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Exhibition Reveals Golden Riches Of Ancient Peru

Ruzan Haruriunyan's picture

A thousand years ago in the northern Peruvian Andes, the Sicán people built an ingenious and complex civilization that produced some of the region's finest gold and ceramic objects.

Secret Riches: Ancient Peru Unearthed, a major exhibition opening at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, showcases some of the Sicán's prized objects and sheds new light on this ancient culture, long unknown to the outside world and often eclipsed by the later Inca Empire.

The exhibition celebrates the technical and artistic mastery of the Sicán and explores their spiritual beliefs, social hierarchy and trade patterns. It also draws attention to the tragedy of looting and the wonders of archaeological discovery.

Secret Riches: Ancient Peru Unearthed presents 120 outstanding artifacts, including an elaborate gold mask and headdresses, jewellery made from shells and precious stones, implements cast in bronze, and images of the Sicán deity preserved in gleaming blackware ceramics. Many of the personal adornments on display are decorated with gold discs and other attachments that moved and rattled with the wearer's every step.

"The Sicán had a unique and intriguing culture, which is reflected in the extraordinary work of their metalworkers and potters," said Dr. Victor Rabinovitch, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation. "The Sicán were also one of the most powerful and influential peoples of the ancient Andes. Through this exhibition, they are getting the public attention they so richly deserve."

Sicán metallurgists were without equal in the pre-Hispanic New World. They ushered in the Bronze Age to northern Peru, refined and invented metalworking techniques that amaze even today's most skilled metalworkers, and brought metal production to a never-before-seen scale in the Americas.

Master Sicán goldsmiths created incredibly uniform, paper-thin sheets of gold, using only stone tools, and crafted complex and exquisite objects. Contemporary metalworkers are hard-pressed to replicate some of the remarkably sophisticated smelting techniques used to create the intricate designs the Sicán commonly created a thousand years ago.

Most of the artifacts in Secret Riches: Ancient Peru Unearthed were recovered from a single tomb discovered by archaeologists in 1991. The underground burial chamber contained the remains of five people — a nobleman and two women and children — and more than a tonne of offerings. It was a stunning discovery in a region heavily plundered in the last century by grave robbers, who left few tombs undisturbed.

The Sicán culture emerged about 1,200 years ago on the parched land that lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains in northwestern Peru. The Sicán harvested the resources of the sea, and turned river valleys that run through the desert into farm land with a major system of irrigation canals. Although the culture survived for close to six centuries (ca. 750-800 to 1375 CE), Secret Riches: Ancient Peru Unearthed focuses mainly on the prosperous Middle Sicán period (900–1100 CE).

Most of what is known about the Sicán has been pieced together in the past 30 years. Long a target of looters, Sicán burial sites were largely ignored by archaeologists, who were preoccupied with the remains of the Inca Empire, until 1978 when a team of archaeologists began exploring Peru's Batán Grande region where an entire ceremonial complex was eventually discovered.

Secret Riches: Ancient Peru Unearthed will be presented through April 27, 2008 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. The exhibition is organized and circulated by the Nickle Arts Museum, in cooperation with the Sicán National Museum, Peru, and the National Institute of Culture of Peru. Bell is the proud sponsor of the audioguide for the exhibition. --

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