MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES

Peru: a journey in time, at the British Museum in London

The British Museum’s major new exhibition is on Peru and promises to offer the visitor ‘more than Machu Picchu’. This it does.

 

From the early culture of the Chavin in 1200 BC to the fall of the great Inca empire in AD 1532, the exhibition charts the rise and fall of six little-known yet remarkably rich societies. 

 

It’s an ambitious exhibition ‘a bit like trying to tell the story of Europe in 100-plus objects’ reflects its co-curator, Jago Cooper. Luckily, he and his team have some of the world’s most alluring artefacts upon which to draw, including over 40 items loaned from nine Peruvian museums, most of which have never been seen in the UK before, together with over 80 pieces from the British Museum’s own collection. 

 

Highlights of the current exhibition, illustrated below, include a straight-lipped wide-eyed copper and shell funerary mask made by the people of the northern Peru Moche culture (AD 100-800). Then there is an extremely well-preserved Early Nasca mantle (100 BC-AD 100). This seemingly joyful blanket is adorned with human figures wearing feline mouth masks – and holding severed heads. A people without writing, the pre-colonial Peruvians left an astonishing range of art. They depicted everything from sacred blood-drinking elite rituals to everyday events, and we were amused by a charmingly domestic ‘copulating vessel’, again made by the Nasca (100 BC-AD 650). Finally, although easy to miss at only about 6cm high, and in a lowish cabinet, do look out for the miniature gold figure of a llama made by the Inca (AD 1400-1532). [Click the carousel below to see all of the above.]

Incidentally, if you live in the UK, you may recognise the little Inca llama since it is being used on much of the show’s publicity. However, it is worth reiterating that the focus of the exhibition is most definitely not the Inca, with their famous site of Machu Picchu. Instead, the visitor gets an equal, if not deeper, insight into the rich variety of pre-Inca Peruvian cultures.

 

This exhibition, ten years in the making, is the perfect introduction to Peru’s pre-colonial legacy. In the meantime, if you’d like to discover more about some of these lost cultures from the comfort of your armchair, take a read of Secret Peru, in the current issue (No 4) of our magazine, out now.

Peru: a journey in time is on at the British Museum in London until 20th Feburary 2022. Tickets are £15 for adults. To book, visit www.britishmuseum.org. For those who cannot visit we highly recommend the catalogue edited by Cecilia Pardo and Jago Cooper, priced £30 and published by The British Museum.

Eric Ravilious: Downland Man, at the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, UK

The Wiltshire Museum in southern England is currently hosting a must-see exhibition on the work of the 20th century artist, Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). Dr Naomi Payne writes.

 

This exhibition of Eric Ravilious’ watercolours and woodcuts brings together artworks and influences from the artist’s early career, with examples of his work as an official war artist before he was killed in action in 1942.

 

In the first room, Ravilious’ hill figures, including the iconic paintings of Westbury White Horse (which features on the exhibition poster), Uffingdon White Horse and the Long Man of Wilmington take pride of place amongst his pre-war art. The 1937 lithograph ‘Avebury - Landscape of the Megaliths', by Ravilious’ tutor Paul Nash, further highlights the inspirational role of ancient sites on British artists in the first part of the 20th century.

 

In the late 1930s Ravilious started working on material for a Puffin Picture Book with the working title ‘White Horses’, envisioned as an exploration of human interaction with English chalkland landscapes. An early mock-up or ‘dummy’ of the book was for many years presumed to have been in Iceland with Ravilious when he perished there. However, the unfinished work turned up in the papers of Ravilious’ publisher in 2010 and this ‘lost’ book has recently been brought to life as it might have been, using the content of the dummy and surviving correspondence between Ravilious and his publisher, with additional illustrations and text by Alice Pattullo. The original mock-up is on display, and the re-imagined Puffin Picture Book is available to buy alongside the exhibition catalogue.

The second room focusses mainly on Ravilious’ war art, with depictions of both military installations and enemy action. Whatever the subject matter, Ravilious’ distinctive textures and washed out tones dominate.

 

Exhibition curator James Russell has brought together pieces from numerous galleries, including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Museum, and Tate Britain, and also from private collections. It is a great treat to see these works assembled. The influence of the ancient landscape on Ravilious’ work shines through.

 

Dr Naomi Payne is Finds and Archive Manager at AC Archaeology and a research associate at Exeter University 

ERIC RAVILIOUS: DOWNLAND MAN

Wiltshire Museum,

41 Long Street,

Devizes,

SN10 1NS

 

Until 30 January 2022

To discover more and to support the exhibition please visit www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk 

 

Gold of the Great Steppe, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK

For those of you in the UK, head over to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for your chance to see their spectacular FREE exhibition, Gold of the Great Steppe. On until January 2022, it features the archaeology of the 1st millennium BC Saka nomads of today's Kasakstan.

 

Among the show-stopping must-see treasures are the contents of a high-status teenage warrior’s tomb, discovered in 2019, and on display for the first time in the UK.

 

Read the latest issue (No 4) of Past Worlds for the full lowdown, including behind-the-scenes info from the curators. Discover the dramatic story of the site's discovery, learn who the Saka were, and how they used to live. On this page, enjoy some of the images, and a gallop through some of the most interesting items on display.

The teenager's tomb

Central to the exhibition is the teenage warrior's tomb. To our mind, this is one of archaeology's most spectacular finds of the 21st century. Dated to around 800-550 BC, the exhibition offers a sensational reconstruction of his burial. See him dressed in all his finery, wearing magnificent ceremonial attire with dazzling gold accessories and elaborately decorated weaponry. His cast-bronze dagger, its pommel in the form of two angry-looking cats’ heads, probably snow leopards, and his highly decorated gold scabbard are particularly striking. The scabbard is covered with stylised animals, both game and predators, picked out in tiny gold granules and embellished with semi-precious stones. 

His gorytos – a leather case unique to the Scythian culture that holds both the bow and the quiver – contained 40 arrows, with barbed arrowheads (most of the organic material of the shafts has not survived). The decorative gold work is breath-taking: a stunning tear-drop base-plate shows two deer, their eyes made of turquoise stones with lapis lazuli pupils.  Several Scythian-style female deer plaques, made from embossed sheets of gold, adorn the side of the case, with a single, larger stag, again with a lapis lazuli studded turquoise eye.

 

Thousands of tiny gold beads were recovered near the lad’s feet, suggesting they had been sewn onto his shoes. The time, skill and patience required to manufacture such tiny objects reflects the technological expertise of Saka craftsmen. On his headdress are gold strips in the form of deer silhouettes, with cut-outs for their eyes and nostrils, while around his neck is a huge gold torque. ​

Horse, hair,  heat 

The Saka were accomplished riders and fierce mounted warriors, but also valued their horses for their meat, milk and hide. Unsurprisingly, horses played a prominent role in their society. What is more unusual is that it appears the Saka regarded their horses almost as an extension of themselves, and buried them with similar ceremony, bedecked in elaborately decorated individually-designed harnesses. Pictured above is a beautiful reconstruction of a horse burial at Berel that dates to about 400-200 BC.

Another fabulous item we'd like to draw your attention to is a gold hairpin in the shape of a poppy head: it has a small split in the surface that exposes something within – the actually poppy around which the gold was moulded, perhaps? Look out, too, for the most delicate and beautifully made gold pendant of a cooking cauldron. It is a miniature replica of the huge bronze cauldrons found in Saka burials, possibly used for the feasts as part of the funeral rites.

 

Analysis is ongoing to discover what food-stuffs were being cooked, not just the meat from their herds but also indigenous plants. We know the Saka were in tune with their environment, and had an extensive knowledge of the nutritional and medicinal uses of plants, both wild and cultivated. 

 

As curator Rebecca Roberts told Past Worlds: ‘In the exhibition, we want to show the sophistication of their interaction with their environment, not only with their burial mounds but also the complex material world behind it, in terms of their economy: the way they used the landscape, that they knew where the raw materials were. They developed subsistence strategies like nomadic pastoralism but, where it was suitable, they also were engaging in the gathering and processing of plants for medicine and crafts as well as for diet.’

 

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition offers a unique and all too brief opportunity to see and admire artefacts rarely seen in this country, so here at Archaeology Worldwide, we suggest you grab the chance while you can.

GOLD OF THE GREAT STEPPE

Ftizwilliam Museum

Trumpinton Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RB

 

Until 30th January 2022

Exhbition tickets are free, but it is advisable to book

www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/