Dear readers, I should probably have announced this years ago, but I will no longer post on this blog, for a number of reasons I won’t get into. However, if you like books and you like the way I write, you should check out my new blog, Strange Bookfellows. Thanks for reading, and commenting, and subscribing–Unearthing would have been a much less fun experience without you all!


Were the world’s earliest medical illustrations made in ancient Mesoamerica?

A few days ago, while perusing the online catalogue of Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, I stumbled upon a curious figurine fragment–a terracotta head with two faces and three eyes, the central eye being shared between the two faces (left). According to the catalogue, this figurine probably originated in Tlatilco, a large farming village that flourished in the Basin of Mexico between about 1200 and 200 BC. A little online snooping further revealed that double-faced figurines are a relatively common find at Tlatilco, and are thought to date to between 1200 and 700 BC–although it’s unclear how many of these figurines were excavated by looters and how many were unearthed by professional archaeologists, so I couldn’t get a sense of where in Tlatilco these figurines would have been found. It seems that ancient Tlatilcans (?) used to bury one-faced figurines under fields, perhaps believing they would make their crops grow faster–but there’s no word on where Tlatilcans placed two-faced figurines. So we don’t really know what these double-faced figurines mean, or how they were used.

Double faced head. Central America, Mexico, Tlatilco. Middle Pre-Classic period (1200-900 BC). Earthenware, traces of red pigment. h. 4.5 cm. Acquired 1973. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 136.

Fig. 1: Double faced head. Central America, Mexico, Tlatilco. Middle Pre-Classic period (1200-900 BC). Earthenware, traces of red pigment. h. 4.5 cm. Acquired 1973. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 136. Photo from the SCVA website.

BUT. I did come across this interesting theory, by one Gordon Bendersky (2000), that the Tlatilco double-faced figurines were the world’s earliest medical illustrations–and, more specifically, the world’s earliest medical illustrations of a rare congenital disorder known as diprosopus.

Science-wise, diprosopus is caused by the mutation of the “Sonic Hedgehog Homolog” protein (SHH), which controls facial expansion during foetal development. The way it works is that, if the SHH protein is longer than it should be, this leads to face duplication. However, there are many different possible lengths to which SHH can stretch, which means that, for example, particularly long SHH can lead to two fairly distinct faces, while slightly shorter SHH can lead to two faces that share a large central eye. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities (Fig. 2).


Schematic representations of documented diprosopus cases (Bendersky 2000: 482).

Now, the interesting thing is that Tlatilco double-faced figurines seem to reflect this same spectrum of possible different types of facial duplication. In other words, double-faced figurines are not all the same (some have two very distinct faces, some have two faces that share a central eye, etc.), in exactly the same way that cases of diprosopus are not all the same (Fig. 3). It’s because of this that Bendersky believes they were medical illustrations of an actual anatomical phenomenon, rather than fanciful depictions of imaginary supernatural creatures.


Selection of Tlatilco double-faced figurines, ordered according to how distinct the two faces are (Bendersky 2000: 480).

You could say that the term “medical illustrations” is imprecise and anachronistic. The very idea that you can understand how the physical world works by poking and prodding it with science (and, as regards the human body, medicine) is a relatively recent one, and probably did not quite exist in ancient Tlatilco.

However, if these figurines are indeed depictions of diprosopus, they do suggest genuine curiosity and towards a natural anatomical phenomenon, and a compulsion to make sense of it through classification. This is the basis of a lot of scientific research–and it does make them a sort of flickering, short-lived example of “proto-science”, for lack of a better word.

NB A question some of you might have is, if diprosopus is a rare condition, how come it appears so frequently in Tlatilco art, and with sufficiently great variation that it’s probably many different cases being represented rather than the same two or three over and over again? It’s a good question, and Bendersky isn’t sure himself, although apparently “clusters” or “epidemics” of conjoined twins in modern times have been documented in a number of locations worldwide, from Wales to California, from China to Israel, so maybe a similar thing happened with diprosopus in Tlatilco. Also, it’s possible that, for cultural reasons, inbreeding was common in Tlatilco, making an otherwise rare condition like diprosopus more common than it normally is. However, it’s worth saying that no two-faced skeletons have been found at Tlatilco, in case you were wondering, although that may well be because the archaeological record was disturbed by looters–and/or because the remains of diprosopus individuals may have been treated in a special way that prevented them from being preserved properly, or made them very difficult to find (I should probably say now that diprosopus is normally incompatible with life, although I did hear of a pig born with two faces who survived to a relatively old age).


Suggestions for further reading/watching:

1. The Brain Scoop’s Emily Graslie and Anna Goldman have tackled diprosopus recently: check out their two-parter on the dissection of a two-faced calf here and here.

2. Gordon Bendersky was an interesting guy–he was a paediatric cardiologist and amateur historian/archaeologist of medicine, whose academic papers cover a motley array of subjects, from depictions of foetuses in Olmec art to depictions of epilepsy in Raphael’s paintings, from the use of saffron as medicine in the ancient Aegean to sports injuries in ancient Greece. You can read his New York Times obituary here.



Berensky, G. 2000. Tlatilco sculptures, diprosopus, and the emergence of medical illustrations. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43 (4): 477-501.

For the last few months, I’ve been contributing intermittently to a “blog carnival” on the subject of archaeoblogging–a sort of months-long conference for bloggers, with each month dedicated to a different question. It’s been a lot of fun, and a great way both to find other blogs and reflect on the blogger’s craft. I’ve posted about why I blog in December, and about my best and worst posts in January, and I skipped both “the good, the bad and the ugly” post and the “write whatever you like” post. The whole thing is worth checking out over at Doug’s Archaeology Blog. Thanks, by the way, to Doug–this has all been great!


This is the last month of the carnival, and, fittingly, the question is: “where are you/we going with blogging or would you it like to go? I leave it up to you to choose between reflecting on you and your blog personally or all of archaeology blogging/bloggers or both. Tells us your goals for blogging. Or if you have none why that is? Tell us the direction that you hope blogging takes in archaeology.”

I’ll start with my thoughts about the future of archaeoblogging generally.

I agree with both Doug and Kelly M when they say that archaeoblogging should, for the most part, stay as it is: it’s great that anyone can write an archaeoblog, and that anyone can read one for free. The diversity of archaeoblogs out there is a wonderful thing. One thing I do hope will happen one day, however, is for an Emily Graslie to rise from our midst.

For those who don’t know, Emily Graslie used to be a volunteer at the University of Montana’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum, with a cool little tumblr about natural history and museums. Now, through both her own sheer amazingness and a couple of lucky breaks (but mostly her sheer amazingness), she is one of the best-known science vloggers out there, with a series called The Brain Scoop. Now, where is our Anthropology/Archaeology Emily? Someone who is as comfortable among Inka khipus and Maori carvings as Emily is among stuffed raccoons and flesh-eating beetles? I think it would have to be someone who knows both about archaeology and anthropology, since the two benefit so much from being paired together. And they would need a good cameraman/producer/editor like Michael Aranda used to be for the Brain Scoop (and like the new guy, Tom McNamara, presumably will be now). It’s a shame that there isn’t an anthropological/archaeological equivalent to the dissections that are one of the best things about the Brain Scoop, but even without something like that, I think some great videos could still be made.

Who could it be? I don’t know. There are so many excellent archaeobloggers out there who I have a feeling would be great at vlogging as well, and I’ve noticed that Katie Kirby, Emily’s intern, has started regularly posting archaeology/anthropology-related stuff on the Brain Scoop’s facebook group, which is an interesting move. But, for now, as far as I’m aware, this niche has not yet been filled.


As for the future of this particular blog… I have so many thoughts about how my blog could be improved or could change that listing them here might actually help me think through them. And, of course, if you have any advice/opinions, do comment/tweet/email/facebook-message me, or even tell me in person.

The most urgent “problem” I feel like I should solve is my audience problem. I’ve always thought of this blog mostly as something that anyone could stumble upon and read and get excited about, without any previous knowledge of things archaeological. And, to some extent, that has been the case. But, since attempting to broaden my readership by joining twitter, I’ve actually acquired a fair few readers who do know a bit about archaeology, anthropology and museums. So, what should I do? Write some posts for one type  of audience and some for the other? Attempt to create monstrous hybrid posts, or posts that are like those children’s movies with topic references or innuendo included to amuse the parents? Or simply write what I feel like writing about, however I feel like writing it on that particular day?

Also–should I change the blog’s name? “Unearthing” is perhaps too vague/obvious, and I never say “Unearthing” when I talk about it, I just call it “the blog”, perhaps means that I secretly don’t like it. Perhaps I should go for something like “Jade Adze” or “Eccentric Flint“. Or is it too late in the game for me to do that? Would it just be way too confusing? Can I even change a url easily here on WordPress? I don’t know! I’m kind of afraid that, in my attempt to change the name, I’ll end up accidentally deleting the whole blog.

I’d also like to write more about anthropology. Because it’s cool.

One things is certain: I’ll definitely continue blogging, because I enjoy it, and I enjoy experimenting with it. Or, well–I do sometimes feel like I’m a bit of an impostor, not actually having that much excavation experience compared to many other bloggers, or indeed many, many other archaeologists or archaeology students–I do sometimes feel like one of those Victorian gentlemen who never left England but were arrogant enough to think they could write detailed ethnographic treaties about cultures they’d only read about in books. When I feel like this, I end up wondering whether, re: the future of this blog, I should just stop blogging altogether. But, in the end, it’s fun enough, and important enough, that I’ll probably keep going for a while yet.


As some of you may know, I went to Oxford last weekend, and spent a number of hours at the Pitt Rivers, the city’s anthropology and archaeology museum. I’d heard many things about this museum before–that it was a “mess”, or maddeningly dark and cluttered, or antiquated, or that it depicted non-Western cultures as overly weird compared to Western ones–so I was very much looking forward to visiting it myself and forming my own opinion about it.

As it turns out, I think the Pitt Rivers has become my new favourite museum–and here are 7 reasons why.

1. It’s all about celebrating human creativity. Where most museums will divide and display their objects based on their geographic region, the Pitt Rivers divides and displays them according to their function, or the common problems they were meant to solve. So there’s a display that’s all about bagpipes, one that’s all about fire-making technology, one that’s dedicated to traps made to catch small mammals (mostly rats and mice), one that’s dedicated to amulets–and, in each of this display, objects from the South American rainforest will be sitting next to objects from nineteenth-century Naples and ones from modern-day Oxfordshire and ones from Ancient Egypt and ones collected by Captain Cook in the Pacific. So you can compare and contrast the different ways people have done the same things across the world and throughout history and prehistory, and marvel at just how damn inventive humans can be.

A display that's all about hair removal technology--that is, mostly, razors.

A display that’s all about hair removal technology–that is, mostly, razors.

2. Each visit will yield new discoveries. Yes, it’s dark–to see some of the objects, you actually have to ask for a torch at the front desk. And yes, the displays are amazingly cluttered and crowded, with labels inscribed with sometimes really tiny handwriting–for which you may want to ask for a magnifying glass at the front desk, too. But this means that, each time you visit, you’ll definitely find something you hadn’t noticed before. And, since entry to museum’s entry is free, you can visit as many times as you want.

A particularly chaotic display, focussing on human form in art. You could dedicate an entire visit to this one display--or see it every time you visit, and discover something new each time.

A particularly chaotic display, focussing on human form in art. You could dedicate an entire visit to this one display–or see it every time you visit, and discover something new each time.

3. It challenges you to think for yourself. There are no clear start- or end-points by which to organise your visit. This might, at first, cause confusion and a sense of disorientation. But, actually, it’s liberating–you are encouraged to make your own sense of the museum, and draw your own connections. (NB There are a number of hints, here and there, of what the museum wants you to reflect on, but they definitely enhance the visiting experience rather than take away from it.)

3. They take great pains to avoid stereotypes of other cultures being “weird” or “exotic” when compared to Western ones. Specifically, they’ve included a large number of modern-day or relatively recent European objects in the displays–from a breast implant in the display about body modification, to Oxfordshire skates in the skates and snow shoes display, to Eiffel Tower souvenirs, to playing card decks that people still use today in Italy. But most impressive is what they’re doing with the shrunken heads–which merits its own, separate point.

4. What they’re doing with the shrunken heads. Through labels underneath the heads themselves, a cheap pamphlet you can get at the museum shop, and both text and a podcast on the museum website, the Pitt Rivers has made a valiant attempt at explaining that the heads are not something weird and barbaric that some violent and primitive tribe still do in some remote jungle location today, but something that occurred in a particular time and place but doesn’t happen any more, and that, in that particular time and place, it made sense within a particular worldview. Most wonderfully, the museum points out, not only that violence has long been a feature of European life as well, but also that the fact that Europeans collected these heads, and display them in places like museums, is just as interesting to think about, as a cultural phenomenon, as the act of shrinking the heads itself.

5. You can see the following things:

A "philosophical" snakes and ladder set from nineteenth-century India, in which certain squares are inscribed with the word for one of the Hindu virtues, and allow you climb a ladder up to the corresponding reward, while others are inscribed with the word for a sin, and force to slide down a snake towards the corresponding punishment.

A “philosophical” snakes and ladder set from nineteenth-century India, in which certain squares are inscribed with the words for Hindu virtues, and allow you to climb a ladder up to the corresponding reward, while others are inscribed with the words for sins, and force you to slide down a snake towards the corresponding punishment.

A badass helmet made out of a kind of blowfish.

A badass helmet made out of a kind of blowfish, from Kiribati, in Micronesia.

A Micronesian sailing chart from the nineteenth-century–the sticks represent the main directions of wind and currents, and the shells represent islands. Photo courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

A tiny stick nineteenth-century Chinese barbers used to tickle their customers' eyeballs. The idea was to cleanse the eye by making it shed tears.

A tiny stick nineteenth-century Chinese barbers used to tickle their customers’ eyeballs. The idea was to cleanse the eye by making it shed tears.

A metal collar from Burma, made to be worn by children, so that evil spirits would mistake them for dogs, and leave them alone.

A metal collar from Burma, made to be worn by children, so that evil spirits would mistake them for dogs, and leave them alone.

A policeman's amulet from nineteenth-century France--made out of a coin, a piece of hangman's rope, and the skin of a "sadistic murderer named Campi".

A policeman’s amulet from nineteenth-century France–made out of a coin, a piece of hangman’s rope, and the skin of “a sadistic murderer named Campi”.

6. The amazing website. Seriously, if you can’t visit the museum in person, then the website is a more than adequate substitute. And if you have visited the museum in person, the website has loads of resources through which to find out even more about the objects you’ve seen. My favourite section is probably the one in which you can click through the museum’s huge collection of amulets, but there are also detailed introductions to the museum’s biggest or most important collections (such as the South American rainforest material, the photographs of Native North American life, or the things collected by Captain Cook), and a staggering number of blogs and multimedia projects that I’ve barely had the chance to explore properly.

The Pitt Rivers, like any other museum, is not without its flaws. For example, I think they could do a better job at problematising their Benin collection, which, like the Benin collection at the British Museum and a number of other places both in the UK and in Europe, was forcibly removed (some might say looted) from its country of origin by the British during a “punitive expedition” in 1897. The Pitt Rivers does acknowledge the origin of these objects, but I think they could talk about the ethics of displaying them in the same way that they discuss the ethics of displaying the shrunken heads.

Equally, I’m sure there are other things about the Pitt Rivers that are super-cool, besides the ones I’ve listed, but either I don’t know about them, or don’t know them well enough to write confidently about them.

But the main point of this post is that absolutely fell in love with this museum–and that, hopefully, whoever ends up reading it will want to go, and fall in love with it too.

For the last month or so, I’ve spent one or two days a week leafing through old typewritten letters between collectors and dealers, in an attempt to figure out how the Pre-Columbian objects at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts became part of the museum’s collection. This is for my MA thesis. There’s loads of fun or interesting stuff in these letters, but, since it’s all private correspondence, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it–no matter how outrageous some of the dealers’ pronouncements on the legality of their activities may be.

However, I did find something cool today that’s probably ok for me to share–old-timey Australian anthropologist Henry Ling Roth’s account of how the weird little collection of Pre-Columbian artefacts at Halifax’s Bankfield Museum formed. The Bankfield Museum became a museum in 1887, after having been the home of Edward Akroyd–who, in the nineteenth century, had been Halifax’s foremost woollen and worsted manufacturer. (Halifax is in Yorkshire, by the way, and both woollen and worsted are types of yarn). Roth curated the museum’s collection between 1900 and 1925, and wrote some notes on the museum’s Pre-Columbian material. Without further ado:

At a great Exhibition held in Halifax in the year 1841 there were shown amongst other interesting exhibits, two interesting collections of domestic articles made by the natives of Ancient Peru. They were stated to be belong to a Mr J. Egan, but the name should have been spelt Hegan a member of the Liverpool firm of Hall, Hegan & Co. […] After the Exhibition was over Mr Hegan gave the two collections to the Museum of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society where they remained until the year 1896 when they were transferred with other forgotten relics to Bankfield Museum.

In the Exhibition Catalogue one collection is spoken of as ‘Peruvian Antiquities: Contents of the Tomb of a Cacica, or ancient Peruvian Princess, of the Nation of the Atacames, Found on the Southern Point of the Coast of Peru in the Valley of Sama near the mouth of the River” & consisted of about 30 enumerated articles. The other collection is spoken of as “A Unique series of Sepulchral Urns, Vases, Drinking Cups, Bottles, Paterae, & other domestic Utensils & personal Ornaments, Musical Instruments, etc., discovered in Ancient Tombs in the Valley of Sama, Lacumba, etc., in Peru & also in the Cordillera”, but none of these articles are detailed so that we cannot say whether all the things have come down to us. Strangely enough a large portion of the pottery has been labelled ‘MEXICO’, although it is distinctly Peruvian.

Further on, Roth lists the items from the tomb of the “Andean Princess”:

“A part of the Undergarment of the Cacica.

“The Upper Garment or Shirt without Sleeves.

“The Belt or Faja, worn by the Cacia, & denoting her rank among the aristocracy of the Inca’s dynasty.

“The Thorn of the Cactus, used as a Pin, anterior to the introduction of the Metals, & proving that the interment was prior to the arrival of Europeans.

“The large Kerchief called Andro, in which the Cacica carried her various implements.

“The Spindle & the Sticks forming a Loom for weaving, with the latter of which all woven articles of dress were made. Around the Sticks is a Faja or Belt in a process of manufacture.

“The Hinda or Sling now in use among the Indians of the Cordillera.

“Three instruments for making Fringes.

“Two Vichuntas used for opening the wool of stuffs.

“A smaller Kerchief to hang in front, used as a pocket.

“A Comb called Chucha.

“Spoons of different forms.

“A Wooden Spoon in the process of formation.

“A Wooden Knife used in dancing.

“Workbag of the Cacica, with her spindles etc.

“Balls of Thread found in above workbag.

“A Masorca of Maize entire, found hanging over the head of the Cacica.

“Remains of a fishing net.

“Spices with which the Mummy was found embalmed.

“Remains of net-work.

“Locks of Hair & Leaves found in Paringuita, hung over the Head of the Cacica.

“An Earthen Vase called Ura, found full of Maize.

“Vase or Bottle found full of Chicha.

“The Skull, Hair & Head-dress, & part of the Skeleton of the Cacica.

“A Skull found in the Tomb of the Cacica.’

“A large number of the articles enumerated is missing, as was to be expected, & it is not possible to determine which are some of the things. Then several have been misnamed, or imaginary qualifications given to them. There is no skull with part of the skeleton, but there is a dried head with some skin & hair attached & decorated with the locks of hair – but wooly – as above mentioned. As for the other skull, Whiteley Ward told me more than once that as a boy he & other youngsters used to make a football of it & had no doubt that it had long since been kicked to pieces. The “wooden knife used in dancing” is nothing more than a weavers beater-in.

“There is also a Mummy of which I have been able to find any record except the label which reads as follows: – ‘A Natural Mummy of a Female. Discovered in January 1834, along with seven others, within a cavern, on the mountain of Gamiza, one of the highest passable points of the Andes, in the neighbourhood of Tunja, a city three or four days from Bogota, the capital of New Granada. Presented by Miss Staveley, Springfield’. There was a John Staveley, a South American merchant in the thirties of the last century in Halifax, who was one of the earliest members of the Halifax Literary & Philosophical Society, so it is not improbable that this mummy found its way to Halifax through his business connections with the South American continent.

Oh and let’s not forget

“a Halifax mechanic, Mr C.H. Hitchen, [who] brought home and deposited in the Museum some very crude pottery from the ruins of Huanacho, which he excavated in Mar-June, 1887, & one large urn from the sacred (?) city of Pachachonac on the north coast of Peru, which he purchased in April, 1897.”

There are many reasons why I like this passage–the unrestrained use of ampersands, the copious capitalisation of words, the weirdly compelling list of looted grave goods–but, perhaps most of all, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the haphazard, bizarre and gleefully unethical way that many of the older museums formed. Also I can’t believe they just let kids play football with a crumbling Pre-Columbian skull–was it lack of concern/respect for primitive cultures or people, some forgotten Great Football Shortage that pushed people to desperate measures to enjoy their favourite pastime–or just sheer madness?

As a note: from the website, it does not seem that the Bankfield Museum displays any of these objects any more. Perhaps they still hold them in storage, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pre-Columbian stuff was sold on to art dealers or other museums–it seems likely that a silver llama on display at the Sainsbury Centre used to be on display at Bankfield (Roth describes a similar llama in his notes, and feels compel to explain that a llama is a “native sheep”).

I know I promised a short series on the Wari, but I was in Paris last week, and I’d like to write down my thoughts on the Musée du Quai Branly while they’re still relatively fresh.

If you want to experience sheer wonder at human creativity and cultural diversity, then the Quai Branly is the museum for you. They’ve got everything there from Easter Island heads to Native American totem poles, from half-caribou half-walrus shaman masks from the Arctic to creepy voodoo doll’s heads from the Caribbean, from contemporary art produced by Australian Aborigines to Medieval Ethiopian murals, and all kinds of masks and costumes, gods and goddesses, weapons and musical instruments. And the way the objects are presented makes them even more spectacular than they would be by themselves: objects that were “sacred” to those who first made and used them are placed into small chapel-like rooms to the gallery’s sides, each one designed in a different way, and, in the main gallery, I was particularly impressed by how the Ghanaian goldweights were arranged–almost as if they were the splendid debris of an explosion frozen in time–or as if they were a particularly fine infographic.

Half-caribou half-walrus mask

Half-caribou half-walrus mask from somewhere in Alaska. I think it’s Yup’ik, if I remember correctly.

Voodoo shrine

Voodoo-related object of worship from the Caribbean. I’ve lost my notes on who made it/when, so if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!


The Ghanaian golweights display.

But, but, but. When it first opened in 2006, the Quai Branly was widely criticised for a number of practices which seemed a little… anachronistic.

First, a bit of context. Many museum collections have their roots in colonialism. Back when Western nations had empires, it was considered important to collect objects from the farthest reaches of their colonial possessions, and then display them back home. This for a number of reasons, but, in most cases, it would be fair to say that a collection was meant to celebrate, in some way, the colonial endeavour–for example, by demonstrating how “primitive” conquered peoples were and therefore how much they needed white rulers to “civilise” them, or by showcasing the objects as if they were trophies, almost like severed animal heads in hunting lodges.

In recent decades, however, most museums have tried to shake off their colonial undertones. This in a number of ways, including: involving so-called “source” communities (that is, communities whose ancestors manufactured and used the museum’s objects, or ones like them) in the curation of both permanent and temporary exhibitions; ditching words like “primitive” or “advanced”, and any terminology or way of displaying things that might give an impressions that cultures are being ranked from least sophisticated to most sophisticated; trying to give a sense of how cultures change through time, rather than trying to preserve a timeless, “authentic” idea of what the culture is thought to be like; returning certain objects to their place of origin; and even explicitly tackling colonialism and related phenomena (slavery, racism, turn-of-the-century wars) in their labels and exhibitions.

The Quai Branly, however–when it first opened, and during its first few years of business, it did a number of things which people didn’t agree with. In no particular order: they did ditch the word “primitive”, but in favour of the word “first” (as in, they described the arts of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as “first arts”, les arts premiers), which many see as just as bad as primitive; they refused to repatriate a number of objects, including Maori warrior’s heads from New Zealand; they did not collaborate with source communities (with the exception of a number of Aboriginal artists who designed a few beautiful murals and the painted roof); they presented non-Western cultures as timeless and changeless; they completely failed to mention colonialism or slavery; and so on. They also enshrouded the gallery in darkness, which some saw as an unfortunate reminder of colonial ideas about Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as dangerous places, mostly made up of jungles, forests and caves, with plenty of shadowy spots for predatory animals and “savages” to hide in waiting for the perfect ambushing opportunity.


One of the murals specially commissioned by the Quai Branly to a number of contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists. This particular one depicts the Milky Way, and was designed by Gulumbu Yunupingu. It can only be seen from outside.

It’s been almost eight years now since the Quai Branly first opened, and I think it’s fair to say that an effort has been made (by individual curators? by the administrative board? I don’t know) to change at least some of these things. Loads of new lights have been installed, to dispel the gallery’s darkness. The Maori heads were returned to New Zealand. Some contemporary stuff was acquired, providing visitors with a vague sense that Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia change through time as much as Europe does–a few contemporary Aboriginal paintings, and several huge display cases with some really cool stuff from modern-day Bolivia and the Caribbean (which was actually a nice contrast from how museums usually do this sort of thing–that is, by including one painting or art object from one contemporary artist, tucked away in a little corner, or just at the end before the gift shop, where visitors either won’t see it or won’t care).


Costumes for the Devil and his mistress, for the Bolivian Diablada festival. Highlight of my visit.


Costume for the Archangel Michael, also for the Diablada.


This bear (ukuy) is also an important figure in the Diablada–originally it was a spectacled bear, which you can actually see in the Andes (if you’re lucky), but for some reason now it’s a polar bear. The effect of one too many Coke adverts perhaps?

However, besides this, I don’t think the Quai Branly has made any more efforts to collaborate with source communities, nor could I discern any attempt at problematising where their objects come from–I don’t think colonialism is ever mentioned, except perhaps for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, which is simply presented as “the end” of ancient American arts and cultures. Also, they still use the term “first arts”.

And, because this is mostly an archaeology blog, it’s worth pointing out that Quai Branly labels also fail to mention both the illegal trade of antiquities and looting, which is very probably how many of the archaeological objects got there. To be fair, this could be said of most museums, even ones that could otherwise be considered more “enlightened” than the Quai Branly, but it’s still worth pointing out.


“This item was part of a hanging several metres long found on the north coast of Peru in 1951. With its exceptional dimensions, iconography and range of colours, it was divided into several panels to be sold more easily”. This is the only reference to looting and the illegal traffic in cultural material I could find at the Quai Branly–worded in such a way that it almost seems like a reasonable thing for an ancient Peruvian textile to be mutilated this way.


If you see an ancient terracotta from Djenne in a museum that isn’t the one in Bamako (Mali), the likelihood is extremely high that it was looted, and found its way out of Mali by illicit means. Perhaps the label should mention this?

The Quai Branly, then, is an infuriating mixture of absolutely awesome objects and displays, anachronistic display and curatorial practices, and a few successful and semi-successful attempts at correcting some of these practices. If you haven’t been, I recommend you go–both to see the objects on display (especially the Diablada stuff), and to think, how would you do things differently? Is there a way of talking about looting, colonialism or the illegal trade in cultural materials that will actually grab museum visitors’ attention? Is the darkness really an issue, or is it just overthinkers overthinking it? What would you substitute the term “first arts” with, assuming a term like that is needed to describe what the museum is about? And what contemporary cultural phenomena from Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia should be included in the display, to give a sense of how non-Western cultures have changed through time?

Answers to these questions, other questions, criticisms, or comments are, as always, very welcome, both from those who’ve been to to the Quai Branly and from those who haven’t.

Because we have loads of written accounts of Inca life and history*, we know more about them than we do about any other ancient South American culture. But they were only around for about a 100 years (specifically, from 1438 to 1533)–loads of other equally amazing cultures had developed on the continent, long before the Inca even sheared their first llama.

If they were around today, the Wari would be particularly offended by how little we know about them compared to the Inca, especially as the Wari** did a lot of the things that the Inca usually get the credit for. In other words, they were the ultimate hipster civilisation.

So, what are these things that they did before it was cool?

1. Ruling Peru

The Inca were not the first South Americans to have their own empire–the Wari were there first. It was not as big as the Inca Empire, but it lasted longer–so, though it only covered most of Peru (the Inca ruled over most of Western South America), it lasted about 500 years, between 600 and 1100 AD. And yeah, of course the Spanish invasion is partly to blame for the fall of the Inca, but I think the Empire was on its last legs anyway, so it wouldn’t have lasted much longer than it did anyway.

Like the Inca, the Wari spread their control over vast territories by founding administrative centres wherever they conquered. The Inca used their administrative centres to resettle labor forces, and to host lavish feasts in which said the efforts of said labour forces were rewarded with pints and pints of maize beer. There are some who believe that the Wari used their centres in a similar way, but there’s not much evidence than that, and it sounds a lot like people simply projecting what we know about the Inca onto what we don’t know about the Wari. No doubt, the Wari would have found this quite aggravating.

Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

Wari mummy on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

2. Building Efficient Road Networks

Everybody knows that the Inca built long roads all across their Empire, for the efficient movement and transportation of armies, labour forces, messages, and trade goods (including, famously, fish that was still fresh when it got to the highlands, after a journey that started on the coast). Few, however, know that many of those roads had already been built by the Wari. I don’t think a study has actually been carried out specifically on this topic, but many so-called Inca roads are said to clearly link up Wari centres one to the other, and they often pass through smaller Wari sites, which were probably waystations–like Jincamocco, on the road between the capital, Huari, and the Peruvian coast.

Wari llamas--no doubt among the main species to be led by the Wari along their long, long roads. (These llama-shaped pots are on display at Lima's

Wari llama-shaped ceramic vessels, on display at Lima’s National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and Archaeology.

3. Speaking Quechua

Before the Spanish came along, Quechua was the main language family spoken in Western South America. For a long time, people thought that this was because of the Inca–the Inca were thought to have been Quechua-speakers, who simply made their Quechua dialect their Empire’s official language out of convenience.

However, there are some interesting signs that, in fact, it was the Wari who spread Quechua across Peru–and that the Inca (who may have spoken some other language, such as Aymara) adopted it as an administrative language because it was already so widespread. Simply put, based on the number of Quechua dialects that exist today, and how different they are from one another, archaeologist David Beresford-Jones and linguist Paul Heggarty argue that Quechua dialects are more likely to have spread during the course of the Wari Empire’s 500 years, and then further evolved from that moment onward, than having spread during the 100 years of the Inca Empire, and evolved since then. Also, a map of the traditional distribution of Quechua speakers is remarkably similar to a map of the Wari Empire: they both cover most of the highlands, from Ancash to Cuzco, as well as the South-Central coast, excluding the area north of Lima, and a few isolated pockets around Cajamarca and Viracochapampa.

A map of Quechua's assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

A map of Quechua’s assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a little bit like saying that the Romans didn’t speak Latin to begin with, but had to adopt it because it was already widespread throughout Europe and North Africa when they start expanding their empire. I should say that not all agree with this scenario, but it’s definitely a plausible one.

4. Dystopian Architecture

Long before the twentieth-century graced the world with Soviet architecture, the Wari had already figured out that erecting very big, very ugly, and very standardised buildings was a good way of striking fear and instilling misery in the hearts of the populace.

All Wari administrative centres are made up of one huge rectangular enclosure, with an orderly set of smaller rectangular enclosures inside. The walls of these enclosures are overwhelmingly huge–13 ft (4 m) thick and 30 ft (10 m) tall. They usually surround open courtyards, with mazes of rooms around and between them. Sometimes even the streets that lead from Point A to Point B are walled off. Doors and windows are kept to a bare minimum–indeed, people used to think that the city of Pikillacta had no doors at all, which to led to theories about it having been an ancient prison, or some horrific mental asylum. However, a few decades ago a team of archaeologists led by Gordon McEwan found the city’s elusive doors–simply by digging a bit deeper along the buildings’ walls.

"Welcome to The Grid": the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone

“Welcome to The Grid”: the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone 2012: 148).

(It’s worth saying that the actual Wari capital, Huari, is an absolute mess–the exact chaotic opposite of the administrative centres the Wari dotted all around Peru–which has actually made it very difficult for archaeologists to work on it.)

… and that’s about it for now. I was going to add some more stuff about Wari art, but it doesn’t fit  very well with this theme, so I think I’ll just turn this into a series–so stay tuned for the next post, which will probably include stuff on looting, forgeries, and the illicit trade of antiquities!

In the meantime, if you want to read a bit more about the Wari, check out what’s been written about last summer’s spectacular find of an unlooted Wari tomb at El Castillo de Huarmey, just north of Lima–here and here!

* Courtesy, mostly, of an Inca nobleman named Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a half-Inca named Garcilaso de la Vega, a Jesuit priest named Bernabe Cobo, and a mixed assortment of Spanish mercenaries and missionaries–check out my post on Inca childhood for some of the stuff they wrote!

** They’re also known as Huari–not what they called themselves, but, rather, the modern name of the site where the ruins of their presumed capital lie.


Beresford-Jones, D.P. and Heggarty, P. 2012. Broadening Our Horizons: Towards an Interdisciplinary Prehistory of the Andes. In Heggarty, P. and Beresford-Jones, D. (eds.) Archaeology and Language in the Andes pp. 57-84. New York: Oxford University Press.

Isbell, W.H. 1987. State origins in the Ayacucho valley, central highlands, Peru. In Haas, J., Pozorski, T. and Pozorski, S. (eds.) The origins and development of the Andean state pp. 83-90. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Isbell, W.H. 1988. City and State in Middle Horizon Huari. In Keatinge, R.W. (ed.) Peruvian Prehistory pp. 164-189. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

McEwan, G.F. 1991. Investigations at the Pikillacta site: a provincial Huari centre in the valley of Cuzco. In Isbell, W.H. and McEwan, G.F. (eds.) Huari Administrative Structure: Prehistoric Monumental Architecture and State Government pp. 93-120. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, R.S. 2012. Art of the Andes. New York: Thames & Hudson.


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