ANCIENT PERU UNEARTHED
Runs until January 14
Nickle Arts Museum (University of Calgary)
Death and destruction is at the heart of a new exhibition at the University of Calgary. Ancient Peru Unearthed features artifacts from the civilization known as the Sicán.
Izumi Shimada, associate professor of archeology at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, has dedicated his adult life to learning more about this society, and is helping to unlock the cultures untold story by excavating the treasured artifacts that may have ultimately sown the seeds of its destruction.
The Sicán story is one of great wealth, class struggle and ultimately mass murder. The society flourished in the northern part of Peru from 900 to 1300 A.D., until its capital was torched, then flooded.
Shimada is the reigning world expert on the Sicán (meaning temple of the moon the indigenous name for the place where their capital was located).
He has spent the past three decades investigating the society that at its height is believed to have numbered as many as 1.5 million.
"When there is so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, it isnt good," says Shimada of the Sicán elites.
Although he cant be sure, Shimada believes the Sicán commoners had grown weary of the elite layer of their society some 2,000 people who lived a life of privilege at a massive religious and ceremonial complex that measured more than 1.6 kilometres long. Shimada says there is physical evidence that the commoners overthrew the upper echelons by unleashing fires so devastating that few if any Sicán at the site would have survived.
"There was systematic torching of all major structures," says Shimada, "immediately followed by flooding."
The capital, the heart of Sicán society, is where the elite lived and where they were ultimately buried in chambers together with thousands of precious objects.
Although Shimada and his team have been able to re-claim hundreds of precious pieces, thousands more have been lost to grave robbers who were allowed to operate at the site with permission of the landowner.
"Before I arrived, for more than 30 years the area had been looted using heavy earth moving equipment," he says. "There was innovative and organized looting."
Shimada says another indication of the scale of the looting that went on at the site is the more than 100,000 hand picks that littered the ground. "Not thousands but 100,000 picks," he emphasizes.
Remarkably, during his many field trips to Peru, the esteemed archeologist discovered Sicán tombs that had been left undisturbed, including the so-called East Tomb, where the majority of the Ancient Peru Unearthed objects originated.
Necklaces made of amber beads, crowns of 18 carat gold and a silver and gold drinking cup with an image of a Sicán lord adorning it are all part of a cache on display at the Nickle with an estimated worth of more than $5 million.
But among the rarest items that glitter is a Sicán Lord Mask that stills seems to emanate a hold over those who view it.
"For various reasons I would say its the most important piece," says Shimada. "The mask has the sacred image of the upturned eye, meaning mythical power. Technically speaking, this is a masterful piece."
Shimada discovered the piece in January 1992. Worn for ceremonial use by one of the top members of Sicán society, it was badly deformed and in need of months of conservation work to restore its remarkable beauty.
Taken to the National Museum in Lima, the artifact was doted over by master goldsmith Jo Ann Griffin of Texas. It was there the mask, made of one thin sheet of hand-hammered 14-carat gold, was restored to its original appearance. Once again, its emerald eyes peer out reminding everyone who sees it of the magnificent society it once watched over.
Set to return to the Sicán site in Peru for his 29th year of fieldwork, Shimada is excited about another burial ground he is now in the process of excavating. He believes he will unearth even more prized objects, and perhaps more importantly, a further understanding of a society that seems to have come to an end because of the gold treasure that it left behind.
"The more I dig into the Sicán society, the more I learn," he says.