As part of a series of museum visits and guest lecturers for the Bard Graduate Center spring 2017 course, “The Inca and Their Ancestors: Andean Objects, Technologies, and Issues of Conservation,” Mellon “Cultures of Conservation” Fellows Alicia Boswell and Jessica Walthew guided students through the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of South American Peoples. Hosted by Sumru Aricanli, Senior Scientific Assistant for Mexican, Central, and South American Archaeology in the Division of Anthropology, students were given the opportunity to view and examine pre-Columbian artifacts from Lake Titicaca and the Virú valley collected by Wendell C. Bennett, Curator of South American Archaeology at AMNH from 1932-1937. These collections came from Bennett’s fieldwork in the 1930’s when he completed multiple expeditions to Peru and Bolivia to carry out survey and excavations. This was a time when Andean archaeology was just emerging as a field of study. Informed by Bennett’s account of his expedition and subsequent publications by other researchers, the aim of the visit was to better understand methods of archaeological data collection and inference through an exercise in close observation.

The Hall of South American Peoples houses a wide array of objects from the ancient Moche, Chavín, Chancay, Paracas, Nasca and Inca cultures among others. An eye-catching recreation of a Moche tomb draws visitors into the hall, and sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit. The recreation of the tomb, which was excavated at the site of Sipán on north coast of Peru in 1987 by Walter Alva and Luis Cherro shows an individual known as the “Lord of Sipán” surrounded by attendants, and covered in layers of precious metals, pottery, shell beads, and textiles. The reconstructed tomb introduces some of these materials and objects that lie further inside the hall, demonstrating how many of them may have been found –interred with the dead as grave goods stretching back through past millennia.

The American Museum of Natural History, “The Lord of Sipán,” recreation of Moche tomb and contents, Northern Peru, 100 CE-800 CE. Photo by Anne Carlisle.

Something noted immediately was the green color of artifacts, which is the result of corrosion of metal objects, clueing the viewer in to the fact that these bodies are covered with a considerable amount of metalwork. Clichés about golden cities aside, this display demonstrates that metalwork was highly prized in Moche culture. In the subsequent displays, the techniques and tools used in metalwork production are presented through objects of copper, silver, gold and various alloys. The technical ability of the Moche metalsmiths is made apparent in the delicate filigree and granulation techniques used to make objects like nose and ear ornaments:

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Filigree/granulation nose and ear ornaments, Moche culture. Northern Peru, 100 CE-800 CE. Photo by Anne Carlisle.
Didactic metallurgy display at AMNH. Photo by Anne Carlisle.

Alicia and Jessica answered questions as we passed through the displays, pointing out specific motifs, patterns, and traits of different pre-Columbian cultures. Trophy heads, held by individuals is a motif found across many pre-Incan cultures, are depicted on large mantles woven with cotton and camelid fibers. Hundreds of years later, the Inca forged llamas and alpacas in precious metals, demonstrating the reciprocal relationship of materials and forms, how an object rendered in a precious material signifies its importance, and vice versa. For every major material group, an accompanying didactic display outlined the process through which the objects were fabricated, with additional drawings and notes throughout the exhibition.

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Textile from Nasca culture, Peru. Photo by Anne Carlisle.
“Royal Llama of the Inca,” c.1500, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, silver. Photo by Anne Carlisle.
Display of textile making tools and materials, AMNH. Photo by Anne Carlisle.

After looking at the intact, well-preserved objects on display in the dimly lit galleries, the group traveled to the AMNH storage rooms, where Ms. Aricanli had prepared several boxes of pre-Columbian ceramic vessels and pottery sherds, shell beads, fragments of worked metal and stone, and a gourd bowl from Peru all recovered by AMNH curator Wendell Bennett in the late 1930s for us to examine. The vessels that were nearly complete were from the Moche and Gallinazo cultures in the Virú valley, dating around 200 BCE-800 CE. We also examined polychrome sherds from the Inca culture found on the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca.

Variety of different types of pre-Columbian material culture, AMNH. Photo by Anne Carlisle.

Before revealing too much information about the objects, Alicia encouraged the students to make observations and think critically about what these observations might imply about the object’s original form and use. Given leave to handle the sherds, students donned gloves and examined the objects, noting evidence of their making and use; tiny crescent shapes were identified as the maker’s fingernail marks – what might information like that be able to tell us about the maker? If soot was detected on the outside of a vessel, did that imply that the vessel was used for cooking? What might the thickness and weight of a ceramic vessel tell us about its production and its use? Similarly, what types of decorative treatments were, or were not used, and what might that indicate in terms of importance, purpose, or use?

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Sumru Aricanli and students examining sherds and other objects. Photo by Anne Carlisle.
Sumru Aricanli and students examining sherds and other objects. Photo by Anne Carlisle.

The material culture assembled by Bennett is amongst the earliest scientifically collected Virú valley materials. However, the culture history of the region remains open to questions of interpretation. As Krzysztof Makowski describes it, scholars have been debating the “cultural and political phenomena associated with the production of ceramics” in the area since Bennett’s excavations in the late 1930s (2009: 33). Through an abbreviated process of observance, examination, and inference, students were able to replicate a version the actions that lead archaeologists to develop typologies and chronologies in their efforts to establish distinct cultures and periods. Experiencing the process of hands-on examination for themselves, students were better able to understand what archaeologists experience when making their own deductions, and how individual perceptions might significantly differ in spite of a relatively controlled environment and consistent presentation. This deeper consideration of the process of observance and inference will prove valuable as students develop their interpretation for an online exhibition of the Paracas culture at the end of the term.


Bennett, Wendell C. “Archaeology of the North Coast of Peru: An Account of Exploration and Excavations in Virú and Lambayeque Valleys.” In The Anthropological Papers of The American Museum of Natural History, vol. 37. New York City: The American Museum of Natural History, 1939.

Makowski, Krzysztof. “Virú-Moche Relations: Technological Identity, Stylistic Preferences, and the Ethnic Identity of Ceramic Manufacturers and Users.” In Gallinazo: An Early Cultural Tradition on the Peruvian North Coast. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2009.