Peru: A Journey in Time, a historic exhibition at the British Institution, has been a decade in the planning and allows the museum to highlight pieces from its own collections alongside Peruvian treasures shown for the first time in the UK. It opens on the 200th anniversary of Peru’s declaration of independence from Spain, with the United Kingdom being one of the first nations to acknowledge the new nation’s sovereignty.

However, for a western audience, the neatness of this chronology is nearly the only recognizable part of a program that continuously questions the most fundamental conceptions of how the world works and how it can, and should, be lived in. The idea of time is one of the most difficult to overcome.

The exhibition’s subtitle is both a practical description of a 3,500-year chronological analysis of many distinct civilizations and an introduction to how Andean time was perceived. “We tend to believe that we are in the present, that the past is behind us, and that the future is ahead of us,” co-curator Jago Cooper adds.

“In Andean communities, the past, present, and future are all parallel lines that happen at the same time. So the past isn’t dead; it’s occurring right now, and it has the power to affect the present. And the greatest way to prepare for the future is to acknowledge the link between the past and present.”

Other differences in ancient Peru (pre-Columbus) include the absence of a script-based writing tradition and a monetary transaction system.

“There’s also the extreme diversity of the environment,” says Cecilia Pardo, Cooper’s colleague curator. “Deeply sophisticated and sustainable innovation and technologies were required to negotiate life on the Pacific coast, in arid deserts, the high Andes, or the rainforest, all of which prompted unique ways of societies succeeding.”

A broad variety of spectacular objects on exhibit attest to this success: from exceptionally well preserved fabrics, some of which are over 2,000 years old, to wooden carvings that shed fresh light on ritual deaths, huge ceramic collections, and complex applications of precious metals.

Because civilizations’ economic foundations were not based on arbitrary currency valuations, reciprocal obligation systems generally drove advancement and output. According to Cooper, “people had an obligation to maintain and sustain each other and the world around them.”

“This had far-reaching implications for how resources were managed as well as how things were manufactured.” Large constructions, like textiles and other minor products, were created communally and willingly, rather than by slave labor as in other regions of the globe.”

In the absence of a written culture, artifacts took on greater significance as transmitters of cultural information, ideas, and beliefs. Because they were funeral gifts stored in sealed tombs, many of the artifacts in the display have survived and provide information on belief systems and customs.

However, as Cooper points out, the show’s core message is that this is a civilization in which the past is alive and only formed in the present.

“It is likely that fewer than 10% of potential sites have been excavated in Peru,” Pardo says. Many additional excavations are underway, with Peruvian and international archaeologists examining various facets of this lengthy narrative.

The curators are both humble and excited about what the future may hold in this exhibition, which provides a wonderful snapshot of what has been discovered and what we know now. These civilizations’ extraordinary history is continuously being written.”

Four ancient Peruvian artifacts from the past

Red mantle of a large size

The Nasca people, who typically buried their deceased in a sitting posture, clothed in layers of fabric, utilized this funeral blanket, which is one of the earliest relics in the show. The recurring figure on the fabric, wearing panther masks and bearing human heads, is most likely a symbol of an ancestor who would look after the departed in the afterlife.

The burial would have taken place in southern Peru’s dry deserts, where the absence of humidity has enabled the cloth to survive for over 2,000 years.

A prisoner who is confined

A wooden sculpture discovered amid layers of guano on an island off the coast of Peru. It portrays a powerful person restrained by a rope before being ritually executed. In ancient Peru, there was comparably less violence and more ritualised encounters, resulting in significantly less carnage than in European battles of the time.

These would culminate in the seizure of detainees and the public execution of vanquished side members. These fatalities, which, ironically, exalted the value of human life above mass killing on the battlefield, were often commemorated in public murals.

A guy and a woman copulating in a vessel

This porcelain stirrup pot portraying a couple having intercourse – her tattoos suggest it was manufactured around the end of the Nasca period, which ended in AD800AD – would have been inefficient for transporting fluids and was not meant to be used on a regular basis. Instead, it was a funerary gift, which is often discovered in fragments inside the tomb.

The corpse and the stirrup spout were in opposite places, suggesting that the stirrup spout had been purposefully damaged during a ritual before the burial was sealed. Women’s representation on pottery did not begin until about AD400, and was mainly associated with fecundity.


A beautiful plate dating back over 1,000 years and measuring more than 10cm in length. A big spool would be threaded through the ear lobe, and the piece would be worn as shown.

Wood, metal, mother of pearl, and other valuable shells are used to create it. The inlay work’s intricacy, as well as the variety of materials utilized, indicate it to be a product of a smart and rich culture.

The red substance, spondylus, a spiny bivalve known as the thorny oyster, was especially prized and was crushed into powder and spread over the ground to form something like to a crimson carpet for dignitaries, in addition to being used for ornamental reasons.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.