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What the bulldozers left behind: reclaiming Sicán’s past

The golden Inverse-Face Beaker from Peru's Sican culture reveals ancient beliefs in supernatural forces. Sadly, much Sican history was lost due to systematic looting and grave robbing. Today, scientific archaeology helps uncover more about this fascinating culture, emphasizing the importance of preserving historical context. Inverse-Face Beaker, 10th-11th century, Sicán (Lambayeque), Peru, gold, 20 x 18.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) ARCHES (At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series) Speakers: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Beth Harris Special thanks to Dr. Izumi Shimada. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(light music) - [Woman] We're standing in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and we're looking at a beautiful gold beaker, the Met calls it an Inverse-Face Beaker. And it's from Sican culture from Peru. This is a thousand years old. - [Woman] It is old, it's made of hammered gold. And it's called an Inverse-Face Beaker because the way that we're looking at it is upside down from the way that it would have been used. So a lot of times inversion can deal with the idea of the underworld, or contact with spirit forces. And in fact when we look at this face we can see that instead of having a regular human mouth, we see teeth that look like feline fangs. And that is a very old motif. - [Woman] And I'm also noticing that there's something feline about his eyes. - [Woman] We tend to call those comma shaped eyes, and they are very typical of the Sican culture. It could be a deity, it could also be somebody who's transforming into a supernatural creature or somebody who's simply showing their ability to contact supernatural creatures. We can't pin it down with great specificity simply because we don't have writing. - [Woman] Speaking of not being able to pin things down (other woman laughs) this is an interesting culture to talk about because so much of what we could have known is lost because of systematic looting and grave robbing. - [Woman] One of the things we need to think about first is to locate ourselves with where the Sican culture is. And they are on the north coast of Peru, they're in about the same region that the Moche culture were in but they come later. They are near the modern city of Lambayeque. Sometimes the culture's actually referred to as the Lambayeque rather than the Sican. The site that this is from is called Batan Grande, a large area that is covered in mounds and these mounds were once platforms and pyramids that were made out of adobe bricks and were used as the burial sites of the wealthy elites of the Sican culture. - [Woman] But so much of what we could have known about what took place there has been lost. - [Woman] And that is because for the greater part of the twentieth century, the land that it was on belonged to a wealthy family, the Aurich's. And the Aurich's because the land was theirs had complete legal right to dig up anything that was there. Once they discovered that they had gold on their property, they started mining it. - [Woman] And they took the agricultural workers and employed them instead on basically grave robbing. - [Woman] And it happened on a larger and larger scale. First it was just with picks and shovels, by the end they were using bulldozers. - [Woman] And you can imagine the kind of damage to an archeological site that a bulldozer would do. - [Woman] What we're losing in a word is context, we don't know anything other than it came from Batan Grande and it probably was from a tomb. And the reason we even know that it probably was from a tomb is because of scientific excavation that has taken place since then. - [Woman] In the early 1970s the land was taken away from this family. - Yes. Due to government land reform. At that point what happened was the land was given to essentially collective groups of people to farm and that laid the groundwork for the ability of scientific researchers, the foremost of whom is a man named Izumi Shimada. To embark on a long term project to try and find out everything we can about the culture from what's left. - [Woman] What he does is scientific, archeological investigation that's slow, methodical and in that way we learn so much more. - [Woman] Everybody thinks about Indiana Jones but Indiana Jones is actually not a particularly good archeologist because he's digging for a single object. And that's what happens here, we have pictures from the Aurich family archives of a room in their house filled with nothing but beakers like this one that had been just completely ripped out of the tombs. Well what else is in tombs? There's a lot of things and it all bares information but none of that was valuable like gold and so it was either tossed aside, or if it was something less valuable like copper, it was just melted down. - [Woman] What an archeologist is doing is carefully documenting everything. - [Woman] Sometimes down to grains of pollen. Working on that small of a level you can find out a lot of information about the food people ate, what the environment was like, whether or not they were importing goods. And all of that is completely lost. When this kind of looting takes place, one of the unvaluable things that is in the grave, is the body itself. Bones have a huge amount of information. Bones can tell us about what a person did during their lifetime, it can tell us whether somebody was male or female. It can tell us about gender roles in society. - [Woman] How they died. - [Woman] Sometimes we love being able to know how somebody died. It can tell you about whether or not they had undergone any kind of medical procedures. We see skulls being cut into to cure some kinds of brain diseases. You also have information on nutrition and if you're really lucky, sometimes DNA is preserved and then you can find out how people were related, you can find out if they were ruling dynasties over time. And you can also find out from the stable isotopes and tooth enamel whether or not people were from that area or came in from far away. Then all of that's lost when the skeletons destroyed. - [Woman] When we talk about the Aurich's, we're talking about a very sophisticated system of looting that takes place on the ground with people who are poor, who need the money that they earned from the looting. All the way up through middlemen and then eventually smuggling the artifacts out of the country and then they make their way to collectors in Europe and the United States and many of them eventually to museums. - [Woman] A lot of times, the sale and traffic of these objects is intertwined with the sale and traffic of drugs, but also sometimes as we see in the Middle-East right now, with the funding of terrorism. - [Woman] It makes sense, you have to figure out how to bring materials illegally across borders and who else knows how to do that. - [Woman] Exactly. - [Woman] So this is a complex network, and people are making a lot of money. Unfortunately not the people who need to make the money. - [Woman] Exactly, a few people are making a lot of money. The people on the ground aren't really making a lot of money because they're already so poor, that small amounts of money to us are actually large amounts of money to them. - [Woman] The government of Peru has also made the argument that taking these objects out of Peru depletes the possibility of tourist income. - [Woman] We see that with the boom in the creation of new museums in Peru, especially as there are new archeological finds, again scientific archeology. - [Woman] Grave robbing goes back to the sixteenth century and to the Spanish. - [Woman] The Spanish would actually set up mining corporations to perform large scale looting operations and one of the biggest examples of that is at the site of the Huacas de Moche, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Only half or a third of the Huaca del Sol is still with us. This enormous multi-tiered adobe brick platform, the Spanish formed a mining corporation and literally changed the course of a river to wash it away like panning for gold, and pan for gold they did. - [Woman] As we're here looking at this case at The Metropolitan Museum of Art filled with gold objects I have that same sense that we are privileging these extraordinary objects. - [Woman] Most collectors and most museum going people aren't going to be interested in the congealed mass of beads that I saw in the scientific museum at Sican, where they show you how a group of necklaces was brought up out of the ground and instead of separating them and restringing them they show them in context. - [Woman] This display is beautiful. - [Woman] It is. - [Woman] And although we're missing that context it also helps to draw our attention to the amazing craftsmanship, to the sophisticated visual language developed by the Sican people. It draws our attention to this culture in a way that's important. - [Woman] We can't put these things back in the ground. We can't recover the context, all of that is lost. But what we can hope for is that people who see this will have an interest sparked. And that they will become not only interested in the objects but in the cultures and in finding out more information the scientific way and maybe going to Peru and visiting those museums or volunteering on an archeological dig which is something anybody can do. And really getting to understand the knowledge that's involved. (light music)