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Origins and Mysteries of the Inca's Gold Explored in New Exhibition at Pinacothèque de Paris
A Gold Funeral Mask from the Sican Culture of Peru (800BC-1350AC). This work of art is part of an exhibition entitled 'The Incas' Gold' that opens to the public on 10 September 2010 until 6 February 2011. EPA/JOAQUIN RUBIO ROACH.

By: Marc Restellini

PARIS.- The Inca empire is among one of the greatest in history. In one hundred years, an ethnic group with obscure origins, settled in the Cusco valley, undertook a series of conquests that nothing seemed capable of stopping: it was to dominate an immense space, from Ecuador to Chile, from the high plateaux of the Andes to the desertified plains on the Pacific Coast.

However that flamboyant civilization is rarely acknowledged as the equal of the great Western empires, from Alexander to Napoleon. To remedy this injustice, the Pinacothèque de Paris is suggesting, within the context of its great “Civilizations” exhibitions (The Soldiers of Eternity, The Dutch Golden Age) to provide a new approach to this brilliant empire, its origins, and its mysterious relationship with gold.

When the Conquistadores invaded the region in 1532, they met a complex civilization. The wealth of the subsoil in precious metals and the magnificence of the local jewelry gave rise to the myth of the Eldorado. However, it was at that time that there arose a misunderstanding in the Western approach to pre-Hispanic Peru. It was to last until the early 20th century: the idea that ancient Peru was reduced only to the Incas. In fact, the latter ruled the Andes for only about a century from the 15th century onwards (1400-1533). Before them, more than ten civilizations had succeeded each other in the area, each one building its administrative and religious centers, bringing its contribution to the mastery of artistic techniques and expressions. Today the Pinacothèque de Paris wants to take part in the rediscovery of these forgotten civilizations.

For more than a century, the difficulty posed by the Andine cultures is to distinguish them and to place them inside a clear chronology. Henceforth, the scholars establish various ages called “horizons”, periods when the centralization of power was placed under the aegis of a dominant culture. These “horizons” are interspersed with periods called intermediary, during which the central authority was weakened. However, despite the stylistic evolutions in each period, a vision of the world surfaces, a cultural and historical culture common to the whole of the Andes over more than three thousand years. As witness the recurrence of certain iconographic themes such as the God with sticks, ever present in the imagery from the Chavins to the Incas.

Human implantation in a hostile environment represented a genuine challenge. The coastline, an extremely arid desert, necessitated important hydraulic building works in order to fertilize the soil. The Cordillera of the Andes’ high plateaux provided obvious problems for the humans to adapt to: the lack of oxygen, the complicated installation of the terraces, the communication problems between the valleys. Finally, the powerful presence of the Amazonian forest, the selva, never conquered nor tamed, soon became a source of mysteries, whose fauna and flora tapped deep into the myths of the high plateaux and of the coast. There was an important seismic activity and natural catastrophes abounded. Let us not forget that the disappearance of the Mochica civilization was partly attributed to a powerful El Niño. However, the sea teeming with 􀃠sh made up for these difficulties and provided some beneficial resources.

That complex natural environment and the recurrence of natural disasters led to a cyclical vision of the world, where the Pachacuti, or upheaval of the cosmic balance was an ongoing menace. To attract the gods’ goodwill, a ritual device was put into place from the start. The appeasement of the gods through sacrifice was to be a constant preoccupation of the Andine people. The offerings made to the divinities and to the mythical ancestors were essential for their survival. These ceremonies were fundamental to ensure the ongoing transfer of the vital force flowing through humans, through nature as well as all things, animate and inanimate. The offerings took on many forms: human during the sacrifices preceded by ritual battles but also, more traditionally, animal or material with, in particular, a large quantity of gold objects.

The object of our exhibition today is to study the links of the Pre-Hispanic people to precious metals. Most of the gold objects were found in tomb vaults. They bear witness to the high technical mastery of the jewelers of that time, but they mostly underline the importance of that metal and of its symbolic force in the ritual manifestations. Gold was in no way considered as a numeracy value for the Andine people but as a material strongly linked to the sun divinity. Gold was an integral part of the Inca imperial decorum, the emperor being considered as the living incarnation of the sun called Inti. If the Incas placed the veneration of the sun at the forefront, going so far as to make it a State religion, this cult existed in the Andes since time immemorial. Gold was more generally the privilege of the ruling classes and an essential support for all artistic creation.

However, we must not reduce the virtuosity of Pre-Columbian creators to metal working. Their talent was applied to all the fields of art: textile, penmanship, sculpture on stone or wood as well as ceramics. In the past few years, research has made amazing progress in the matter. Formal analysis tends to regroup the potteries, attributing them to a master, a studio or a school. The lack of signatures is made up for by a stylistic identification. But it is the iconographic analysis that most increases our knowledge of the Pre-Columbian rituals and of Andine cosmogony.

Let us recall that the sources at the service of the historian and of the archeologist are unfortunately still very incomplete. The current methodology still relies on reading the Spanish chronicles, highly subjective in fact, on the iconographical analysis, particularly of the realistic imagery of the Mochica ceramics, and on ethnology. The frequent hesitations in the analyses lead us to a greater caution in the interpretations.

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