In a most engaging talk by Hugh Thomson last night, I learned so much about Peru and in particular its ancient civilisations. More than I have from any guidebook. That is the beauty and benefit of knowledge, of real insight. But more than just that, of real expertise clearly and concisely explained. Of a picture beautifully painted and importantly, well framed.
Hugh’s enthusiasm for his subject was palpable as he told us that there are more pyramids in Peru than in Egypt. That Peruvian history has so many layers that archaeologists and historians are still unpeeling some of the mysteries of Peru. Yes he introduced us to the familiar and iconic Machu Picchu but it was the way that he used an image of the Inca citadel shrouded in mist as a metaphor of all that remains hidden, of what we do not know, of what we are yet to discover. This, he said, is the charm of Peru, the allure that draws you back.
Hugh paid homage to Hiram Bingham but did so not just out of deference but also reference – to frame his work and expeditions in the region. The sites that he uncovered in and around Machu Picchu made us see the main site in a different light, from different angles. It also made me appreciate how much more there is in the environs of Machu Picchu but importantly what little we do know. As Hugh said, the key is not discovering something new – no mean feat in itself – but rather working out what it was used for and what it represented. Such are the beguiling mysteries of Peru.
But it was the pre-Inca civilisations of the north that really fired my imagination. It was here that civilisations came and went not because of dynastic rivalries but rather because of the weather. He left us with powerful images of drug-fuelled shamans blowing sea shells as they battled with the demons of the weather. Perhaps the most striking images were of the Moche masks and some of their jewellery – they were much better jewellers than the later Incas. “You won’t see an exhibition of Peruvian art or archaeology in London (unlike pre-Columbian Mexico) – you have to go and see it in situ,” Hugh finished. It was too much for most in the audience, they were already buying their tickets.