Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Voiceover] I'm standing in the Precolumbian Galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Sarahh Scher, an expert in the ancient Moche Culture. This is culture that existed in what is now Peru that produced some of the most exceptional gold work and ceramics that have been found in the Americas. - [Voiceover] The were absolute masters at creating both ceramic and metal objects. Their metal was incredibly sophisticated. We see the use of hammering, soldering. What we're looking at here are earflares that used turquoise, sodalite, spondylus shell, gold, and mother of pearl to create this incredibly beautiful object. - [Voiceover] In fact, we're surrounded by cases with exceptional gold work and other examples of ear spools. Now, if this was 25 years ago, I would probably have to explain what an ear spool was. But, I think most people now know that this are basically studs for a piercing in the ear, that is much larger than a typical piercing. - [Voiceover] The idea was that the bigger the ear spool, the more important of a person you were, and vice versa. And so this particular ones have a diameter that's about a centimeter and a half which is pretty hefty. - [Voiceover] But to make it much more extreme, the display side is much larger, and must be quite heavy because not only do we have a significant amount of gold, but we also have inlaid stone. - [Voiceover] They are very heavy, and they would have been counterbalanced partially by the fact that the shaft in the back is so long. It is also possible that most of these were somehow fastened to head dresses or otherwise attached to clothing to help take some of the weight off of the ear itself, which would have been exceptionally stretched out by these objects. - [Voiceover] So, it's safe to say this was not for everyday wear, this was probably for ceremonial use. But we do find wear marks on these kinds of objects, so we do have an indication that these were not only used for burial. - [Voiceover] These do seem to have been worn in life, the question is whether they were worn by one generation or possibly multiple generations. It is quite possible that if you were a very high ranking person with lots of responsibilities you may end up wearing these quite a bit more than you might think. - [Voiceover] The image in the center is extraordinary, we see these two bird men, and they seem to be running so fast. They seem to have almost picked themselves off the ground. - [Voiceover] This is something that we see very frequently in Moche iconography. This image of the running figure, whether human or supernatural, and its done by having those two bent legs at the knee, and the arms in runner position, sort of pumping back and forth. And then we of course have with these figures the wings on their backs that seems to add to that sense of swiftness. - [Voiceover] And faces that show beaks and eyes that are made in gold, but are clearly the faces of birds. Whether or not they're masks or these are representations of mythological figures is unclear. You can make out that the head piece is tied on under the chin. - [Voiceover] Yes, that's very common in Moche art is that the building blocks of these head dresses are actually shown, and that you can see how they're fastened on to heads. Now, it's quite true that we don't really know whether these are meant to be representations of mythological creatures who wear the same kinds of hats that people wear, or that they are meant to be representations of humans who are wearing masks as ritual runners. Either way, the iconography of running while holding this bag in one hand, and that's what that very simplified shape is, it's a bag, it's gathered up with the top pieces sticking out at the top of the hand. This is something that we see a lot in Moche iconography. - [Voiceover] And one of the ideas that may explain those bags, here represented in mother of pearl, is that they may be representing leather bags that could hold something precious like beans. Almost like this typical American egg and spoon race. The idea might be to travel over long distances without dropping any of those beans. - [Voiceover] That is one theory that is was possible that is was a test, essentially of masculinity, and of physical ability to be able to run a long footrace over difficult terrain like that found on the coast of Peru. And that one would be able to do this while still guarding something precious and delicate. - [Voiceover] But these are also warrior figures, and it might not be immediately apparent, but the legs are representations not of socks and tight-fitting leggings, but rather body paint. - [Voiceover] And we know that mostly because of ceramic representations that are a little bit more detailed. The bottom parts of the legs are represented in sodalite which is a purplish blue mineral, and then we can see at the knees there are these darker patches of turquoise. What we tend to see in ceramic pieces is that those areas of sodalite and then the patches at the knee are all rendered in one color of slip. And they are very much represented with warrior figures, that is figures that are dressed not just with the kilt and the backflap that we can see being worn by this figure here, but that also have helmets, that are carrying shields and maces, and are sometimes fully engaged in combat with each other. - [Voiceover] So we shouldn't be thinking about the idea of a race as pure sport, this has a clear military aspect to it. - [Voiceover] There's something symbolic about it. Now, we can't give you a blueprint and say this is exactly how this fits into their entire system of belief. But what we have are series of visual associations that we have found by very closely looking at the artwork, and that these elements, the leg paint, the kilt, the backflap, those are things that are associated with warriors. And that there are other things that are not immediately apparent as being war related, that seem to have something to do with what makes a good warrior, including images of men hunting deer. - [Voiceover] This is so important to keep in mind because our understanding of Moche culture is really evolving. This is not a culture where we have a written record. This is not a culture that we fully understand. And so it is objects like this that are allowing us to gently begin to construct an understanding of what this culture was about. - [Voiceover] It's a blending of an understanding of these pieces, but also everything that's being done archaeologically. The Moche are a really great example of archaeology as science. We are seeing people revising old hypotheses, putting forth new ones, using new technology, and turning that into a much more sophisticated understanding of how people lived. - [Voiceover] So we can take that process, and look at these earflares, and begin to understand a little bit more about these people. For example, the shell that makes up the kilt, and that makes up the cuffs comes from the west coast of Ecuador, at some distance from where the Moche lived. The turquoise and the sodalite is coming from a distant place, so we see evidence of trade routes. And perhaps we see evidence of a kind of dominance of the Moche, to be able to require the importation of this kind of material. - [Voiceover] It certainly is a representation of the ability of the elites of the Moche at the very least, to command the results of these trade routes, to have things that they could trade in exchange for these things. But also to command the manpower to bring these materials together, and to create these objects that represent the status of people at the top of the social hierarchy. - [Voiceover] Standing even here now, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the status of the individual that wore this is very clear. - [Voiceover] Absolutely. (jazz music)