- - Thursday, May 1, 2014

The National Geographic Society has a long association with Peru: Archaeologist Herman Bingham, who has been called a real-life Indiana Jones, was on assignment for National Geographic when he discovered Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, in 1911.

But there are more than 10,000 archaeological sites throughout Peru reflecting its many complex civilizations where wealth and power flourished, and the National Geographic Museum currently houses an exhibition of artifacts from a culture that thrived a thousand years before Inca dominance.

Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed couldn’t be more aptly named.

The 90 or so ancient artifacts on show, excavated from royal tombs in the mountainous northern coast of Peru, reflect “the special relationship [the region] had with one of the most iconic metals in the world — gold,” said archaeologist Fred Hiebert, the exhibition’s guest curator.

That hasn’t changed much across the centuries, but to the ancient Peruvians, gold was something much more than a commodity. They literally revered gold as the sweat of the sun, the symbol and source of power. In Peruvian civilizations, all gold was the property of the king, and gold artifacts were buried with him to honor his royal status.

Hence the collection of headdresses, breastplates, funeral masks, ornaments, ceramics and textiles showcased from the Sican (A.D. 750-900) and Moche (A.D.100-800) periods.

Both are overshadowed by the better known and powerful Inca civilization, but judging from the exhibition, the Sicans and Moches were skilled metallurgists who produced some of the most striking and beautiful artifacts of any Andean civilization.

One finely made gold mask from the Moche period shows a human form holding two dragons with cat’s heads bearing large fangs (the cat was a sacred animal).

“This one piece is symbolic of ancient Peru, with humans and animals, and you get to see it all in one piece,” said Mr. Hiebert.

The main showpiece is El Tocado, the largest and most elaborate pre-Colombian headdress ever discovered.

This extraordinary gold headdress from the middle Sican period (around A.D. 900), incorporating two caved animal heads and other decorations, was discovered in 1991 by Izumi Shimada, who also worked on the National Geographic exhibition and who believes that the headdress was not just made to be placed in the tomb but had been worn by a king while he was alive.

Mr. Shimada has told reporters that El Tocado is almost the only artifact in the exhibition that had not been looted and returned to Peru. As if to underscore the point, next to one of the masks in the show is a photo of Peruvian Ambassador to the U.S. Harold Forsyth receiving the artifact from the president of Italy. The mask had been excavated illegally and transported to Italy, where it was eventually tracked down by the Italian authorities.

The ancient tombs have yielded a historic wealth of funerary regalia, including gold feathers and huge gold earrings. Also gold and silver nose rings with carved cat-like figures that would be the envy of every modern-day hippy. But there are other objects, including textiles, to provide a picture of an active and thriving civilization above ground.

It is no wonder the exhibition is valued at between $3.5 million and $5 million, and has 24-hour security.

The exhibit has been organized jointly with the Peruvian government, with all the objects on loan from three main museums in Peru.

Peru has a long history of cooperation and partnership with the National Geographic Society, which dates back to the early years of the institution,” said Mr. Forsyth. “National Geographic has been involved in many of the most important archaeological findings to date and has been a dependable partner.”

Kathryn Keane, National Geographic’s vice president for exhibitions, said the society had funded more than 180 explorations in Peru since 1912, including 14 linked to excavations of royal tombs.

“We’re doing this [show] because we want to broaden understanding of this part of the world with which we’ve had a relationship for more than a 100 years,” she said.

The search for gold and archaeological treasures still goes on in Peru. The government there says that at any given time there are some 70,000 prospectors panning in the Peru’s Amazonian rain forest, and their activity is not helping the environment. Archaeological digs have increased exponentially, “but that’s only scratching the surface of what’s to be found,” said Ms. Keane.

Mr. Hiebert added: “There’s only one archaeological site — all of Peru. It’s an unbelievable country for mysteries and surprises.”

WHAT: Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed

WHERE:National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW, Washington D.C., 202/857-7700. NGMuseum.org.

WHEN: Through Sept. 14.

ADMISSION: Adults $12; members/military/seniors/student groups $9; children (ages 5-12) $7; school and youth groups are free.

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