What the bulldozers left behind: reclaiming Sicán’s past

Inverse-Face Beaker, 10th-11th century, Sicán (Lambayeque), Peru, gold, 20 x 18.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’re looking at a beautiful gold beaker. The Met calls it an “Inverse-Face Beaker,” and it’s from the Sicán culture from Peru. This is a thousand years old.

Dr. Sarahh Scher: [0:20] It is old. It’s made of hammered gold, and it’s called an inverse-face beaker because the way that we’re looking at it is upside down from the way that it would have been used. A lot of times inversion can deal with the idea of the underworld or contact with spirit forces.

[0:35] In fact, when we look at this face, we can see that instead of having a regular human mouth, we see teeth that look like feline fangs, and that is a very old motif.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] I’m also noticing that there’s something feline about his eyes.

Dr. Scher: [0:48] We tend to call those comma-shaped eyes and they are very typical of the Sicán culture. It could be a deity. It could also be somebody who’s transforming into a supernatural creature, or somebody who’s simply showing their ability to contact supernatural creatures. We can’t pin it down with great specificity simply because we don’t have writing.

Dr. Harris: [1:09] Speaking of not being able to pin things down, this is an interesting culture to talk about because so much of what we could have known is lost because of systematic looting and grave robbing.

Dr. Scher: [1:22] One of the things we need to think about first is to locate ourselves with where the Sicán culture is, and they are on the north coast of Peru. They’re in about the same region that the Moche culture were in, but they come later. They are near the modern city of Lambayeque; sometimes the culture is actually referred to as the Lambayeque rather than the Sicán.

[1:40] The site that this is from is called Batán Grande, a large area that is covered in mounds, and these mounds were once platforms and pyramids that were made out of adobe bricks and were used as the burial sites of the wealthy elites of the Sicán culture.

Dr. Harris: [1:56] So much of what we could have known about what took place there has been lost.

Dr. Scher: [2:00] And that is because for the greater part of the 20th century, the land that it was on belonged to a wealthy family, the Auriches. The Auriches, because the land was theirs, had complete legal right to dig up anything that was there. Once they discovered that they had gold on their property, they started mining it.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] They took the agricultural workers and employed them instead on basically grave robbing.

Dr. Scher: [2:25] It happened on a larger and larger scale. First, it was just with picks and shovels. By the end, they were using bulldozers.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] You can imagine the kind of damage to an archaeological site that a bulldozer would do.

Dr. Scher: [2:39] What we’re losing in a word is context. We don’t know anything other than it came from Batán Grande, and it probably was from a tomb. The reason we even know that it was probably from a tomb is because of scientific excavation that has taken place since then.

Dr. Harris: [2:54] In the early 1970s, the land was taken away from this family.

Dr. Scher: [2:58] Yes, due to government land reform. At that point, what happened was the land was given to essentially collective groups of people to farm, and that laid the groundwork for the ability of scientific researchers, the foremost of whom is a man named Izumi Shimada, to embark on a long-term project to try and find out everything we can about the culture from what’s left.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] What he does is scientific archaeological investigation that’s slow, methodical, and in that way we learn so much more.

Dr. Scher: [3:32] Everybody thinks about Indiana Jones, but Indiana Jones is actually not a particularly good archaeologist because he’s digging for a single object.

[3:39] That’s what happens here. We have pictures from the Aurich family archives of a room in their house filled with nothing but beakers like this one that had been completely ripped out of the tombs.

[3:51] What else is in tombs? There’s a lot of things, and it all bears information, but none of that was valuable like gold. So it was either tossed aside, or if it was something less valuable like copper, it was just melted down.

Dr. Harris: [4:03] What an archaeologist is doing is carefully documenting everything.

Dr. Scher: [4:07] Sometimes down to grains of pollen. Working on that small of a level, you can find out a lot of information about the food people ate, what the environment was like, whether or not they were importing goods, and all of that is completely lost.

[4:20] When this looting takes place, one of the un-valuable things that is in the grave is the body itself. Bones have a huge amount of information. Bones can tell us about what a person did during their lifetime. It can tell us whether somebody was male or female. It can tell us about gender roles in society.

Dr. Harris: [4:38] How they died.

Dr. Scher: [4:39] Sometimes. We love being able to know how somebody died. It can tell you about whether or not they had undergone any medical procedures. We see skulls being cut into to cure some kinds of brain diseases. You also have information on nutrition. If you’re really lucky, sometimes DNA is preserved.

[4:57] Then you can find out how people were related. You can find out if there were ruling dynasties over time, and you can also find out from the stable isotopes in tooth enamel whether or not people were from that area or came in from far away, and all of that’s lost when the skeleton’s destroyed.

Dr. Harris: [5:13] When we talk about the Auriches, we’re talking about a very sophisticated system of looting that takes place on the ground with people who are poor, who need the money that they earned from the looting, all the way up through middlemen, and then eventually smuggling the artifacts out of the country.

[5:30] Then they make their way to collectors in Europe and the United States, and many of them eventually to museums.

Dr. Scher: [5:37] A lot of times, the sale and traffic of these objects is intertwined with the sale and traffic of drugs. Sometimes, as we see in the Middle East right now, with the funding of terrorism.

Dr. Harris: [5:50] It makes sense, you have to figure out how to bring materials illegally across borders, and who else knows how to do that?

Dr. Scher: [5:56] Exactly.

Dr. Harris: [5:57] This is a complex network. People are making a lot of money. Unfortunately, not the people who need to make the money,

Dr. Scher: [6:04] Exactly. A few people are making a lot of money The people on the ground aren’t really making a lot of money because they’re already so poor that small amounts of money to us are actually large amounts of money to them.

Dr. Harris: [6:15] The government of Peru has also made the argument that taking these objects out of Peru depletes the possibility of tourist income.

Dr. Scher: [6:22] We see that with the boom in the creation of new museums in Peru, especially as there are new archaeological finds, again, scientific archaeology.

Dr. Harris: [6:31] Grave robbing goes back to the 16th century and to the Spanish.

Dr. Scher: [6:35] The Spanish would actually set up mining corporations to perform large-scale looting operations. One of the biggest examples of that is at the site of the Huacas de Moche, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.

[6:49] Only half or a third of the Huaca del Sol is still with us, this enormous, multi-tiered adobe brick platform. The Spanish formed a mining corporation and literally changed the course of a river to wash it away like panning for gold, and pan for gold they did.

Dr. Harris: [7:07] As we’re here looking at this case at the Metropolitan Museum of Art filled with gold objects, I have that same sense that we’re privileging these extraordinary objects.

Dr. Scher: [7:17] Most collectors and most museum-going people aren’t going to be interested in the congealed mass of beads that I saw in the scientific museum at Sicán, where they show you how a group of necklaces was brought up out of the ground and instead of separating them and restringing them, they show them in context.

Dr. Harris: [7:35] This display is beautiful.

Dr. Scher: [7:37] It is.

Dr. Harris: [7:37] Although we’re missing that context, it also helps to draw our attention to the amazing craftsmanship. To the sophisticated visual language developed by the Sicán people.

[7:49] It draws our attention to this culture in a way that’s important.

Dr. Scher: [7:52] We can’t put these things back in the ground. We can’t recover the context, all of that is lost. What we can hope for is that people who see this will have an interest sparked.

[8:02] That they will become not only interested in the objects but in the cultures and in finding out more information the scientific way. Maybe going to Peru and visiting those museums or volunteering on an archaeological dig, which is something anybody can do. Really getting to understand the knowledge that’s involved.

[8:23] [music]

Key points

  • The Sicán culture was located on the north coast of Peru, and is sometimes referred to as Lambayeque.
  • We have lost a significant amount of knowledge of Sicán culture due to systematic looting and grave-robbing. These looted objects were smuggled out of Peru and many find their way to private collections and museums in North America and Europe.
  • This inverse-face beaker, made of hammered gold, shows a face in a position that would have been upside-down when it was used. This inversion may suggest the underworld, or contact with spirit forces.

Cite this page as: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Beth Harris, "What the bulldozers left behind: reclaiming Sicán’s past," in Smarthistory, November 21, 2017, accessed July 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/what-the-bulldozers-left-behind-reclaiming-sicans-past/.