Back in 1532 it was useless telling the Spanish that all that glistens is not gold. Miranda France blows the dust off some old history books to find out why.
n 1792. William Robertson, author of The History ofAmerica. loftin dismissed Spanish accounts of the magnificent cities and treasures they had found in the New World: ‘Neither the Mexicans nor the Peruvians were entitled to rank with those nations which merit the name of civilized‘. he wrote.‘ifthese buildings corresponding to such descriptions had ever existed in the Mexican or Peruvian cities. it is probable that some remains of them would still be visible. . . it seems altogether incredible that in a period so short, every vestige of this boasted elegance and grandeur should have disappeared.’ With some satisfaction, no doubt. Robertson put the tales down to typical Latin bravado: ‘the Spanish accounts appear highly embellished'. he concluded. Robertson might, perhaps, have been persuaded of the sophistication of Latin America‘s pre-Conquest cultures if he had been able to see some of the finely crafted gold and silver artefacts brought back to Spain by the Conquistadores by the trunk-full. Such an opportunity was not open to him. of course. By then it had nearly all been melted down.
Nearly all, but not quite. For. deep beneath the ground. safe from some of the ravagers. centuries of aristocratic corpses lay swathed in exquisite cloths and festooned with gold jewellery. The Inca and pre-Inca tradition ofworshipping the dead was similar to the Egyptians in that it required members ofthe elite to be mummified and adorned with golden earrings and ear-plugs. gold nose ornaments and necklaces.
Thanks to this cult ofthe dead. many ofthese objects escaped shipment to coffers. and later museums, around the world. These pieces are now the property of Lima's Museo ‘Oro del Peru', which has loaned more than 250 pieces to the Edinburgh District Council for an exhibition which promises to be as triumphant a success as its ambitious predecessors ‘The Emperor‘s Warriors‘ and ‘Gold ofthe Pharoahs‘.
The story of Peru‘s conquest is ten times as savage and fascinating as the most unlikely Boy’s 0er story. except that in this case it really
happened and left in its wake a terrible legacy of poverty. destruction and cultural loss. When Pizarro and fellow conquistadores invaded the Inca empire in 1532. they discovered a world where gold was routinely used for decoration and ornament. In the Inca capital ofCuzco. a great. wide ribbon ofgold was wound around the Caricancha. the Sun Temple. There were golden fountains and an enormous golden image of the sun. Astonished at the seemingly endless wealth. they captured the Incas' divine ruler. Atahualpa. and held him to a ransom. now estimated to have a present-day bullion value ofover eight million dollars. It took four months just to melt it down. Once the ransom had been paid. they garrotted Atahualpa and slaughtered scores of people whose primitive weapons were no match for the Spaniards‘ crossbows and muskets. Then thev set about looting the empire‘s tombs and temples. thus setting a trend for future centuries' pillagers.
But then Latin America has been bedevilled bv the lust for gold. Just as the Incas were ransacked. so they ransacked and destroyed the cultures which preceeded them. Much of their gold was plundered from the Chimus — the last of the tribes to be conquered by the Incas — whereupon it was melted down and recast into life-size golden
statues of gods. Chimu goldsmiths were installed in Cuzco and worked with the gold which poured out of the mines at a rate of 190 tons a year. For the Incas. gold was sacred. an integral part of their ritual worship of the sun; they even called it ‘the sweat of the sun'.
On show in the exhibition are gold items ranging from about 1500bc to ad1532. including funeral masks, ceremonial knives. necklaces. bracelets, tweezers. drinking cups. crowns and idols. Not made of gold at all. are the textiles. ceramics, vases and stone vessels. Gory exhibits. probably there to lure in children and those of us who yearn for the old Doctor Who, include a trepanned human skull, a mummified arm and hand and a mummy bundle whose content has, presumably, long since disintegrated.
The Chimus and the Moche (around, roughly from 3bc to 1400ad) were really the first people to have a sophisticated understanding of metallurgy and objects made by them account for the greater part of the exhibition. But also included in the exhibition are examples of Chavin art — one ofthe first important styles of art and architecture developed in Northern Peru in the period known as Early Horizon (900—200bc). In the South of Peru. the Paracas culture adopted the Chavins’ penchant for highly stylised geometric figures depicted on stone carvings and pottery. although they are best known for the colourful textiles used to make mummy bundles which wrapped the dead. Other gold pieces on show were made by the people of the Nazca desert. which remains one of the world’s greatest mysteries: its enormous shapes and patterns, drawn in the sand are described by some as a gigantic astronomical chart and by others as a landing place for space ships.
That so many different pre-Inca cultures should be represented in ‘Sweat ofthe Sun‘ is extraordinary enough, bearing in mind. not only the relentless sacking which followed the Conquest, but the Incas’ concerted and prolonged attempts to obliterate any trace ofthe tribes they conquered. In the case ofthe Chimus and the Moche. the Incas were frustrated. since all their energies were diverted into a civil war between Atahualpa and I-Iuascar. In failing to wipe out the Chimus‘ heritage. the Incas unwittingly provided future historians with a fascinating insight into early Peruvian communities: the Chimus had recorded every detail of their lives in graphic detail on their ceramic objects, making these priceless in historical terms.
By the sounds ofit'. Edinburgh‘s District Council have every reason to be proud of the ‘Sweat ofthe Sun‘ scoop. The exhibition will not be shown anywhere else in Britain. and doubtless few people will want to miss it; there‘s nothing like gold to pull in the Edinburgh crowds. And so the gold cycle spins on. The Incas took it from the Chimus and made statues out of it. The Spaniards took it from the Incas. melted it and spent it. Over the years. just about everyone else has taken bits of it away from the Peruvians and. what remains the Peruvians have been quick to tuck away into a museum. Say, is there any more down there‘.’ ‘Sweat ofthe Sun ' — Gold of Peru is an Edinburgh District Council and M useo ‘()r() (16/ l’cru' exclusive, or: at the City A rt ( ‘entre l .-lug—3l).8‘ept. See A rt Listings for details ofopming hours
l'hc I.l\l ITIUI} U August l‘NtlQ