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Latin America Kevin Dispatch

Ancient Peruvian Fashion 101: Gold T-Shirts, and Three Inch Earlobes
 

As a young boy, I was a member of a society that went searching for dinosaur fossils and other clues to ages past. We would often find little treasures - fossilized bones, plants, fish, and teeth- within an amazingly short distance of my home in Philadelphia! Well, for decades the people of Northern Peru have also been finding little treasures in their own backyards. However, the things they often find are... GOLD! Can you imagine finding gold in your backyard?

Most of the pieces that have been found are now in museums and I got to see many of these precious treasures when I visited the Bruning Museum, located in Lambayeque. (Most of the treasures from the place I visited last week are here! "Graverobbers and Life After Death - My Visit to a Moche Lord's Tomb").

Well, just my luck, most of the museum was under renovation when I arrived and only one small room was left open to the public. However, to my astonishment, this one small room contained enough gold to fund an entire decade of World Treks! The gold was from many different cultures from all over northern Peru.

A gold cup - just like the one I use at home
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One of these cultures, the Vicus, existed just east of the modern day town of Piura, Peru's fifth largest city. The gold pieces that they created, although relatively simple in their design, show that metalworking in the region was already a major development, even back then. [Who cares? Think about how many things you do in your life that involve metal! And how many of those metal pieces could YOU create yourself if you had to? Impressive, huh?]

The first pieces that I saw come from the Vicus culture around roughly 100-300 AD (about the same time that the Moche were developing in the neighboring river valleys to the south, and about 1700 years before you were born!). I immediately noticed three solid gold bowls, all roughly the same size and shape. It's hard to imagine ever owning or using just one of these bowls, but a set of three? Even though they are gold, they don't look shiny, like one would expect. In fact, these bowls look rather dull in comparison. However, this just makes them seem so much more authentic as ancient gold artifacts.

The face of a god - in gold, of course!
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Also from the same period is a piece which resembles a tee-shirt, except that it is made of very thin delicate flattened circles of gold-like coins - all strung together with thread. Can you imagine having to wear a tee-shirt made of gold? They are much heavier than the cotton ones we wear today! These "tee-shirts" are much like chain mail armor, except they were obviously worn for decoration and not for any real form of protection. There are also large plate-like pieces of jewelry created to wear sticking up from the head and smaller ones to wear hanging from the nose.

The Vicus used holes cut into the earth's hard clay to mold the gold into pieces they could use by melting and pouring it into holes. When the gold cooled and hardened into its new shape, the Vicus removed the pieces for finishing touches.

The other pieces in the room were created much later, between 900-1250AD (only about 700 years before you were born!), by another lesser-known Peruvian culture called the Lambayeque. They flourished much closer to where the museum itself actually stands today. On the whole, the Lambayeque pieces are heavier, larger, and more detailed than the other jewelry and are more functional. Believe it or not, it was considered a privilege of the rich and not a burden to wear jewelry made out of these heavy pieces. Several earrings are displayed, some so large (up to three inches in diameter) that they often stretch out the owner's earlobes! They remind me of large bolts. (What some will do for fashion!)

A gold figure of an animal
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There are also many designs of animals and gods that are chosen to represent or illustrate important themes within the river valley cultures. Usually, gold representations of the gods are turned into little figures, like idols, that are made to stand alone or be worn on the front of clothing. Many are flat and round, but some are more three-dimensional and, of course, much heavier. Many of these golden treasures have been found in graves all over the northern coast of Peru.

If I find one of these I can buy a new camera
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Hmmm... Suddenly, I have an urgent impulse to grab a shovel and poke around the backyard of the hostel where I am staying. Do you think I might get lucky? Maybe I'll even find enough gold to replace one of our stolen digital cameras!

Kevin


Team - Why in the World Should We Go to Peru?
Abeja - An Offering to the Odyssey Reading Gods and Goddesses
Abeja - Raiders of the Lost Sandcastles
Monica - Inspector Monica Cracks the Case
Making a Difference - Violence in 'Peaceful Communities'
 
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