A close-up of one of the faces from El Tocado, which means “the headdress.” (Rafael Rioja/Museo Sican; National Geographic “Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed”)

A close-up of one of the faces from El Tocado, which means “the headdress.” (Rafael Rioja/Museo Sican; National Geographic “Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed”)

People who lived in Peru thousands of years ago didn’t have a couple of things that you might think would be essential: a written language and a money system. What they did have, and what you can see on exhibit right now at the National Geographic Museum, was gold. Lots and lots of gold.

“For Peruvians, gold was something very special,” said Fredrik Hiebert, the archaeologist (ark-ee-ALL-oh-jist) who curated, or put together, the exhibit “Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed.” (An archaeologist is someone who studies life on Earth a long time ago.)

In school, you may have studied the Incas, a group of people who lived in Peru starting around 1400. They are known for a city called Machu Picchu. The Peruvians highlighted in this exhibit came before the Incas and lived starting around 1000 B.C., or about 3,000 years ago.

Gold as art

These pre-Inca people made gold cups and bowls, and carved designs and even stories into them. Gold is soft, so it would not have required a lot of complicated tools to work with it. Many of the items at the exhibit were probably used in religious ceremonies, which were a big part of ancient Peruvian culture, Hiebert said.

The exhibit showcases beautiful (and heavy-looking) gold jewelry. If you were a very important Peruvian woman at the time, you may have worn a ring through your nose the size of a teacup saucer. (What would your mom say about that?) One nose ring in the exhibit showcases two cats, one gold, which represents the sun, and the other silver, which represents the moon. Cats symbolized strength and toughness.

A ceramic jug from the same time period shows a man who seems to be running to the top of the jug holding a bag of lima beans. Hiebert wondered what this meant. Maybe the lima beans tell a story about farming. Or maybe the lima beans are meant to be counted. The more artifacts, or things, that Hiebert finds, the better he will be able to understand the pre-Inca people.

“Ceramics are the earliest form of artistic expression,” Hiebert said.

El Tocado

The biggest and most important piece in the exhibit comes at the end. It is called El Tocado (el to-KAH-doh), which means “the headdress.” Archaeologists found it in 1991. It weighs about 25 pounds and features two scary faces. It was probably worn by an important person during a religious ceremony, such as a funeral. These Peruvians thought that masks helped people who died get to the next place they were supposed to go.

The exhibit will give you a taste of the pre-Inca Peruvian lifestyle, but even Hiebert is still trying to figure out more about the ancient culture.

What can the beautiful gold cups and jewelry tell us about this culture? Maybe their owners liked to gather together in solemn ceremonies. Or maybe they just liked wearing bulky necklaces.

“There’s a lot of mysteries to ancient Peru,” Hiebert said.

If you go

What: “Peruvian Gold: Ancient Treasures Unearthed.” Ask for an explorer kit, which will help guide you through the exhibit.

Where: The National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street NW.

When: Daily through September 14, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

How much: Adults $11; seniors $9; ages 5-12 $7; free for age 4 and younger.

For more information: A parent can call 202-857-7700 or go to events.nationalgeographic.com/events/

 Moira E. McLaughlin