Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 2016
Peter Fux, ed. Chavín: Peru's Enigmatic Temple in the Andes Exh. cat. Zurich: Scheidegger and Spiess, 2013. 408 pp.; 334 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (9783858817310)
Exhibition schedule: Museum Rietberg, Zurich, November 23, 2012–March 10, 2013

The volume Chavín: Peru’s Enigmatic Temple in the Andes is a thoroughly researched scholarly complement to the blockbuster exhibition of the same name, held at the Museum Rietberg, Zürich, between November 23, 2012, and March 10, 2013. Edited by Peter Fux, the catalogue presents the work of a group of scholars who seek to reanalyze, reevaluate, and reconstruct the role of Chavín de Huántar in Andean scholarship. Rather than merely summarizing previous research, the articles present new archaeological excavations and new interpretations of material objects, monumental decorations, and plans of excavated sites. The book is noteworthy in that all of the contributions are by archaeologists. As a result, the essays are accompanied by incredible resources for contextualizing the objects in history and space, including meticulously marked maps of sites, chronological charts organized by region and site, and color photographs of the archaeological excavations. Perhaps most astonishing are the full-colored diagrams of the Tello Obelisk and the Lanzón, as well as full-color, three-dimensional models of the archaeological sites that enhance the contextualizing arguments of each article. An extensive catalogue section provides photographs and analyses of many of the most important Formative period objects in a single publication. As Fux mentions in the introduction, the main goal of the exhibition and catalogue is to show the value of archaeology for scholarship in other disciplines, especially for understanding the formation and function of Chavín as the earliest complex society in the Central Andean region (24). The publication is a great success both in this goal and in reestablishing the site of Chavín de Huántar in Andean studies. It serves as an invaluable compendium of the latest research on Chavín for all Andeanists as well as a thorough, accessible introduction to the importance of this site for nonspecialists.

While writing systems did not exist in Chavín culture, Fux and the other contributors treat the extremely elaborate artistic creations at the site of Chavín de Huántar as a kind of visual language that can be used to reconstruct the culture and its role in South American history. Ever since Julio C. Tello declared that Chavín was the “mother culture” of all subsequent Peruvian civilizations, scholars have debated whether to accept or refute his theory. The debate has become even more charged in recent times, as advocacy of Tello’s proposal can be difficult to separate from the agenda of Peruvian nationalism. Chavín persuasively demonstrates that the first complex Andean societies must be conceived not as single cultures, but rather as networks of cultural interactions across the region. The various groups in different climatic zones—coastal desert, highlands, and rainforest—were in continual contact and exchange with each other and developed complex, interrelated visual languages. In the introduction, Fux demonstrates this point by analyzing visual imagery in a variety of geographical locations, addressing environmental phenomena such as light, psychoactive substances, sound, and music.

Following the theme of visual languages operating in a network of diverse cultures, the volume is organized into six different sections: an introduction, four topical groupings of articles, and the catalogue of objects from the exhibition. Each part, including the catalogue, expresses various themes of chronology, geography, and natural environment. The introduction opens with the argument that archaeological data can help us understand the ongoing cultural exchanges and stylistic influences that took place between the coastal and highland regions, especially in the complex visual language of Chavín de Huántar. The second and third sections present current archaeological reports from the coastal region and the highlands, respectively, introducing many distinctive sites and social developments from the Archaic period (ca. 8000–3500 BCE) to the Formative period (ca. 3500–200 BCE). Political instability has made excavation in the highlands difficult, but two decades of work by Yoshio Onuki on Kotosh, the Cajamarca Basin, and Kuntur Wasi suggest the development of dynamic, reciprocal contacts between the highlands and the northern coast, especially based on stylistic resemblance between objects excavated at Kuntur Wasi and Cupisnique. Onuki argues that the shared styles and forms on these objects are not likely the result of a one-way influence from one society to another; rather these specific objects emerged from reciprocal interactions.

Proceeding to focus on Chavín de Huántar specifically, the fourth part opens with an article by Christian Mesía Montenegro, who provides a thorough literature review of various interpretations of the site from the sixteenth to twenty-first centuries. Later in the section, John W. Rick not only provides excavation reports from his long years of research on the site, but also suggests an interpretation of the religious role of Chavín de Huántar. With evidence from more than a decade of excavations and scientific tests, Rick concludes that the location was used as a center for rituals in a long-standing Andean tradition (174), and that these esoteric rituals involved a relatively modest number of individuals of high status. Based on the assumption that the religion of Chavín was a type of exclusive cult (166) that would have unified a common identity among the elite who performed the rituals, he argues that Chavín de Huántar was not used for worship by the masses (174). This interpretation is contradicted, however, by Luis Guillermo Lumbreras, whose article is based on copious amounts of materials excavated in the Ofrendas Gallery of Chavín de Huántar. His article, which is an extremely abbreviated version of his 1993 publication, Chavín de Huántar: Excavaciones en la Galería de las Ofrendas (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern), posits that the wide variety of styles among these objects indicates that cultures from different regions came together in shared religious practice at the site (186). His new interpretation of the sunken circular plaza at the Old Temple as a sundial is quite surprising, but with the archaeological data of the location where the Tello Obelisk was excavated, his claim is logical. Obviously, rich excavation data is invaluable in the interpretation and reinterpretation of such sites and objects.

The fifth section focuses on the geographical periphery beyond Chavín de Huántar and the legacy of the Formative period. It begins with another article by Mesía Montenegro, this time on cultural and stylistic developments during the Formative period in what is now Ecuador. Mesía Montenegro points out a crucial trade route between the Ecuadorian and Peruvian coastal regions that had already been developed in the Initial Formative period. Despite the lack of a map of the Formative period Ecuadorian cultures, the chronological chart and detailed explanation of the archaeological data are sufficient to show the products of cultural exchange. Continuing these themes, Walter Alva investigates Moche culture as an inheritance of the Formative period on the northern coast of Peru. Focusing on the form of Moche ceramic vessels, he makes a connection between the Cupisnique and Moche cultures, highlighting examples of cultural continuity over time. The section concludes with the Nazca, one of the prominent cultures of the southern region during the Early Intermediate period (200 BCE–650 CE). Markus Reindel and Johny Isla introduce various objects produced by the Nazca culture in the context of its flourishing after the creation of the region-wide cultural networks at the apex of activity at Chavín de Huántar. One important iconographical contribution is their summary of Christina A. Conlee’s 2009 isotope analysis on severed heads, which suggests that severed heads may be related to ancestor worship rather than trophies taken in battle from other regions (208). In this and many other ways, each article in the catalogue provides compelling evidence of the value of archaeological inquiry and new data analysis in the interpretation and reinterpretation of material objects.

The last section of the book illustrates 173 selected objects with high-quality photographs and individual explanations, many of which are supplemented by extremely detailed line drawings and field photographs introducing contextual information. Even the catalogue portion is organized around technical, chronological, and geographical subheadings. Fux explains the rationale behind each division with clear arguments related to stylistic interactions between Chavín de Huántar and other sites during and after the Formative period.

The main contribution of this exhibition catalogue is in using archaeological inquiry to provide new interpretations of Chavín de Huántar, its history, and its role in the region. Due to the meticulous explanations and straightforward arguments of each article, the volume should be extremely informative for general audiences as well as providing an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the more detailed excavation reports. Stylistic and iconographical analyses of the objects are brief, but art historians could learn from the archaeology of the physical geography of the site and its natural environment. By incorporating rich and abundant data, the contributors show the importance of analyzing a culture within its network of interactions and exchanges with contemporaneous societies, rather than focusing solely on its physical structures and material creations. The exhibition adds nuance to Tello’s theory of the mother culture while suggesting new directions for further scholarship on complex, religion-centered societies. The catalogue proves that collective archaeological inquiry can produce innovative, complex interpretations of both material objects and the societies that created them.

Yumi Park Huntington
Assistant Professor, Art Department, Jackson State University