A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By MARLEY BROWN
Monday, August 03, 2020
After defeating the forces of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, in 1533, Francisco Pizarro dispatched his brother Hernando to a vast religious center on Peru’s central coast called Pachacamac. Just south of modern-day Lima, Pachacamac spanned nearly 1,500 acres and had, by that time, been a place of worship for at least 1,000 years. There, in front of an assembled crowd of locals and priests, Hernando Pizarro is said to have smashed an idol representing one of Pachacamac’s primary deities. The Spanish had introduced a sweeping proscription against indigenous religious practice and forced the local population to convert to Christianity. Pachacamac was soon abandoned, ending a centuries-long tradition of venerating cults at the site under the rule of elites of multiple Andean cultures. These various cultures, evidence suggests, shared spiritual ideas and perhaps even gods. Pachacamac is, in fact, an Inca name for an oracle that may have been worshipped in some form for hundreds of years before the Inca Empire conquered the area in the late fifteenth century.
Just over 400 years after Pizarro’s raid on Pachacamac, in 1938, avocational archaeologist Albert Giesecke discovered a wooden sculpture roughly eight feet tall and five inches in diameter hidden among rubble from what was once the north atrium of Pachacamac’s Painted Temple. The pyramidal Painted Temple is believed to have first been built in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. and then to have been expanded during the Andean Late Intermediate period (ca. A.D. 1000–1470), when Pachacamac was home to a chieftainship and a deity both known as Ychsma. An American polymath trained in economics who first traveled to Peru in 1909 as an adviser to the Peruvian government, Giesecke became an influential public servant and a champion of the country’s pre-Columbian heritage. With information that had been provided to him by farmers in the area, Giesecke tipped off explorer Hiram Bingham to the location of ruins high above a gorge in the southern highlands—a site now known as Machu Picchu.
Since its discovery, the sculpture from the Painted Temple has been called the Pachacamac Idol and has been the subject of intense interest—and controversy—among scholars of the Andean world. Many have speculated as to whether this idol could be the very artifact Hernando Pizarro is said to have destroyed.
By ERIC A. POWELL
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
The Silk Road, the vast network of trade routes that connected China to the rest of Eurasia from roughly the first century B.C. to A.D. 1400, was justly famous in the West for the rich silk textiles it carried to the Mediterranean world. “But it could just as easily have been called the Jade Road, the Glass Road, or even the Rhubarb Road,” says art historian Judith Lerner of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Such was the variety of commodities—raw silk, glass, spices, finished metalwork, ceramics, and much more—that any one of dozens of goods could have given the route its name. The Sacred Road, too, might once have been a fitting appellation. Christian and Buddhist missionaries, among others, used Silk Road caravans to cross the Asian continent. And from the fifth to the eighth century A.D., the overland trade routes that crossed through Central Asia might also have been called the Sogdian Road. An East Iranian people who lived in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Sogdians were, for a time, the leading merchants of the Silk Road. “The Sogdians achieved great influence via trade,” says Lerner. “The Chinese even had a saying: ‘When a Sogdian child is born, his mother puts honey on his tongue so that he will speak sweetly and glue on his palm so that money will stick to it.’”
The Sogdians were more than quick-witted intermediaries. At their height, their sophisticated culture, skilled diplomacy, and mercantile power helped shape the greater world around them. “You could describe the Sogdians as the first internationalists or globalists,” says Lerner. Sogdian diplomats, translators, artists, craftspeople, and entertainers traveled in the caravans that ventured along the Silk Road and settled in merchant colonies along the route in Central Asia and China. Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road, and, for a time, a vogue for all things Sogdian swept Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–906) China. Chinese courtiers and concubines adopted Sogdian fashions, and the many Tang Dynasty depictions of Sogdian musicians suggest their performances were in high demand. For a time, a craze for an ecstatic dance known as the “Sogdian Whirl” swept the country, and Sogdian dancers became a popular motif in Chinese art that lasted long after Sogdians themselves had been assimilated. Indeed, in the mid-eighth century, a half-Sogdian general named An Lushan, who was reputed to weigh 400 pounds, was known for delighting the Chinese imperial court with his version of the Sogdian Whirl. In turn, the people of Sogdiana were highly receptive to outside ideas, religions, and artistic styles from China, India, and even the Byzantine Empire.
At home in Central Asia, the Sogdians lived in a number of independent city-states clustered around the Zeravshan Valley and the oases of modern-day Uzbekistan. “These states can be compared to the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, each with its own ruling family, laws, and government,” says Lerner. “In fact, the analogy can be taken further when we think of these cities’ rulers as ‘merchant princes’ since that is how the Sogdians derived their wealth.” Samarkand was one of the largest and most prosperous of these cities. Some 60 miles to the east, the much smaller city of Panjakent was a satellite of sorts to Samarkand, but supported its own vibrant economy.
Murals of the Silk Road
By LYDIA PYNE
Tuesday, June 09, 2020
How people dress and adorn themselves has long been a primary way of showcasing their identity and communicating it to others. The ancient Maya, whose world was one of vivid cultural practices and strict hierarchy, with rulers playing an essential role mediating between the gods and mere mortals, developed a deep interest in status and display. One of the ways this manifested itself was in their rich array of clothing and personal ornamentation. “For the Classic Maya, in many ways, clothing defined personhood,” says Alyce de Carteret, a fellow in Art of the Ancient Americas at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Numerous aspects of an individual’s identity—from their political position, to their trade, to their gender—were communicated through adornment, and depictions of clothed bodies encode this vital information. To study ancient Maya dress, then, is to study ancient Maya society itself.”
By the second millennium B.C., the Maya occupied much of southern and eastern Mesoamerica, including all of the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala, as well as western Honduras and El Salvador and parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. Their world was not a unified empire, but rather a collection of kingdoms based in cities such as Copan, Palenque, and Chichen Itza. At various times, new power centers emerged, and their leaders pursued ambitious architectural projects whose remains still impress today, while older centers declined. Much of the scholarship on ancient Maya clothing and adornment focuses on the Classic period (A.D. 250–900), when the Maya population grew dramatically, and royal courts, with their flamboyant ritual displays, became more prominent. While few items of clothing and ornamentation have been preserved in the archaeological record, scholars use depictions on painted murals, ceramic vessels, stone stelas, and clay figurines dating to this period to learn what the ancient Maya wore.
Many of these images show the Maya engaging in or preparing for religious ceremonies, which were scheduled based on an extremely complex calendar system and called for specialized clothing and accessories, from elaborate headdresses to ornate sandals, and even patterns painted directly on the skin. Other images portray warriors or ballplayers, who often integrated animals into their outfits. Still others depict resplendently costumed rulers towering over naked captives. Maya adornment incorporated a broad range of materials, from the luxurious blue-green feathers of the quetzal bird to the spotted skin of the jaguar, which was sometimes worn as a cape with head and paws still attached. Even a seemingly mundane substance such as paper made from bark, when crafted into a simple headband, played a key role in one of the most important Maya rituals of all. And when fashioned into earrings, this paper helped facilitate the Maya ceremonial practice of self-sacrifice. “All these examples point to something deeper and more complex than the material culture of clothing alone can convey,” says Astrid Runggaldier, an archaeologist and assistant director of the Mesoamerican Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “They hint at the role of attire as accoutrement to the social roles embodied by human beings.”
Lydia Pyne is a writer based in Austin, Texas.
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