American Museum of Natural History California Academy of Sciences
New York, New York San Francisco, California
October, 1977 through January, 1978 June through September, 1978
Field Museum of Natural History Detroit Institute of Arts
Chicago, Illinois Detroit, Michigan
February through May, 1978 October through December, 1978
This exhibition of pre-Columbian gold from Museo Oro
del Peru is presented under the auspices of The National
Institute of Culture, Peru, and was designed by the
American Museum of Natural History, New York.
The participating institutions wish to acknowledge their
General Francisco Morales Bermudez, President of
Peru . . . Jose de la Puente Radbill, Peruvian Minister of
Foreign Relations . . . Otto Elespuru Revoredo, Peruvian
Minister of Education . . . Carlos Garcia Bedoya, Peru-
vian Ambassador to the United States . . . Harry W.
Shlaudeman, United States Ambassador to Peru . . . Dr.
Jorge Cornejo Polar, Director of the National Institute
of Culture, Peru . . . Miguel Mujica Gallo, Founder and
General Director of Museo Oro del Peru . . . Lani Lattin,
Executive Secretary, Federal Council on the Arts and
the Humanities, United States.
Authorization for the temporary export of the objects
was granted in Ministerial Resolution No. 2671-ED-77
by the Government of Peru.
Indemnification of the items was awarded by the Federal
Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Photographs in this booklet courtesy of the Royal
PRE-COLUMBIAN CULTURES OF
PERU REPRESENTED IN THE
INCA: 1450-1532 A.D.
Their empire extended over much of the highland
and coastal regions of western South America.
Used lavish amounts of gold to adorn their temples;
CHIMU: 1000-1470 A.D.
Ruled a series of north coastal river valleys from
Chan Chan, their capital. Great numbers of gold
mortuary objects have been recovered from their
tombs. Chancay culture, slightly to the south, was
contemporary with them.
MOCHE: 200-700 A.D.
A north coast valley culture, less far-reaching than
the Chimu. Their goldwork included skillfully exe-
cuted figures in the round.
NAZCA: 200-500 A.D.
Inhabited a south coastal area including the desert
plain famous for its lines and huge figures.
Fanciful animal forms dominate their rare cut sheet-
Successors to the Paracas culture, known for its
unique embroidered textiles.
VICUS: 200 B.C.-300 A.D.
A northern inland culture, recently discovered and
not well understood. The elegance of their style
shows early mastery of working with gold.
For many of us enjoying the riches of Peruvian
civilization for the first time, it is important to note
that the Inca with their famous empire and fabulous
cities were preceded by numerous cultures covering
a time span of more than two millennia before the
arrival of the Spanish. During the long period when
they flourished in various areas of Peru, these peo-
ples developed large kingdoms, domesticated a whole
array of food plants and produced textiles among
the finest in the world. This exhibit presents exam-
ples of goldwork produced by several of these earlier
cultures, particularly those which left their riches
beneath the desert sands of the Peruvian coast.
Few regions were so blessed in the abundance of
gold as Peru and few cultures exploited their riches
with such technological and artistic ingenuity. Un-
fortunately, most of Peru's golden treasure was
either collected in the vain attempt to ransom Ata-
hualpa, the last native ruler, from his Spanish cap-
tors or was looted from thousands of tombs in the
first centuries following the European invasion in
1532. Many tons* of skillfully crafted golden objects
were melted down for easier shipment and division
among those who had little appreciation for their
beauty and meaning, or for the achievement these
Only a tiny sample remains to us. But the mag-
nificent collection assembled by the Museo Oro del
Peru, in Lima, is more than enough to establish both
the great creativity of ancient Peruvian civilization
and the fantastic natural wealth available to it.
Pre-Columbian Peruvian culture areas
represented in the exhibit
INCA: Circa 1450-1532
In 1532, Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru, open-
ing a whole new land of riches and a new era of
growth and prosperity for Europe. At the same time,
the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire brought to
an end one of the world's great civilizations.
Legends of Peruvian treasure preceded Pizarro's
voyage. In fact, the quest for golden riches partly
inspired exploration of the New World. But despite
many tantalizing finds of exquisite goldwork in Mex-
ico and elsewhere in the Americas, really large quan-
tities of the precious metal eluded the Europeans
until Spanish conquistadors met the Inca ruler Ata-
hualpa at the town of Cajamarca in the northern
Andes. Taken captive, Atahualpa sent an order
throughout his vast realm to bring gold and silver
from the temples and palaces. The metal the Euro-
peans so prized was to have bought his freedom.
Calculations based on the list of gold objects as-
sembled and their approximate weights and quali-
ties suggest that as raw gold the ransom would have
been worth about $28,175,000 at the market price
of August 17, 1977. There was much silver in ad-
dition. The Spanish invaders executed Atahualpa
shortly after his fabulous ransom had been collected
and divided it among themselves.
As the Spanish were more interested in the com-
mercial value of the gold than in the beauty and use
of the objects, they melted down all of the vast Inca
treasure. Within a few years of the conquest, the
systematic looting of cemeteries began, and most of
the gold unearthed in this manner was also converted
to ingots. Even most of the gold more recently exca-
vated has come to us from treasure hunters who did
not care about collecting information to document
its history and meaning.
Yet, from fragments we can piece together a
fascinating picture. What the Spanish wrote about
what they saw, drawings on pottery that show gold
in use, and occasional records of other objects in-
cluded with gold in tombs give us at least a glimpse
of a daily and ceremonial life as rich as the gold itself.
In order to understand the use and meaning of
gold in ancient Peru, it is best to begin at the end,
as does this exhibit. Although little Inca gold sur-
vived the melting pots, eyewitness accounts tell us
something of its role in the rapidly collapsing empire.
Like peoples everywhere, the ancient Peruvians
appreciated the beauty of gold and thus used it
lavishly as personal adornment, both in life and in
death. The large Inca shawl pins or topus (items 10
and 11, case 3) are elegantly simple examples. Their
unencumbered, almost modern purity of form typi-
fies Inca goldworking and other aspects of Inca arts.
The Inca himself, members of his family and
others of noble rank had the right to use dishes and
other objects of daily life fashioned from gold, such
as the two small beakers (items 18 and 19, case 6).
Such beakers, often quite large, were probably used
for drinking the maize beer called chicha. Many ac-
counts describe public ceremonies during which par-
ticipants consumed large amounts of chicha. The
hospitality of the Inca and other leaders was an
expected part of daily life, and the ability to provide
such feasts was important to maintaining political
power and influence. Using golden drinking vessels
enhanced both the ceremony and the power and
status of its providers.
Religious objects made of gold for the adornment
of temples also characterize many cultures. The
Incas dedicated their most famous temple to their
chief deity, the sun, in Cuzco. Known as Coricancha,
the golden enclosure, it was a great compound of
buildings surrounded by a beautiful cut-stone wall
built without mortar. The temple contained the most
fabulous treasures of the empire. None of it remains.
A young Spanish soldier, Pedro de Cieza de Leon,
described it in his chronicle of 1553 as follows:
It had many gates, and the gateways
finely carved; halfway up the wall ran a
stripe of gold two handspans wide and
four fingers thick. The gateway and doors
were covered with sheets of this metal.
Inside there were four buildings, not very
large, fashioned in the same way, and the
walls inside and out were covered with
gold, and the beams too
In one of these houses, which was the rich-
est, there was an image of the sun, of great
size, made of gold, beautifully wrought
and set with many precious stones. . . .
There was a garden in which the earth
was lumps of fine gold, and it was cun-
ningly planted with stalks of corn that
were of gold — stalks, leaves and ears. . . .
Aside from this, there were more than 20
llamas of gold with their young, and the
shepherds who guarded them, with their
slings and staffs, all of this metal. ... In a
word, it was one of the richest temples in
the whole world.
The use of gold in religion did not always reach
the public scale of elaborate temples. Small figurines
such as those included here (items 3 through 6, case
2), usually a much more personal expression of re-
ligion, were frequently left as a kind of offering in
caves or other natural shrines. Only because of this
practice did they survive the Spanish furnaces.
The long ear of the figurine wearing the hat indi-
cates the importance of earspools in pre-Columbian
Peru. Persons of high status had their ears pierced
and stretched to accommodate these enormous or-
naments. Noting this unfamiliar custom, the Span-
ish referred to such people as orejones, long ears. As
a prime status symbol, earspools were made of vari-
ous precious materials and intricately decorated. For
example, the centers of the pair shown here (items
41 and 42, case 10) are set with a mosaic of mother-
of-pearl, turquoise, lapis lazuli, red spondylus shell
and possibly jade. This pair and others are displayed
in the Chimu section of the exhibit.
The lifelike Inca figurines represented people or
animals for whom prayers were offered. After people,
the llama and its close relative the alpaca were prob-
ably the characters most frequently portrayed in
these small figures. Domesticated in the high Andean
plain long before Inca times, these two camellike
animals had different economic roles. The alpaca
was raised for its fine wool; the llama served as a
beast of burden and was also commonly sacrificed.
Following an unusual Inca custom, each ruler
accumulated his own treasure rather than simply
inheriting it from his predecessors. A 16th-century
Each dead lord has here his house and all
that was paid to him as tribute during his
life, for no lord who succeeds another can,
after the death of the last one, take pos-
session of his inheritance. Each one has his
service of gold and of silver, and his things
enclosed for himself, and he who follows
takes nothing from him.
Pedro Sancho, 1543
As a result of this custom, the dead rulers did not
have tombs in the ordinary sense of the word, but
their houses continued to function, with staffs of
retainers as well as the physical objects surrounding
them in life. The mummies and associated cult ob-
jects regularly took part in the appropriate cere-
monies of state.
CHIMU: Circa 1200-1470
Many of the customs documented for the Inca
probably date back at least to the Chimu. Their
kingdom, known as Chimor, was conquered by the
Inca about 1470. In Chan Chan, the Chimu capital,
each ruler built an enormous walled compound of
adobe. The compounds included hundreds of storage
chambers for food and very large burial platforms.
The treasure accumulated by Chimu leaders was in-
terred in tombs at Chan Chan and elsewhere in the
Because so much of it comes from tombs, Chimu
gold gives us insight into mortuary art and ritual.
Many of the Chimu artifacts are simply the orna-
ments and symbols of status probably collected dur-
ing life. But others relate specifically to death and
its attendant ceremony. The golden burial gloves
and the large masks, attached as a sort of face to
mummy bundles, provide examples of gold specifi-
cally associated with death.
The golden gloves (items 20 and 21, case 8) are
so extraordinary and rare that it is difficult to inter-
pret their place in Chimu culture. Their rigidity
strongly suggests, of course, that they were never
worn except possibly in death. Each finger with its
silver fingernail, the hand and the arm were formed
separately and the parts then assembled with golden
tabs. Figures with plumed headdresses, depicted
in profile on the back of the hands, carry clubs and
probably represent warriors. A comparison of deco-
rative details on the two gloves, such as the head-
dress plumes, shows that they are not identical, a
departure from the perfect matching usual for paired
The eyes of the warrior figures have the upturned
outer corners also characteristic of the mummy
masks. This manner of portraying the eyes, known
as the Lambayeque style, typifies goldwork from
sites such as Pampa Grande in the Lambayeque Val-
ley, north of Chan Chan. Much of the surviving
Chimu gold comes from this area; discovery of the
tombs there after the artistic and cultural value of
ancient Peruvian objects had become obvious saved
the contents from conversion to bullion.
The several masks included in this exhibit, such
Chimu burial gloves
as item 62, case 15 (illustrated on cover) are excel-
lent examples of Chimu mummy masks. They also
point to interesting aspects of how the ancient Peru-
vians worked gold and certain of their attitudes
Detailed studies made at the Massachusetts In-
stitute of Technology of masks similar to these show
that they are not of pure gold but merely have a gilt
surface. Far from reducing the value and interest of
the masks, such studies underline the complex tech-
nology of ancient Andean metallurgy. Basically,
Andean gilding worked by chemically removing the
other metals (usually silver and copper) from the
surface of a gold alloy, leaving an exterior layer of
almost pure gold.
Gilding, of course, achieves a glittering golden ex-
panse with a minimum of the precious metal. Eco-
nomical use of gold no doubt played a role in the
choice of gilding to make mummy masks and other
large golden pieces. But still greater economies could
have resulted from affixing gold foil to the surface
of more common metal instead of beginning with, or
in some cases producing, a gold alloy and enrich-
ing its surface by chemical means. On rare occasions
that was actually done. One authority has suggested
that ancient Peruvians may have felt the need for
gold objects to contain some gold throughout. Their
total "essence" had to be golden even if they con-
sisted mostly of other metals.
And despite all the effort expended to achieve the
golden surface of a mask, that surface was almost
entirely covered with other materials. Inlays of silver
and other metals covered the flanges which formed
the ears; the eyes had insets of turquoise and other
stones; feathers adorned parts of the mask, and vir-
tually the entire face was often painted with mate-
rials such as cinnabar. Less than 10% of the gold
surface could be seen. Why was the gold so hidden?
We come once again to the important presence of
gold throughout the object: once the gold surface
had been established, the fact that it could not be
seen appeared not to matter.
The color of many of the pieces in this exhibit can
be traced to these gilding techniques and surface
coverings. Frequently the enriched-gold surfaces
have worn away, leaving silver and/ or copper ex-
posed. Oxidation of these metals can produce a gray
or green coloration. The masks themselves retain
traces of the original paint.
The very rare and well-preserved backrest of the
Chimu litter (item 69, case 17) suggests the great
splendor that surrounded royal travel. An eyewit-
ness description of the arrival of Atahualpa in his
litter to meet Pizarro in Cajamarca might also apply
to the use of this litter by the Chimu.
The advance guard of Atahualpa's army
began to enter the square. First came a
squadron of people dressed in a red-and-
white check livery, who picked up the
straws from the ground and swept the
road; then more bands in different liveries,
all singing and dancing, and after them a
number of men with breastplates . . . me-
dallions and gold and silver crowns, in the
midst of whom came Atahualpa in a litter
lined with multicolored parrot feathers
and decorated with gold and silver plates.
The ruler was borne on the shoulders of
many men and behind him came two more
litters and two hammocks containing per-
sons of importance, who were followed
by many more who wore gold and silver
crowns. . . .
Francisco de Jerez, 1534
Chimu backrest of litter
Miniature funeral procession
Similar pomp attended the litter of a deceased
ruler on the way to burial, illustrated in the exhibit
by the miniature funeral procession (item 70, case
18) with its carriers, household goods and plants.
The litter was carried empty, however, and the
mummy bundle borne separately, lashed to a pole.
In use, the decorated side of the backrest faced
the rear, where it could be viewed; the plain side was
originally covered or padded with cloth. The six
richly painted "portals" of this piece may represent
administrative buildings, and the gold staffs held by
the figures may be symbols of office. Gold plates
attached to the wooden frame (perhaps a type of
acacia wood) form most of the costume of the
figures. The original decoration probably included
feathers, leather and cloth as well.
The small textile fragment (item 95, case 23) cov-
ered with gold squares still sewn with their original
threads shows how fabrics were sometimes decorated
with gold, a custom demonstrated on a large scale
by the magnificent shirt (item 71, case 19) to which
about 13,000 gold plaques have been resewn. A gar-
Shirt covered with gold plaques
ment weighted down with so much gold could hardly
have been comfortable. It may have been for a mum-
my; if worn by a living person, its use would have
been limited to rare ceremonial occasions. The design
on the exposed part of the fabric appears to be Inca,
and the textile may have been made after the Inca
conquest of the north coast.
The great number of beakers found in tombs (such
as item 102, case 24) more likely symbolize wealth
and pleasure in life than reflect a mortuary practice.
As with the Inca, beakers almost certainly served
chiefly as containers for the abundant maize beer
that accompanied religious and political functions.
In fact, the written evidence suggests that maize beer
traditionally played a particularly important role in
the social and political life of the north coast, and
the quality and quantity of vessels a household pos-
sessed for serving it was likely to be an excellent
index of status.
Beakers might be quite plain or adorned, like this
one, with turquoise plaques and designs. Near the
lip is a typical Chimu wave pattern. This beaker also
has the double base characterized by a false bottom
in the container proper; a rattle occupied the cham-
ber formed between the two bases. The exact func-
tion of the double base is unknown. Might the rattle
have been a convenient signal for its user to indicate
to his host that the golden goblet was empty?
MOCHE: Circa 200-700 A.D.
Moche goldwork has a more three-dimensional
feeling than that of the Chimu. The Moche empha-
sized shaping and combining multiple sheets of gold
and they added bangles, which gave their creations
a very special shimmering appearance.
The spectacular feline figure, probably represent-
ing a puma (item 138, case 32) exemplifies these
qualities. It combines a flat sheet-gold body and tail
with a three-dimensional head probably hammered
over a wood form or "mold." Double-headed ser-
pents decorate the flat surface. The two sheets of
gold that compose the body form a bag similar in
shape and size to the cloth bags used for carrying
coca leaves. Chewing coca leaves mixed with a small
amount of lime to liberate the cocaine was common,
particularly among the nobility, and involved an
elaborate ritual paraphernalia. Elsewhere in the ex-
hibit are two small gold picks, each decorated with a
bird (items 187 and 188, case 46), that may have
been used to dip the lime from a gourd.
Few prehistoric cultures have left such a vivid
visual record as the Moche of their customs and
activities. Their highly realistic art, especially the
painted and modeled ceramics, reveals a society with
a complex religious life as well as an emphasis on
warfare. The many aspects of daily life depicted in-
clude the plants and animals used by the Moche.
These ceramics also enable us to see how the
Moche used gold, particularly items of personal
adornment such as earspools. Men are also shown
plucking out their facial hair with tweezers, a prac-
tical alternative to shaving because native Americans
do not have heavy beards. These tweezers, generally
crescent shaped, in some cases may have served as
pendants attached to necklaces. They were usually
of copper, occasionally of gold. The elegant crescent
form of item 171, case 39 extends to represent a
Moche tweezer ornament
double-headed serpent. Depilatory tweezers were
often used in conjunction with polished stone mirrors
to complete the ancient Peruvian "shaving" kit.
In many parts of the New World, metal figurines
and other three-dimensional objects were made by
casting in molds formed around a wax model of the
figure. The nest of the stingless American honey bee
provided the wax.
Where wax was not readily available, as on the
Peruvian coast, the production of figures in the round
required a very different approach. Goldsmiths ham-
mered sheets of gold into three-dimensional forms,
often shaping them around models or molds made of
wood or stone. The preformed sheets of gold were
joined mechanically, as with staples or folded-over
tabs, or metallurgically, joining the two pieces by a
form of welding or by soldering through introduction
of molten metal between them.
The exquisite small Moche jaguar (item 165, case
54, in the technology section) exemplifies this ap-
proach to the production of hollow figures. The figure
is one of a group of at least seven essentially iden-
tical jaguars created in the same workshop, per-
haps by the same goldsmith, and buried inside a
mummy bundle washed out of a pyramid in the Lam-
bayeque Valley in 1925. Several of these matched
jaguars have now been studied in detail, demon-
strating the intricacy of their structure. Each con-
sists of twelve separate pieces. Upper and lower parts
of the body were separately hammered over molds
and the two parts then joined by soldering. The same
molds served to shape all of the animals. The front
legs, tails and ears were each formed in halves and
welded together. The completed appendages were
then inserted into openings prepared for them in the
body and secured by solder. Our knowledge of ex-
actly how this jaguar was produced makes it one of
the most fascinating articles ever found in Peru.
NAZCA: Circa 200-500 A.D.
The Nazca culture on the south coast did not pro-
duce gold objects in the great quantity of the north.
Stylistically, their art is also quite distinct from that
of the Moche. Although both styles are rich in animal
motifs, the realism so characteristic of Moche re-
mains largely absent in Nazca. Theirs was a style of
delicate cut-metal sheets, and the figures they de-
signed were more fanciful than realistic. Both the
delicacy of the work and the use of extensions around
the borders of masks and other pieces bring to mind
the fine Nazca pottery and even the famous outlines
of gigantic figures engraved in the desert earth of the
The mask chosen for the introduction of the ex-
hibit (item 1, case 1) illustrates this delicacy of form.
It represents a human face surrounded by serpents
as hair. The four perforations suggest that it was
originally affixed to a mummy bundle.
The same vibrant lightness typical of the mask
can be seen in the unusual sheet-gold birds or bats
(items 184 and 185, case 42). The antennalike fea-
tures projecting from the head may represent the
bristles of a bird related to the whippoorwill. But it
is not impossible that the head of a butterfly was
combined with a bird's body; the use of curious ani-
mal imagery appears commonly in Nazca art. Most of
the huge figures on the plain reflect these fanciful
motifs, which also occur frequently in the ceramics
VICUS: Circa 220 B.C.-300 A.D.
The oldest objects in this exhibit come from the
Vicus area, near the border of Ecuador. The Vicus
culture was discovered quite recently, and both its
date and cultural relationships remain uncertain.
Already advanced in metallurgy, the Vicus provided
a bridge between the beginning phases of Peruvian
goldworking and the more developed stages demon-
strated by the Moche.
Vicus gold is elegant in its simplicity. Metalwork-
ers cut sheets of gold into basic forms and decorated
them with simple impressed and embossed designs.
Much of the decoration is abstract and geometric,
but animal forms often appear.
Many items which would later become so impor-
tant in the catalogue of Peruvian gold were already
present in Vicus — most notably earspools and nose
ornaments. These latter were attached to the nasal
septum between the nostrils. They were large, usual-
ly completely covering the mouth. Though very dif-
ferent stylistically, in concept they resembled the
Nazca mouth masks. Distant geographically, the
two cultures probably overlapped in time.
The surface of some of the finest Vicus nose orna-
ments show silver on one half and gold on the other.
The use of the two colors is symmetrical, as in the
V-shaped piece adorned with a human face and two
squirrels (item 200, case 49). Note that the sym-
metry and opposition of the design also carries
through to the contrasting bands near the top.
and textiles. They are successors to themes encoun-
tered in the fabulous embroideries of the Paracas
civilization which flourished in the region earlier.
The story of ancient Peruvian gold is far from
complete. Its origins still must be traced, its complex
technology better understood and the meanings of
its mysterious uses deciphered. But even the small
sample that survives makes evident that goldwork-
ing in pre-Columbian Peru represents a very special
moment in the history of this most durable and valu-
able of metals. Craig Morris
Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, New York