Mountains, Myths And Psychedelics: Peru's History Has It All At The British Museum

Peru, The British Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 15 months ago

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Mountains, Myths And Psychedelics: Peru's History Has It All At The British Museum Peru, The British Museum 4
A Nasca mantle showing humans with feline masks, holding severed heads. Image courtesy Museo de Arte de Lima.

A fierce kneeling warrior clutches a club and shield, staring me down.

I'm glad he lived circa 2,000 years ago — doubly so once I find out that he's a warrior of the Moche people in Peru. Anyone he defeated in ritual combat would be stripped of their clothes and offered as a human sacrifice to appease the gods.

The belligerent sculpture is one of over 120 objects in Peru: A Journey in Time at The British Museum — a show dedicated to the diverse peoples and civilisations who lived in Peru from 1200BC through to the 16th century.

Think of Peru and you may well picture Machu Picchu and the Inca empire; in fact the Inca were only present for the last hundred or so years before Spanish colonial rule — there were a host of other fascinating cultures before that and this enlightening exhibition tells us who they were.

The fierce Moche warrior in question. Wouldn't want to meet him in a dark rainforest. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the oldest, most striking, objects is a breastplate fitted with dozens of turquoise gems within seashells. It must have taken some serious work to put together, so that a high ranking individual could be buried with it. Veneration of the dead is a theme throughout. A funerary blanket shows the dead transforming into deities, while wooden sculptures of prisoners tied to stakes highlight it wasn't simply about punishing your captors — their deaths were considered spiritual sacrifices.  

The pottery's eye-catching too; highly realistic faces painted onto vessels (it's fascinating to get such a clear idea of what Moche people looked like). A depiction of a music ritual shows a man in mid-transformation after taking psychedelics — his hair has become a snake and his tongue elongated.

Psychedelics were an important part of life — a link to the mythical and divine in many of these cultures; elsewhere, bags for coca leaves and a drawing of a coca ritual show a figure witnessing a two-headed serpent in the sky.  

A copper and shell funerary mask. Image courtesy Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru

Another highlight is a muscled vessel of a leg and foot that's a reflection of a network of runners called the chasquis who could relay a message across Peru in three days — that's a distance of 2,700km across mountainous terrain (just thinking about it makes me want to sit down).

Objects and stories like these bring the societies of Peruvian peoples to life, and will make visitors want to discover more about the country's history in a year that marks 200 years of its independence.

Peru: A Journey in Time at The British Museum is on until 20 February 2022. Tickets are £15 for adults.

Last Updated 15 November 2021