An image of a tenon head in the facade of the temple structure at Chavin

Ancient Heads, Modern Eyes: Exploring the Artwork of an Indigenous Culture

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Carly Rose Lacoste spent seven weeks in Chavin de Huantar, Peru, where she assisted in PhD candidate Patricia Lagarde’s research on the stone sculpture of Chavin, an ancient Peruvian civilization which dates from 900-500 B.C. The project sought to investigate these understudied works of Pre-Columbian art from new perspectives, placing emphasis on this indigenous culture and making its works accessible to today’s audience. Carly Rose is a rising senior in art history and anthropology and will also be starting the 4+1 Master’s program in art history this fall.

Chavin de Huantar is a small Peruvian town nestled in a valley of the Andean Mountains. Its streets are filled with dogs, food vendors, schoolchildren, and farm animals (often crossing right in front of cars). Festivals consume the plaza d’armas on weekends, and plenty of hiking trails look down on the town. But Chavin is more than this modern-day town; it also contains centuries of ancient history.
On the outskirts of the town lies the archaeological monument of Chavin. Its ancient structures sprawl across the landscape, a temple complex built of cut stone. Sunken plazas complete this impressive view, and underground galleries and canals lie beneath the site. At the height of Chavin’s influence, in the first millennium B.C., this religious center would have drawn pilgrims from across the region.

Image of the archaeological site of Chavin de Huantar with research assistants Antonella Rivera Tames and Carly Rose Lacoste seated on steps
Visiting the archaeological site with fellow research assistant Antonella Rivera Tames, from Lima

In addition to being an architectural marvel, Chavin was also an artistic hotspot. Stone artwork proliferated through the temple complex, from intricate low-relief carvings to three-dimensional sculptures. While some of these works still exist in situ at the site, much of them are held at the Museo Nacional de Chavin, located on the other side of town; it is here that I spent much of my time investigating such work.
The focus of the project was a body of sculptures called “tenon heads,” or “cabezas clavas” in Spanish. These works vary in size, material, and style, but they all share one basic form: a stone head carved fully in the round, with a rectangular “tenon” (carved of the same block) protruding from the back. This tenon would simply act as a block in the temple, allowing the head to be mounted within the wall itself. One tenon head still exists in the temple façade, and the museum has dozens more on display and even more in storage.
The tenon heads have long been a symbol of Chavin, emblazoning countless trinkets in local tourist shops and marking walls throughout town, yet they are unfortunately understudied. A longstanding theory of the tenon heads is that they depict a human-to-animal transformation during shamanic visions and hallucinations; although supported by the displays in the museum, this view is outdated and oversimplifies these complex works of art. Our project sought to complicate the discussion of these works, proposing new ideas in order to come to a deeper understanding of their origins and function.

An image of the national research center in Chavin
The international research center at Chavin, where we did much of our work on the project

In order to achieve these goals, better documentation of the tenon heads was necessary. Few of them have been sufficiently photographed or illustrated, so creating a comprehensive stock of such images was crucial. My primary task in the project was to provide illustrations of the heads; while high quality digital photographs would also be taken, Chavin art is notoriously difficult to photograph. Illustrations provide information and detail that photographs may not capture, and spending so much time in front of one sculpture with just paper, pencils, and a measuring tape allowed me to notice details and patterns that may have otherwise gone unseen.

Working in this small, local museum offered a particularly valuable experience as someone who hopes to pursue a career in museum work. In the US, it is common for Pre-Columbian artwork to be pushed aside and placed in galleries that are less noticeable and smaller than their Western counterparts. Sometimes such works don’t make the cut for art museums, being entered into the debate between art and natural history. The private and black-market art trades don’t help, either; demand for ancient and indigenous artwork (viewed as a novelty and valued for its exoticism) prevents it from being made accessible for serious research. This lack of access and questionable valuation of an entire body of work due to its non-Western status detracts from the possibility to study and appreciate it. The knowledge of different cultures throughout time and space is critical to the entire human experience, and art is such an important vehicle for this knowledge; its accessibility and awareness is crucial for successful research and education.

An image of imitation tenon heads adorning the wall of a house in Chavin
“Tenon heads” adorning the wall of a house in Chavin

All that being said, having a national museum in a small town in Peru dedicated entirely to local history is amazing. Despite its relatively remote location, the attention and resources it earns from both the national ministry of culture and visitors from across the country indicate how imp0rtant Chavin is to national heritage. Its accessibility to these visitors (and to researchers), provides critical opportunities to see and learn about Chavin culture. Having a museum in such close proximity to the archaeological site that it represents is also helpful in regard to education. However, this does not come without issue, as working in such an institution does come with unique challenges. For example, this summer saw a month-long loss of power, forcing us to carry out our work in the dark. Much of the staff comes from larger cities, like Lima, rather than from the local areas represented by the museum’s collections; there is some disparity between those in charge of the museum and those who can perhaps relate to it.

An image of a paper float for a festival in Chavin, imitating ancient Chavin artwork
A paper festival float imitating the Lanzon, an iconic work of Chavin art

Regardless of the politics involved in museum work, it was refreshing to see local people so proud of the ancient history that lies on their doorstep. The tenon heads posted around town can speak to this, as do the amount of local visitors to the museum. Even when the museum’s doors were closed due to the power outage, people were still coming in hoping to see the exhibits. While we worked in the museum – we were often taking measurements, doing microscopic analyses, and drawing right in the galleries – people often approached us with interest, asking about the project with excitement. This model, with an indigenous culture placed front and center with such pride, is something I would love to see more in Western institutions and hope to encourage in my own future work.

Being a part of a project that offers so many valuable results – academically and socially – has been a truly rewarding experience. In Chavin, I was immersed in a fascinating ancient culture that I was lucky to learn more about every day. Seeing more information about the tenon heads unfold as we worked was especially gratifying, and I still look forward to seeing where Patricia’s research goes as she continues to work in Peru through this semester. The ability to say something new about a body of work so ancient is incredible, and it is so important to bring such work to light. These sculptures represent a culture without writing; as such, researching their visual traditions is necessary to understanding their worldview, more so than a visual tradition that is accompanied by the written word. This research also works to create more positive views of indigenous cultures, as we seek to move away from the views of this art as drug-induced shamanic imagery towards more nuanced religious objects that are situated amidst a complex religious and social tradition.

An image of Carly Rose Lacoste drawing a tenon head in the gallery of the national museum
Working in the national museum of Chavin as visitors look on

The observations I made in the museum and throughout the town of Chavin are lessons that I hope to carry into my future work, from the strengths of interdisciplinary work (attempting to close the gap between art and archaeology, art history and natural history) to the importance of preserving indigenous cultures and bringing them to the attention of modern audiences. Additionally, working on a team comprised of individuals from the States and from Peru posed other challenges and offered different rewards; I worked through language barriers (I didn’t speak much Spanish before this trip!) and forged new friendships and connections. I honed artistic skills I didn’t even know I had, finding a new interest in archaeological illustration. These connections and skills may even allow me to return to Peru next year to pursue work with other local archaeologists and scholars. Above all, as a recipient of the Changemaker Catalyst award, I was given the opportunity to explore new avenues of thought and research while gaining skills that I truly hope will make me a successful agent of positive change and innovation in my education and career.