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Andean Expressions: Art and Archaeology of the Recuay Culture

Andean Expressions: Art and Archaeology of the Recuay Culture

by George F. Lau


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Flourishing from A.D. 1 to 700, the Recuay inhabited lands in northern Peru just below the imposing glaciers of the highest mountain chain in the tropics. Thriving on an economy of high-altitude crops and camelid herding, they left behind finely made artworks and grand palatial buildings with an unprecedented aesthetic and a high degree of technical sophistication. In this first in-depth study of these peoples, George Lau situates the Recuay within the great diversification of cultural styles associated with the Early Intermediate Period, provides new and significant evidence to evaluate models of social complexity, and offers fresh theories about life, settlement, art, and cosmology in the high Andes.
Lau crafts a nuanced social and historical model in order to evaluate the record of Recuay developments as part of a wider Andean prehistory. He analyzes the rise and decline of Recuay groups as well as their special interactions with the Andean landscape. Their  coherence was expressed as shared culture, community, and corporate identity, but Lau also reveals its diversity through time and space in order to challenge the monolithic characterizations of Recuay society pervasive in the literature today.
Many of the innovations in Recuay culture, revealed for the first time in this landmark volume, left a lasting impact on Andean history and continue to have relevance today. The author highlights the ways that material things intervened in ancient social and political life, rather than being merely passive reflections of historical change, to show that Recuay public art, exchange, technological innovations, warfare, and religion offer key insights into the emergence of social hierarchy and chiefly leadership and the formation, interaction, and later dissolution of large discrete polities. By presenting Recuay artifacts as fundamentally social in the sense of creating and negotiating relations among persons, places, and things, he recognizes in the complexities of the past an enduring order and intelligence that shape the contours of history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781587299735
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 04/16/2011
Series: Iowa Series in Andean Studies Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

George Lau is a university lecturer at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, School of World Art Studies and Museology, University of East Anglia. He has done fieldwork in highland Peru since 1995. Currently one of the editors of World Art, he is also the author of the forthcoming Ancient Community and Economy at Chinchawas (Ancash, Peru).

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By George F. Lau

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2011 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-973-5

Chapter One

Toward a Recuay Prehistory

In this book I offer a prehistory of the Central Andes. By "prehistory" I mean the archaeological record of social and cultural developments before the written sources of the early sixteenth century. I also refer to the broad and potent spectrum of disciplines which informs our knowledge and narrative of the Andean past. This book centers on the archaeology of northern Peru but is not limited to archaeology. The insights provided by scholars in fields such as anthropology, art history, environmental and geological studies, and history are integral to advancing the current state of knowledge of developments in the prehistoric record of northern Peru.

This book proceeds with the conviction that we can advance our interpretations of ancient Andean society by developing a more generous approach to how things and spaces were complicit with humans in the events of the past. As Borges would have it, these do not necessarily regard aesthetics or function but are nevertheless provocative and informative and manage to form a complex whole, which I understand broadly as culture. In the contemplation of single facts, we can intuit some patterns and experience of their collective being. Like the observer in the epigraph, I hope to recognize in the complexities of the past — as located in ruins, statues, and urns — an enduring order and intelligence.

In recent years the pace of research for Central Andean prehistory, specifically of the first millennium A.D., has resulted in exciting and significant discoveries, many of which have revolutionized our understanding of the ancient Americas. But for various reasons the archaeology has concentrated on developments that occurred in cultures on the coast of Peru, of which Moche, Nasca, and Paracas are among the best known.

A coeval but less well-known culture, the Recuay of Peru's north highlands, forms the focus of this study (fig. 1). Like their coastal contemporaries, the Recuay people are best known for their unique art style, also associated with funerary pottery found in museum collections. Yet I wish to move beyond the study of the appeal of Recuay artworks to characterize the history of Recuay groups on the basis of their interaction with their distinctive environment. Recuay's most celebrated developments occurred at the foot of Peru's Cordillera Blanca, the highest and most extensive ice caps in the New World tropics and one of the most picturesque places on earth. The ecological diversity and a central geographic position in northern Peru were instrumental in the economic prosperity of Recuay groups.

Ecology and geography were also instrumental in shaping the look and distribution of the culture —"Recuayness," if you will. The rich but fragmented zones of production sustained unique centers of Recuay development and contributed to the formation of stylistic areas and boundaries that scholars are only now beginning to disentangle. Together, the groups shared similar material styles and ways of doing things, especially styles of making.

The notion of Recuayness holds a series of important implications. First, a long history of fairly insular cultural development forms the crux of the Recuay cultural tradition — patterned developments characterizing highland Ancash over the greater part of the first millennium A.D. (Lau 2004b). It is this Recuayness, in the style of material culture, which also lets us perceive interaction with other groups and, just as important, cultural changes through time. These dispositions were sometimes purposefully instantiated or employed by the Recuay to distinguish themselves from others.

To be sure, the manifestations of the tradition varied substantially. Yet Recuay's coherence was expressed as shared culture, community, and corporate identity. I reveal its diversity through time and space in order to challenge the generalized, monolithic characterizations of Recuay pervasive in the literature today.

Since its identification in the late nineteenth century (Macedo 1881), Recuay has been recognized as one of the key cultures of ancient Peru by many of the luminaries in New World archaeology (Bennett 1944; Kroeber 1944; Tello 1929). It is often considered one of the constituent cultures of the "Peruvian Co-Tradition": "the cultures included in an area co-tradition are treated as wholes. Thus each has its own history, its own persistent traditions. The coined word, co-tradition, refers, then, to the linkage, the interrelationships of these cultural traditions in time and space" (Bennett 1948: 1). New archaeological work has added greatly to the current knowledge of Recuay local groups and settlements. An overview of the current literature serves to compare patterns and fill in gaps by making analogies among a range of data sets.

Finally, this study will help to redress the lack of explicit theoretical discussion which can update our social interpretations of Recuay culture and prehistory. One of the keystones of current archaeology is a reliance on social and anthropological theory for understanding the human past. Most research on Recuay, however, has focused on culture history — the characterization of discrete cultures and their change through time. Culture history is a basic building block in archaeology, but what are the social implications of Recuay culture through time? How were Recuay groups organized, and what were the sources of social and political power? This study updates the current literature by considering Recuay prehistory through perspectives involving social complexity, economic interaction, and material culture.

Recuay "Culture"

My analysis centers broadly on the importance of things, especially objects and buildings, for ancient Andean groups. Such things remain our principal source of data for interpretation and identification of an archaeological culture. These things, ideas, and practices (shared cultural norms) also distinguish a culture from others. At its core, this position draws from V. Gordon Childe's famous pronouncement about the archaeological endeavor: "We find certain types of remains — pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites, and house forms — constantly recurring together. Such a complex of associated traits we shall term 'cultural group' or just 'culture.' We assume that such a complex is the material expression of what today would be called 'people'" (Childe 1929: v–vi). While most scholars reject any facile correspondence between the remains and social identity, archaeologists are still obliged to intuit the past through things — as carefully as possible.

How do investigators distinguish Recuay peoples? This is almost exclusively based on material remains, especially ceramics, architecture, stone sculpture, and other objects with imagery. Because these things participated in the everyday and ritual life of the groups who used them, they are crucial for reconstructing ancient economic and ceremonial practices. Such activities and their variability are basic in reconstructing the social organization and political complexity of Recuay societies.

Building on culture history, I offer a broad social and historical model to frame an updated, more flexible perspective on Recuay material culture. Few attempts have been made to contextualize its place and the "linkage, the interrelationships" with other Andean cultures. Little consideration has been given to Recuay culture outside its own spatial and temporal boundaries. This book therefore aims to reconstruct and evaluate the record of Recuay developments as part of a wider Andean prehistory.

Value Systems in the Recuay Tradition

José Mariano Macedo, a late nineteenth-century doctor and collector of Peruvian antiquities, noted perceptively in a discussion of prehispanic pottery: "This section [referring to a portion of his collection] is so well defined that upon seeing a Recuay pot it's not possible to confuse it with other pots from other sources; in my opinion, there existed, in Recuay, a civilization entirely isolated from the rest" (excerpted from Amat 1976b: 194, citing a letter published in El Nacional, 30 September 1878; my translation).

Finely made objects in a distinctive style have always been the diagnostic of the culture. In all the major media discussed in this book (architecture, stone sculpture, ceramics) and in some for which limited data are available (metalwork, textiles), the Recuay achieved a very high degree of technical sophistication, rivaling their contemporaries and other Andean cultures across time.

The study of ancient artworks forms one of the most exciting avenues of inquiry in Andean archaeology. Not only can scholars compare imagery with ancient contexts, a sort of ground-truthing, but imagery provides clues for discerning ancient patterns of behavior and belief systems. Such studies appeal because they elicit meanings which connect the past and present and show us at once how similar our situation can be to our subjects' situation and how very different.

But the study of imagery is also one of the most uncertain avenues of inquiry because of the polysemic, unstable quality of the primary data. It must be remembered that ancient artworks and imagery are neither historical archives nor a priori expressions of belief systems; they do not record (and certainly not objectively) so much as treat select themes and perspectives chosen by their artists, sponsors, and users. Their meanings also change through the process and history of their appreciation. Hence ancient images cannot be taken as impartial or complete texts of the past. Where possible, I aim to integrate different lines of contextual evidence with historical comparisons to help inform interpretations about the ancient belief systems of the Recuay.

At this juncture, I should clarify what I mean by Recuay "art," since native Andeans, and indeed most non-Western groups, do not have a comparable term. It is impossible to know for certain whether ancient Recuay peoples conceived of an art. Most items that I describe here were used in their original contexts and thus were not created as "art for art's sake" or to be appreciated for their beauty in an exhibition case. Also, most of these items do not fit easily into traditional preoccupations with verisimilitude or faithful representation. Terms such as "visual culture" and "aesthetic objects" may also be unsatisfactory: one privileges the visual in cultures that were, by obligation, multisensory, while the other favors evaluative schemes that may be more reflective of Western tastes or end in tautologies (Coote and Shelton 1992; Gell 1998; Weiner 1994). For this volume, I rely on several approaches to help distill a perspective which offers the virtues of categorical boundaries but also interpretative value for the Recuay cases.

It is useful to return to George Kubler's generous view of aesthetic behavior: "Every experience has a sense; it is rationalized; it is laden with emotion. Aesthetic behaviour is concerned with emotional states, and it marks the production of every artifact, however simple or useful it may be. Hence an aesthetic function is present in every human product, and, by extension, in all cultural behaviour" (Kubler 1962a: 17). For analyzing artworks as "products of aesthetic value," Kubler (1962a: 15) emphasized an object's perceptual quality, which derived from "a special intricacy in several dimensions: technical, symbolic and individual." This quality (expressed through the object's form and its visuality) and its varied meanings (iconography) were at the core of his endeavor.

One of the virtues of Kubler's approach is its emphasis on tracking classes and sequences of forms/meanings across great spaces and temporal durations; serial information is key, especially for discerning exceptions or deviations (Kubler 1962b: 40–49). Explaining archaeological objects as "works of art," he admitted, was a difficult task and could result in a "documentary file on cultural themes," for which he condemned archaeologists and anthropologists in particular. Yet a sort of documentary file on Recuay cultural themes, as an entry into larger questions and hypotheses, is precisely what I wish to offer here.

Subsequent studies in the anthropology of art aim to decenter the study of art from the study of aesthetics or "evaluative schemes," of both the observer and the cultures and artworks studied (Gell 1992, 1998). The criticism is leveled at scholars focused on indigenous or period-based "ways of seeing," because the simple evaluation of particular works of art sidelines some crucial issues, such as the social context of art production, circulation, and reception. For Alfred Gell, the core message in any anthropology of art is the sociality of objects: objects are engendered by and have social relationships, just like people. Eschewing issues of aesthetic behavior or symbolic meanings, Gell prefers what art objects do: it is about their agency to make things happen, to initiate "causal sequences," in the vicinity of biological persons.

The foregoing approaches need not be antithetical. Both explore how artifacts, in general, can effect outcomes in perception as well as in subsequent actions. Just as the formalism of Kubler provides a necessary methodological bridge to organize archaeological artifacts, Gell's sociology of object-person relations widens the possible range of their ancient local understandings. Throughout this work, I characterize Recuay artworks as those things and built spaces of fine quality and skill in manufacture (e.g., Lau 2006b). But I also wish to privilege local contexts for cultural elaboration — where and what people decided to value.

Labeling archaeological things as valued or as wealth entails a certain circularity. Only a fraction of the past survives in the archaeological record. And only part of that is recovered systematically enough to furnish contextual information, so the representativeness of the observations and judgments is always problematic. Not surprisingly, the best-known Recuay things are also the most durable: monolithic sculpture, stone architecture, and pottery (a form of artificial stone).

The intense seasonal rains of the Ancash highlands result in poor conditions of preservation, especially when compared to the Peruvian coast, where aridity facilitates survival of even very delicate organic remains. So it is important not to underappreciate potentially "valuable" things made out of wood, cloth, leather, sinew, and other more perishable materials. It is also clear that some Andean valuables were not highly elaborate objects at all: a simple stone could serve equally as huaca, a thing charged with or manifesting sacred power, like a temple or god image.

It is equally important that no informants exist today from Recuay times to help define the nature and tournaments of value (for things), which characterize any society (Appadurai 1986). The biography of an object can be tracked by ethnographers through observations and interviews. Archaeologists have no simple way to do this in the past, however, without recourse to assumptions made by implicating other (similar) objects and contexts or through fine-grain analysis of modifications or reuse of the object/building itself. Despite important attempts (Meskell 2004), it is very difficult to develop firm ancient "object biographies" (Kopytoff 1986) for the very reason that individual objects are found fossilized in time and function, as snapshots of individual states and contexts. The archaeological record may offer innumerable snapshots of other items. Some items may be reasonably similar but exist by obligation in different contexts; by identifying and assessing their relationships, archaeologists make reasonably informed comparisons. Thus they rely strongly on contexts and analogy to determine ancient value. Archaeologists generate narratives about the patterning of objects rather than object biographies per se.

Overall, greater fixity characterizes the value of ancient things as ascribed by scholars, because it is rare to have access to the whole story of any single object. This is not a cause for lament, however: the larger perspective of things in society is enhanced because of the long-term attention to changing regimes of value across object types and assemblages that archaeology is able to provide.


Excerpted from ANDEAN EXPRESSIONS by George F. Lau Copyright © 2011 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1 Toward a Recuay Prehistory 1

Chapter 2 Land and Settlement in Ancient Ancash 21

Chapter 3 Recuay Architecture 63

Chapter 4 Ritual Buildings and Landscapes 85

Chapter 5 Pottery and Society 127

Chapter 6 Objects of Stone 159

Chapter 7 Chiefly Worlds in Artworks and Imagery 191

Chapter 8 A Prehistory of Recuay Culture 243

Chapter 9 Epilogue 265

Appendix 1 Demographics in the Department of Ancash 271

Appendix 2 Radiocarbon Dates from Highland Ancash 272

Notes 277

References 281

Index 325

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