Old Gold

The Sicán civilization of ancient Peru eluded archaeologists and historians for a long time. The Sicán, now recognized as skilled metallurgists, ceramicists, seafarers, and traders, flourished on the northern coast of Peru from 800 to 1375. Until recently, however, the majority of the archaeological and anthropological knowledge concerning ancient Peruvian cultures focused on the Incas, whose civilization followed the Sicán by nearly 100 years.

Excessive looting of ancient tombs found on the northern coast of Peru contributed to the lack of knowledge. Any looted items from that area that turned up in museums or private collections lacked documentation or provenance and often were misidentified.

The work of Southern Illinois University’s Dr. Izumi Shimada (formerly of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum) finally shed light on this mysterious culture dubbed the Sicán. In 1978, Shimada assembled a team of archaeologists from America, Europe, and Peru and began an excavation based on the north coast—an area that until that time had been overlooked by everyone except the looters. The group centered on a river valley called Batán Grande.

Shimada’s group worked at the site for years, slowly uncovering evidence of a complex ancient society. In 1991, they literally struck gold. While digging at Huaca Loro, an area believed by many archaeologists to be a royal burial site, they unearthed an undisturbed tomb piled high with gold. The tomb (known as the “East Tomb”) housed the remains of an elite Sicán male, and its contents have helped researchers gain insight into a previously unknown culture.

Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum is currently displaying the contents of the East Tomb in a new exhibit, Ancient Peru Unearthed: Golden Treasures of a Lost Civilization. The exhibit, which originated at Peru’s Sicán National Museum in cooperation with Calgary’s Nickle Arts Museum, opened at the ROM on March 10, 2007, and will continue through Aug. 6, 2007. The exhibit is the first opportunity North America has had to view the products of this little-known culture.

Of the 122 objects in the exhibition, 107 originated in the tomb of the Sicán male (whom the exhibit has dubbed “the Sicán Lord”). Many of the items are gold and include ceremonial regalia, headdresses, jewelry, and other ornaments.

Dr. Justin Jennings, associate curator of the Department of World Cultures at the ROM, is exhibition curator for the Toronto show. Jennings is no stranger to Peru. He’s been conducting archaeological fieldwork there for the past 11 years—most recently in Southern Peru, where he has been leading the excavation of a site that dates from 600 to 1500.

According to Jennings, Batán Grande is one of the most looted areas in the world. Looters have left more than 100,000 holes in the region, but the tomb of the Sicán Lord was spared. Its depth—36 feet below ground level—helped. “The tombs are stunning to me, because they’re so darn deep,” says Jennings. Looters had begun to dig at the tomb site sometime around the late 1970s or early 1980s. “They got down to the water table and were forced to stop,” says Jennings.

On its first attempt at excavation, Shimada’s team also was stymied by the water table, and—as if that wasn’t bad enough—an El Niño weather front later blew in and flooded the tomb with mud. But Shimada bided his time and kept track of the site, which was finally safe to excavate in 1991.

While organizing this branch of the Sicán exhibition, Jennings and museum officials decided that they wanted to provide “a more anthropological emphasis on the exhibit,” says Jennings. “We wanted to tell the story through the Sicán Lord.”

Jennings borrowed photographs from Shimada and the Sicán National Museum that show the objects as they were unearthed. “We have also created tomb models to make it easier for people to understand [the excavation process],” says Jennings. “We knew that people would be coming into this wanting to know who these people were, so we’ve also created an exhibit that leads up to the Sicán exhibit.”

For this prologue to the exhibit, the museum assembled additional objects from the ancient civilizations of the north coast of Peru, including the Moche (200–800), the Sicán, the Chimú (1375–1450), and the Chimú-Inca (1450–1532). This helps to “give a sense of where the Sicán fit,” says Jennings. It also provides insight into the craftsmanship of the other civilizations. Jennings is particularly enthusiastic about the museum’s examples of Moche gold work, which includes an intricately detailed gold fox with whiskers and a moving tongue.

But the Sicán rule this exhibition. While the motives behind their rituals are not completely clear, it is generally believed that the Batán Grande area was the center of the Sicán religion and the civilization’s main burial ground. Platform mounds supported temples or ceremonial areas, and plazas below the platforms were a place of performance or theater, where the cultural elite would dress up as the Sicán Deity, a mythical god with both human and avian features. The deity, who was associated with the control of nature, was depicted everywhere—in murals, textiles, ceramics, and metalwork. The privileged members of Sicán society would assert their closeness to this deity by donning ceremonial regalia that included masks, ornaments of gold and silver, colorful feathers, scepters, and other adornments.

Avian motifs as well as recurrent water images were regularly used in Sicán designs, underlining the impact of rivers and rain on the culture.

The Sicán Lord’s tomb is just over 9 feet square, and also contained the bodies of two women and two children. DNA evidence has shown that, with the exception of one child, the individuals were probably related. “One child was probably a sacrificial victim,” says Jennings. “The other child was probably related to the Lord in a father/daughter or uncle/niece relationship. It’s hard to tell.”

The body of the Sicán Lord was covered in cinnabar paint, a red pigment available only to members of the elite. Its color may have symbolized blood as representative of life and birth, and the Sicán Lord’s burial in general is thought to symbolize a rebirth.

In addition to the bodies, almost 100 personal ornaments and ritual objects made of 14k and 18k gold were included in the tomb, as well as over 100 pounds of beads and hundreds of bronze items. Three-quarters of the objects consist of precious metals and bronze, and the total weight of all the items is approximately 1.2 tons.

Jennings notes that the Sicán Lord was buried in his ceremonial regalia, complete with mask, gold back flap, gold hip covers, shin covers, and a pectoral (chest ornament). “All are objects that are depicted of the Sicán Deity—these were not objects created for death, but things created to play the deity in life,” he says. “They were meant to assert the Sicán Lord’s connection to the deity.”

The highlight of the exhibition is the Sicán Lord’s mask. Possibly representing the Sicán Deity, the mask was created from a single piece of 14k gold, with facial features and an attached nose ornament. An accompanying head ornament features gold feathers that were carved from 10k gold sheets, and it originally incorporated real feathers as well. A forehead attachment (centrally depicting a vampire bat) is also part of the full headdress. Combined, the ornaments measure over 17 inches in height.

As a whole, the metalwork on display is evidence of the fine craftsmanship of the Sicán. Jennings estimates that somewhere between 85 percent and 90 percent of Peruvian or “Incan” gold on display in the world is actually Sicán work that has been mislabeled due to the previous lack of knowledge about the civilization. He notes that while the culture was not large or long lasting, it created a huge amount of metalwork, employing techniques such as hammering, repoussé, and filigree. Their ornaments often featured moving parts or drops attached by staples or wires, and Sicán metalworkers produced uniform gold sheets 0.1 millimeters thick.

They also used high-temperature brazing techniques to combine pure gold with other metals to create alloys. One alloy was tumbaga, a combination of gold, silver, and copper. Tumbaga was also used by the Incas. “This was a matter of frustration to the Spanish [during the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Peru], as they were interested in the purity of their gold, while the Incas were interested in the color of their gold,” says Jennings.

The items created by the Sicán “were not meant as art objects,” says Jennings. “They were meant to catch the light; they were meant to move with the individual and make some sound. The pupils of the bat forehead ornament [on the Sicán Lord’s mask], along with its tongue, are both meant to move. This gets at the sense of how these items were very important to the Sicán elite and their presentations. These people maintained their power through their performance. They were playing god, and displaying to others their closer affiliation to god.”

It’s also possible that some members of the privileged class created their own regalia. “We think the Sicán Lord may have been a master metalworker himself,” says Jennings. Along with a large amount of finished items—among them 60 gold head ornaments, crowns, headdresses, etc.—the Sicán Lord was buried with a massive amount of tumbaga scraps. “It is the detritus of a life of gold-working, and it’s something not seen in other tombs,” says Jennings.

The sheer number of grave goods within the tomb is also unusual. “This person may have been a very skilled metalworker—an elite, one person from a noble family,” says Jennings. “The amazing amount of objects sets him apart. … There were four big piles of shell beads [in the tomb]. They’re strung on string, not tied, just wealth.”

Eventually, Sicán civilization faded and was supplanted in 1375 by the Chimú, the next recognized civilization of early Peru. Precipitating this decline was a mudslide that hit the Batán Grande area and forced the Sicán people to move. From that point on, Jennings notes, the Sicán deity disappeared from their imagery. Since the deity was traditionally associated with the control of nature, the Sicán people probably saw the flood as the wrath of god or a betrayal. They adjusted their worship and adopted earlier imagery that demonstrated a healthy respect for nature, rather than control over it.

Alongside the exhibition, the Royal Ontario Museum is presenting a short film that focuses on the work of Shimada and his team. A catalog, “Ancient Peru Unearthed: Golden Treasures From a Lost Civilization,” is also available. For more information, see the museum Web site, www.rom.on.ca, or call (416) 586-8000.

Following its stop in Toronto, the exhibition will move to Halifax’s Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Sept. 8–Nov. 11, 2007) and Gatineau’s Canadian Museum of Civilization (Dec. 8–May 19, 2008).