CWA 114 Letters

Your observations, your objections, and your opinions.

Capturing and joining ancestors

Re: ‘Origins of the Incas’/‘Peru: a journey through time’, CWA 110  I very much enjoyed the feature on the Andes as an Andeanist. Many wonderful points!   

I would add that one of t​he least explored but most fundamental developments in the creation of the Inca empire is that they aggressively sought to incorporate territories by absorbing the ancestors of those they conquered.   

Spanish chroniclers note that the Inca captured the wak’as or ancestors of the communities they conquered, embodied as objects, figures, etc, and held them in shrines at Cuzco. Though the Inca did impose the worship of their primary figure, Viracocha, on the others, they did not destroy them – a point to extend from the article’s wonderful reference to the power of ancestors. This mentality arguably pervaded the empire.   

Just as they drew from Chimú metal-working specialists, they also drew forces to fight from these communities, and resettled many communities, which utterly changed the region’s demographics.   

As the article points out, the Inca had many precedents, but they actively sought to rework the Andes in unprecedented ways by including all of the four quarters.   

In addition, I would say that the powerful role of women in this region should not go unnoticed, though much of the art may emphasise male representations. Moche and Wari priestesses and queens arguably held great power in several coastal valleys, and female leaders were documented in the Andes well into the Colonial period.

Thank you, and I’m looking forward to the next issue.

Christopher Wai 
Toronto, Canada

A baby’s burial

The article in issue 111 of CWA about the unusual burial in 1680 of a Swedish bishop whose coffin also contained the body of a tiny baby was very interesting, and the conjecture put forward in it has recently been supported by a most unlikely source – an episode in the BBC series Call the Midwife, set in London in the 1950s and ’60s.

IMAGE: courtesy of Caroline Arcini.

In this episode, a young woman has given birth to a premature and stillborn baby. She is very anxious about what will happen to her baby’s little body. The midwife reassures her by telling her that it is their custom (unofficially) to place a stillborn baby in the coffin of another person who has died about the same time.

It is a caring and compassionate recognition of the value of the stillborn through the centuries.

Beth Cumming
Melrose, UK

Craftsmen of the Great Steppe

I enjoyed reading your article ‘Gold of the Great Steppe’ in CWA 110, and the pictures were great. A question came to mind as I read about the Saka creating these treasures. I have read earlier that some Scythians used craftsmen from Greek colonies along the Black Sea to create some of their gold decorations and art. For example, in a 2016 article in Archaeology magazine, ‘Rites of the Scythians: spectacular new discoveries from the Caucasus set the stage for the dramatic hilltop ritual’, Andrew Curry mentions the possibility that a Greek goldsmith or perhaps multiple Greek goldsmiths from the coast of the Black Sea made items that were found in kurgans many miles apart.

IMAGE: M Symonds.

In far more recent days, jewellers created distinctive marks to show who and sometimes when a piece was made. Have ways been developed to try to identify who the specific craftsman was, or more generally what culture the person came from? I have no doubt the images in the art do reflect the Saka belief system. It was my understanding the Scythians brought the symbolism they wanted to Greek craftsmen. In the case of the Saka, the gold items were found in graves. Can one find where in the villages this work was done? What signs might one use to identify Greek or other craftsmen?

Bruce Fortado
Jacksonville, FL, USA

50 years ago

IMAGE: Gabriele Burchielli.

The Varna Necropolis was discovered on the coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria in October 1972. The Early Chalcolithic cemetery, dating to c.4500 BC, is considered one of the world’s most-important prehistoric sites because of the large quantity of gold artefacts found there. The necropolis was discovered by a tractor operator who noticed a number of stone tools, copper axes, and gold ornaments in the ground. When curators from a local museum saw the artefacts, they immediately recognised their significance and organised a rescue excavation. A team of archaeologists spent more than 15 years excavating the site, although about 30% of the cemetery has been left untouched for now. Around 300 graves were uncovered, many of which contained examples of highly sophisticated metalwork, pottery, and other valuable grave goods. Some 3,000 gold objects were discovered, totalling c.6kg in weight. The site is also significant for the evidence it offers of extensive trade networks and a highly stratified society in the mid-5th millennium BC.

Before we discovered fire, what did we sit and stare at?
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