The importance of gold & craftsmanship in the Incas Culture

The importance of gold & craftsmanship in the Incas Culture

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Incas, a rich culture

The legend of the Inca Empire

Born more than 800 years ago, the Inca Empire gradually spread over the valley of Cuzco (Peru) to finally reach part of Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. From the XVth century, the Inca emperors thus imposed their domination on various populations and managed to find a culturally diversified and united empire.

The fall of the empire by the Spanish conquistadors

In this complex civilization, gold had no numerical value! The conquistadors met the Incas when they invaded the Peru in 1532. But the richness of the soil in precious metals and the magnificence of the goldsmith's art gave birth in Europe to the myth of Eldorado. Despite the power and wealth of the Inca civilization, and after more than three centuries of existence, the Empire was destroyed in the space of only a few months by the Spanish conquistadors. 

Moreover, the thirst for gold and silver led them, from the 16th century onwards, to systematically melt down everything that was precious. They destroyed the capital testimonies of an advanced civilization. Thousands of necklaces, rings or masks were thus destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors.

The persistent memory of a culture

Fortunately, recent discoveries allow us today to admire these objects that have escaped human greed. The richness of their culture has been perpetuated over time. More than five centuries after their disappearance, their civilization still fascinates. Their unique architecture, their abundance of gold and their craftsmanship are renowned throughout the world.

Ruin of Machou Pichou in the Andes

The various symbols of the Gold of the Incas

Gold represents divine power

Firstly, it is closely associated with religious ritual. It was the "sweat of the sun", the most important deity. Gold is the masculine principle, while silver, the "tear of the moon", is associated with femininity and fecundity.

This means that the transformation of these precious metals also presupposed a perfect knowledge of religious beliefs. Whoever possessed them became the intercessor of the gods and was invested with divine power.

The Andean people worshipped and venerated precious metals and minerals. Gold held between the three Inca worlds - the world of heaven, the world of men, and the underworld of the dead - an intermediary role, and the spiritual transcendence of the temples was directly related to the amount of precious metal wealth they contained.

The emperor being the human incarnation of the sun, gold is also central in the representation of power. The ceremonial garments embroidered with metal, pectorals and bracelets of gold or silver were reserved for the elite. The sovereign offered them to his subjects as a reward and forbade their wearing without his permission.

Frontal ornament with a gold, silver, rolled copper alloy, repoussé, openwork, chiselled. Decoration of felines and birds. Probably intended to be sewn on a cloth, through the holes framing the face - Mochica Culture (100 BC, -850 AD) 

Gold accompanies death

Gold was also an indispensable part of the funeral trousseau. It is worth noting that most of the remaining objects of this civilization were found in the tombs.

In the great cycle of the Andean world, death was only a passage: Man left the terrestrial sphere for the world of the dead. Before being buried, the deceased was adorned and given a trousseau that varied according to his status and functions. It could be composed of food, clothing, tools, jewelry.

Metal always held an essential place in the trousseau, in the form of cups, earrings, pectorals, headdresses or tiaras, but sometimes also in the form of simple gold or silver ingots placed on the body, between the hands, or in the mouth.

Inca sanctuary found under the Machou Pichou

Artisanal techniques to produce gold

The Incas, heirs of 4000 years of traditions

The Incas built an immense empire going from Ecuador to Chile, from the high plateaus of the Andes to the desert plains of the Pacific coast.

But when they settled in the region of Cusco, at the end of the 13th century, they were heirs to sophisticated traditions developed over more than 4000 years. More than ten civilizations had preceded them.

 Inca treasures exhibited at the Pinacothèque de Paris between 2010 and 2011 

In metallurgy, especially, the Incas were often satisfied to consolidate ancestral techniques. From the first centuries of our era, the Mochicos, had already realized remarkable pieces in gold and precious metals.

And it is during the period 900-1400 AD that the Andean region knew its most important production, thanks to a perfect mastery of techniques, especially in goldsmithing.

Pectoral in shell pearls (spondyle or mullu) cylindrical, polished and cut - Mochica Culture (100 BC - 850 AD) 

The techniques of the jewelry craftsmen

In the Andes, gold was mainly obtained by gold panning - washing alluvium or gold bearing sediments. It could also come, like silver or copper, from mining deposits. Alloying was always based on copper - copper and gold or copper and silver.

The shaping of objects and jewelry was done mechanically: after being alternately subjected to hammering and heat, the metal took the form of a plate that could be cut with hard stone chisels.

Frontal ornament in laminated, repoussé, stamped and inlaid gold. Feline head decorated with feathers, nose and beak of bird. 2 monkeys (upper part) and two-headed snakes (lower part) - Chimú Culture ( 900 - 1470 AD)

Various operations then followed: bending or folding, deformation of the plate on a "core" (wood or stone matrix), then engraving, stamping, or embossing using bronze, hardwood, horn or bone instruments.

The shape could also be obtained by casting: the metal was then poured into a clay mould in a molten state. Polishing and burnishing would then give the metal luster and shine, and immersion in acid baths could change its color.

The assembly of complex objects was done by interlocking folds, using nails, rivets, staples and wires, or by soldering and welding, which required dexterity and perfect control of the melting temperatures.

Pectoral made of 410 square plates of laminated gold and 32 circular plates with central perforation allowing to sew them on a garment. Laminated, cut and baked. Zone of Lambayeque, Recent Intermediate (900 - 1400 BC)


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