevertheless, archaeologists have made a succession of valuable discoveries over the past decades, and these objects provide the backbone of this show.
It’s curious to read in Director Ron Radford’s introduction that the NGA actually returned a 2,000 year-old woven mantle to the National Museum in Lima, in 1989, when it became apparent it was stolen property. Presumably we can look forward to more of this gracious behavior when the Indian government gets around to reclaiming the millions of dollars worth of artefacts the NGA purchased during the past few years from the crooked New York dealer, Subash Kapoor.
The first flash of gold in this show comes from a Chavín forehead ornament bearing the images of three supernatural beings. There is considerably more as we continue, including crowns, breastplates, masks, vessels and jewellery. Much of this seems fanciful, such as the towering gold and copper crowns of the Vicús culture (100 BC – 400 AD), or a sacrificial knife made from beaten gold inlaid with lapis lazuli, of the Sicán-Lambayeque culture (750-1375 AD). One of the striking exhibits from the same era is a pair of gold alloy Hands. These tomb sculptures are part of the NGA’s permanent collection, and blessed with a clear provenance.
If almost everything in this show comes from a tomb it is because the ancient Peruvians practiced a cult of the dead that was hardly less elaborate than that of the Egyptians. They were willing to bury the most expensive and beautiful items with the body, providing a boon for archaeologists.
Although the gold artefacts may be the big drawcard it is almost more remarkable to see the quality, variety and visual wit of Peruvian ceramics; and the amazing array of textiles and feather works which have been so well preserved by a dry climate. The vivid yellow and turquoise colours of a feathered crown of the Chimú culture (1,100-1,470 AD) are as fresh as anything you might see attached to a living bird.
The Incas and their forebears were animists who believed that everything was imbued with a spirit. This may have helped their craftsmen to develop a profound feel for materials. The delicacy of their metalwork testifies to a sense that gold and silver had special properties aside from their surface attractions. Behind these works there is an entire cosmology that views the world in terms of basic dualisms: sun and moon, male and female, and so on.
“The sky is dominated by gods and rulers, symbolised by birds;” writes Christine Dixon, “the human realm of earth and sea is symbolised by felines, such as the jaguar; the underworld is ruled by reptiles and insects. All these worlds are fertilised by liquids – water, blood and semen – which are exchanged between the three levels of existence to continue the cycle of life.”
It’s a neat, coherent system that integrates human life within the natural world. There is also room to cross back and forth between categories, as one sees in the imaginative transformations of Peruvian ceramics. Among the quantities of simple, utlilitarian vessels in the ‘stirrup’ style, the most fascinating pots are portraits that give us a clear picture of the faces and headgear of the time. There are phallic pots that seem plainly humorous. There are little figurines embedded in vases and bowls.
These sculptural pots feature a range of familiar animals and fantastic monsters made by combining the features of disparate creatures. It’s a multifaceted portrait of a world in which the gods and spirits are ever-present in even the smallest moments. For artists throughout the ages there has been no greater motivation than the idea that your god is looking down and judging your work. With the Incas there may have been an extra incentive in the knowledge that highly skilled craftsmen were not to be lightly sacrificed.
Gold and the Incas: Lost Worlds of Peru
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra,
Until 21 April.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 18 January, 2014