If your idea of ancient Peru is purely death cults, mountainous Inca cities and the strange era where all the British main streets apparently had Peruvian pan-pipe players at the weekend, then the British Museum is changing your mind radically.
In fact, the Incas, about whom so much has been written, occupy nearly a tenth of the life span covered by this exhibit, which extends from about 1,200 BCE. up to the Spanish conquest – about 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 is largely chronological in layout, beginning with the oldest known civilizations in the Andes.
The chronology familiar to us would be strange to the Andeans who made the exhibited objects, which often saw past, present and future as parallel lines and happen simultaneously. All exist together, and what we call the past can be influenced by the actions of the present, which is partly why there is such a strong focus on death and ancestors in their cultures.
But there is not much bloodshed in this exhibition, at least not overtly.
It is more of an exhibition of remarkable art, much of which would not look out of place in a distinguished modern art gallery, and yet it is hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
A funeral mask fits everything from ancient Egypt. A corn god has the crop that was cultivated about 6,000 years ago and has been a part of the local diet ever since. A cluster of animals, including a very violent-looking cat, is about 1,500 years old, but looks as if they were made last week. The ceramic musicians will almost certainly inspire a Doctor Who episode soon.
One of the more striking objects is a muscular leg in a sandal, a celebration of the Chasqui’s running skills in the Inca community – the runners who carried messages between cities. It is said that a relay of runners could carry a message about 3,000 km in just 5 days. Many of the weather routes created by the Andes are still in use today – just as Roman roads still support road design here in England.
One of the largest objects on display is a large funeral rug that is in remarkable condition for something that was made about 2,000 years ago. It’s almost hard to accept age, as we just are not used to seeing fabrics dating to the time of Christ survive, let alone looking as if they have just come out of the weaving frame.
There is an interruption throughout the exhibition. Everything is so well preserved that it feels like maybe at most a few hundred years old, but so much of what we see is older than England itself. It’s as if we, rather than just fragments of history and myths about Iceni, had a full department store with items from Boucida’s time along with perfectly preserved clothing and household items.
The Peruvians’ deep past appears modern. It is a contrast that the ancient Andeans may have appreciated with their unique views on how past and present interact.
What makes the exhibits so captivating to look at is their, to our eyes, supernatural appearance. This is largely due to the lack of external influences on the Andean civilizations, which is considered to be one of five civilizations in the world that are considered to be “untouched”, ie. indigenous and not derived from other civilizations.
As an exhibition, it is not overloaded with too much history and it is probably a good decision as the ancient communities of the region are so little known that it would be overwhelming to have it all dumped over you at once.
Visit and admire the Andean handicrafts, and learn a little about the cultures that created them.
The exhibition concludes 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 kind of exhibition that the British Museum does so very well – educational, entertaining, eye-opening.
The exhibition Peru: A Journey in Time is at the British Museum until 20 February. Admission for adults is from £ 15 and tickets must be booked in advance from kl here.