Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Perusing Peru

By Michael Finger

APRIL 27, 1998:  The embalmer’s skills have even preserved her eyes,” says narrator Martin Sheen. “Her gaze seems to follow you as you move across the room.”

What you’re hearing is a snippet of dialogue from the taped tour that guides visitors through “Ancestors of the Incas: The Lost Civilizations of Peru,” the latest Wonders series exhibition, which opened last week at The Pyramid. With galleries filled with deformed skulls, pottery depicting diseased and disfigured humans, and (best of all) a darkened room holding three withered mummies, including one with a roving gaze, it’s probably the creepiest show Wonders has ever put on. And all for a purpose. More than 300 objects on display showcase the supernatural link between birth and death – and the harsh life in between – that obsessed the ancient cultures of Peru for more than 3,000 years.

“Ancestors of the Incas” opens with galleries devoted to adobe clay pottery shaped into incredible creatures, humans, and gods (and sometimes God-knows-what). One shows a tiny monkey drinking from a gourd. Another is adorned with sea turtles and sea lions, while another depicts a little cone-shaped man wringing the neck of a llama.

The pottery collection is fascinating – for a while. The trouble is there’s an awful lot of them – about a hundred in the first gallery alone – and since most people (the people I went with, anyway) know there are mummies later in the show, they get impatient and don’t want to spend much time gazing at pots. And if you don’t slow down and follow the taped tour, you probably won’t get much out of the exhibition, since most of the displays are labeled rather simply. “Bowl of Two Felines Attacking a Llama (1200-1532 A.D.)” reads one label, for example, but you can already see that.

If you’re into pottery, there’s plenty to see here; otherwise, hit the fast-forward button on your Acoustiguide and stroll into the textiles gallery, which presents ponchos and tapestries woven by hand a thousand years ago. The most striking object here is a gold-feathered cloak, adorned with brilliant plumes, cat images, and ocean-wave forms. But the most intriguing is the quipu, strands of knotted string dangling from a rope necklace. Although the Incas had no written language, they were accomplished mathematicians, and these gnarled strings served as elaborate accounting systems that people today don’t fully understand. Even in ancient times, so we’re told, they could only be interpreted by the quipucamayocs, or “quipu keepers.”

Photo by Philip scholz Ritterman

Next you encounter the really fascinating objects. One case contains pots (yes, more pots) patterned after severed human heads, with their mouths stitched with thorns – showing neighboring tribes captured by the Incas in their incessant drives for more territory. Other cases hold pots depicting human deformities: an amputated leg, a man with his lips and nose eaten away by a disease called leishmaniasis, a poor fellow with his feet cut off “representing a form of punishment or the results of disease.” And then you see the gleaming-white human skulls, with quarter-size holes punched into them by “healers” wielding jagged obsidian tools, in an attempt to cure illness or perhaps drive out demons. The healed edges around these openings showed that the “patients” survived their ordeals – at least for a while.

Visitors finally come face-to-face with “stars” of the show – the mummies. The Incas believed in the afterlife. Spirits dwelled in the Lower Interior World, they thought, along with plants and water, so they carefully preserved their dead so they could be reborn there. Long before the Egyptians learned the art of mummification, the Incas dried their dead, either in the desert sun or by smoking, then bound them with cords into a fetal position. Three of these ancient Incans, including the body of a 25-year-old woman with a 7-foot rope of hair, sit silently behind Plexiglas cases. It’s sobering to look at their leathery skin, browned fingernails, and grizzled hair and realize that at one time this was a living person – someone just like us – who walked this earth and fretted about things more than a thousand years ago.

Other galleries contain smatterings of gold and copper treasures – what little was left behind after the Spanish conquistadors invaded Peru in 1532 – but the final gallery is perhaps the most intriguing, because it presents images of one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries: the Nazca lines.

In 1939, pilots flying over the coastal plains of southern Peru noticed huge lines scrawled across the desert floor. Other explorers soon discovered fantastic images – giant monkeys, hummingbirds, spiders, and geometric patterns – that stretched for hundreds of yards, yet could only be discerned from the air. To this day, no one knows the meaning of the Nazca lines. Some scientists feel they are astronomical guides or some form of solar calendar. Years ago, the author of a book called Chariots of the Gods proposed that they served as landing fields for aliens. No one knows, and they’re just one more mystery left behind by the ancient people of Peru.

For more information, visit the Wonders Web site, www.wonders.org.

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