Lima, Peru. It’s a quiet weekday morning at the Museo Larco, in the peaceful historic district of Pueblo Libre. Warm sunlight glints off the white manorial façade. In the café, a waiter is laying tablecloths for lunch, while off the deserted courtyard, purple and red azaleas nod in the pre-noon languor.
Meanwhile, oblivious to all this placidity, I’m sitting inside, engrossed by figures resembling squawking waterfowls who are decapitating each other with shovels.
Actually, they’re not shovels: they’re tumi knives, ornate spade-shaped implements used by the ancient Moche people for ritual sacrifices way back in the 500s, and the larger avian figures aren’t birds but priests, decked out in animal suits for just such an occasion. But the decapitations portrayed on the Moche ceramics I’m looking at, well, they’re real, and vividly rendered, complete with attendants to collect the blood in goblets and acolytes to hang the de-fleshed bones from ropes. It’s all part of a ceremony of ritual combat the Moche engaged in, in which rival teams would duke it out, with the loser ending up bound and served up to the insane homicidal deities that presided over it all.
Pre-Colombian mayhem and dismemberment, at their most over-the-top.
Surfeited with the bloodletting, I head to the museum’s trellised café for a double cappuccino with lucuma ice cream. To work off the trauma.
At the Larco Museum, disconnects like this between exhibit content and tranquil context are typical. On the one hand, to house the collection, a reconstructed 18th-century villa that’s a paragon of sunny elegance. On the other, numerous displays centered around themes that are, how to say, less than sunny—blood sacrifice, shamanistic transformation under the influence of mind-altering hallucinogens, creepy mummies, death cults, death shrouds, death ceremonies, and sex with non-human entities, principally (what else?) death.
It’s a mix that, make no mistake, renders the museum deathly fascinating for anyone digging into the subsoil of Peru’s pre-Hispanic past. Vanished civilizations, buried treasure, contents of ancient tombs: it’s all here.
I’m just hoping that double cappuccino gives me strength to get through the rest of the gallery.
Beating the Tomb Raiders
“You see all these ceramics? All of them were washed off by Don Rafael personally, to remove the salt from the climate. For two months, he kept them in a swimming pool. Every pot he cared for, like it was his son.”
Melissa, the guide, looks up at me through short bangs as we stroll through the museum’s storage room. Above, thousands upon thousands of ceramic artifacts glare down at us, the legacy of the institution’s revered founder, Rafael Larco Hoyle.
“Don Rafael knew that Peru’s archaeological legacy was in danger of disappearing. So he started to buy up pieces, whole estates at a time. Why? To save them from the tomb raiders, who were his enemies.”
The man who was the enemy of tomb raiders was surprisingly multifaceted. Born into a wealthy, hacienda-owning family on Peru’s north coast in 1901, Raphael Larco was sent for his education to the U.S., where he studied agriculture at Cornell and engineering and business at NYU. The plan: take over the administration of the family sugar farm from his dad, Raphael Larco Herrera, and modernize its operations.
Larco did that. But he also did much more. Having inherited his father’s deep love of Peruvian archaeology, as well as a thousand or so artifacts the elder Larco had spent years amassing, he also went on to revolutionize the scholarship on ancient Peru the same way he’d revolutionized the sugar plantation.
The emphasis here is on “ancient.” Long before a single stone was laid at Cuzco, when Machu Picchu was just a jumble of half-buried rocks somewhere on an Andean mountaintop, Peru was home to great civilizations such as the Moche, Nazca, and Chimú. Over some 4,000 years, those civilizations had left rich deposits of fine-line pottery, rainbow-colored textiles, and glittering metalwork all along Peru’s north coast that frequently blow away anything made by the better-known (but much shorter-lived) Incas. It was these cultures Larco sought to unearth and understand.
To do so, however, he needed to beat the tomb raiders, who were busily making off with his country’s treasures at alarming rates.
What he did was to start digging, rapidly and on a massive scale. From the Peru-Ecuador border to the lands south of his native Trujillo, his excavations proliferated outward. He also used his family wealth to start buying. By 1949, when he decided to move to Lima, he’d acquired some 45,000 pieces, which he promptly installed in the museum contemporary tourists flock to some 60 years later.
Yet despite his massive academic credentials—he discovered several northern-Peruvian subcultures and developed the period chronology archaeologists still employ today—Larco didn’t want his collection to be a dusty hoard for antiquarians. So he did two things: he left the museum’s storage rooms open to the public, and he ordered that exhibits be designed to grip museumgoers’ imaginations.
Judging from the bloodletting on the Moche pots inside and Melissa’s instructive tour, I’d say he pulled it off.
Messages to the Other World
The silver cup I’m looking at is a little beat up. But then, so would you be, if you spent your time shuttling between here and the afterlife.
“These vessels weren’t just ceremonial props,” Melissa explains. “They were transmitters of messages to the other world. Kind of like envelopes to the gods.”
All around us, those metal and ceramic envelopes show an incredible degree of craftsmanship. Red-on-gold line drawings on Moche bottles, intricate silverwork on Chimú bowls: the artists who made these vessels were masters. One basin is made of fused gold and silver, representing the ancient duality of sun/moon, male/female. Another Moche piece, showing the “Presentation of the Cup,” a ceremony of blood sacrifice, is among the greatest pre-Inca masterpieces in South America.
And the messages conveyed to the deities?
“Those messages were frequently in the form of fluids. Blood, yes, but also chicha,” Melissa says, referring to the fermented maize liquor still drunk by Peruvians today. For ancient Peruvians, the exchange of fluids was vital for the continuity of life: rain from the skies to fertilize the crops, blood or chicha from below. All necessary to keep the gods appeased.
More piquant examples of this fluid swapping are on display in the museum’s most notorious gallery, the erotic-pottery wing. There, judging by what would appear to be a series of comic and animalistic figures, the sexual ingenuity of the ancient Peruvians was pretty much infinite. Procreative sex, recreational, none of the above: if human beings have done it, it’s here on these pots.
“For the Moche, sex wasn’t just about pleasure or reproduction,” Melissa explains. “It had a ritual element, one that united heavens, earth, and underworld.” (Perhaps this accounts for the skeletal figure who’s avidly participating on some of the pots.)
Other galleries in the museum contain further surprises. There are, for example, gorgeous textiles from the Paracas culture on Peru’s southern coast that were used to wrap mummies in one of South America’s largest necropolises (cities of the dead); also a series of quipus, the system of knotted cords used for record-keeping by the Incas.
After Melissa’s exhaustive tour, I’m feeling drained, so I can’t wait to get back to the museum’s excellent café for a pick-me-up. As a thank-you, I treat her to a shrimp causa and a chicha morada.
I ask her, as we sit on the patio watching the sun go down, if it’s affected her outlook, seeing evidence of humankind’s savagery like this on a daily basis.
She’s silent a moment, looking off at the shadows on the courtyard.
“Bueno, people have always had to fight against savagery. Here in Peru, like everywhere. From ancient times right up till the present. It’s called civilization, no?”
She sips her chicha.
“I just thank God we have places like this,” she laughs, stretching out her arms, taking in the patio, the café, the entire museum. “To keep the craziness under glass, you know?”
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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin America Confidential.