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Cultures of Ancient Peru

Rooms 2, 3, 4

Ancient Peruvians honored their gods with offerings and ceremonies and paid homage to their dead. The works of art that we see in museums were not usually objects intended for daily use. Although some of their apparently utilitarian forms may suggest such usages, their real function was to serve as spiritual rather than earthly objects.

As westernized people of the 21st century we no longer organize our societies in relation to life after death. It might be said that we pay homage to life itself, to our existence in the here and now. This way of thinking can make it difficult for us to understand ancient cultures like those which existed in Peru. These societies practiced the cult of the dead, and this enabled their people to make contact with other worlds: the underworld, inhabited by the dead, and the world above, which was where the gods dwelled.

In order to gain favor with the gods, people were obliged to perform ceremonies, leave offerings and make sacrifices. The population was also obliged to build tombs and perform elaborate funerary rites so that after their death their leaders would be transformed into ancestors. It was believed that the ancestors of the community had the power to ensure that society and the universe as a whole would continue to exist. In the chiefdoms, states and empires of ancient Peru, the death of leaders (chieftains, lords, priests, priestesses or emperors) was a crucial event.

Ceramics have always been seen by researchers as a rich source of information regarding diverse aspects of the societies that produced them. Pre-Columbian cultures have been defined to a great degree by the stylistic and iconographic characteristics of their ceramics. Because ceramics vary over time and space they also serve to establish local and regional cultural chronologies.