The pre-Columbian civilisations of Peru are intensely confusing; when the Spanish arrived, the Inca were only recently dominant, and there were many other civilisations before them, often a regional basis, which archaeologists are only now sorting out. Inevitably, one focuses on the Inca, as it is their monuments we see, on the whole, and their artefacts are the most numerous – and although the written Spanish accounts of them are few and far between, and not always trustworthy, they are the only observations we have of any pre-Columbians in Peru.
The Incas, though, are disappointing. They didn’t invent the wheel, they had no metal tools for working the land or masonry, and their buildings are now just walls, with no decoration, roofs, or indeed known purpose. They had no writing, no power of illustration, and no mathematics or astronomy to compare with, say, the Maya, further north in Mexico and Guatemala. Guides in Peru often do not accept our ignorance, and build them up remorselessly, often embellishing and inventing – so in Maccu Picchu, I heard that we were in a fortress, an astronomical observatory, and a religious university (“for the virgins of the sun”) from three different guides in the space of an hour; the terraces were for agriculture – no, they were for defence – or perhaps it was to shore up the hillside; the great walls of Sacsayhuaman have as many meanings and purposes as they have zigzags. It is all unsatisfactory; we have no narrative, no emotional or cultural context, no aesthetic for these people: we can only admire, blindly, the few things they left behind them.
Here are a few things of interest – some of them, I’m afraid taken through glass in museums (legally, but no doubt poorly):
· A great silver necklace in the wonderful Rafael Herrera Lorca museum in Lima, part of a whole ensemble of Inca head-dress and facial jewellery
· A skull deliberately distorted through the binding of planks to a child’s head in infancy, in the pursuit of beauty
· Agricultural terraces at Pisac, sinuously curved convex and concave round the hill
· The carved condor’s head on the floor in Maccu Picchu – the wings are natural rock formations out of sight
· Typical close Inca masonry
· The zigzag walls of Sacsayhuaman, (universally known as “sexy woman”), just outside Cusco – defensive or symbolic, no one knows
· An elegant Inca bowl
· ... and other, fine examples in the Museo de Arte Precolombino in Cusco
· And (at the top of the post), a wooden carving, from an earlier civilisation, the Chimu. Doesn’t he look like a Norman knight, or the Lewis chessmen?