ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine campus on a recent March morning was foggy and damp. There were puddles in the parking lots. The ground was still soft from the rains of last month.
It’s not the kind of environment that would have been good for the objects on display in a new exhibition at the Hudson Museum in UMaine’s Collins Center for the Performing Arts. In fact, had these objects been in Maine as long as they were buried in the northern coastal regions of Peru, they might not have survived at all.
“On the coast, because it’s a desert, the aridity preserves organic materials, textiles, plant remains, wooden objects, very well,” said Dan Sandweiss, a UMaine dean, associate provost for graduate studies, and a professor of anthropology and climate change who has done extensive fieldwork and research in the South American nation.
“Anything that was once growing, normally does not survive,” he added. “But in Peru on the coast, particularly in last several thousand years, it’s been dry so these things preserved very well.”
The Hudson Museum exhibit, “Temples, Tombs and Tumis: Archaeological Collections from the North Coast of Peru,” displays part of the museum’s collection of items from the region north of the capital city of Lima. Many of the objects had been on display before, but Hudson Museum director Gretchen Faulkner said the space’s recent renovation made the large display possible.
The exhibit, which is on display in the Merritt Gallery, includes dozens of jars and containers found in burial grounds — and a few other items such as metals and textiles — of five distinct cultural groups of the region. All but one piece on display are authentic — Sandweiss donated a replica made sometime around 2008 by the descendants of the works’ originators — although the true provenance of a few pieces is unknown.
Many people are surprised to hear that this particular region of Peru is so arid, Sandweiss said, because it’s located in the tropics and is, in places, just four degrees from the equator. However, a current off the Pacific Ocean combined with the location downwind of the Andes Mountains created the dry environment.
Sandweiss said cultures flourished despite the lack of water, which people solved by either irrigating rivers that ran off the nearby Andes Mountains or by digging to the water table.
The items in the Hudson exhibit come from the Vicus, Moche, Lambayeque, Chimu and Chancay cultures, which grew over time to proportions that rivaled the large cities of Europe of the same era, approximately 200 B.C. to A.D. 1800. As the cultures grew, so did the use of pottery and textiles.
There are plenty of similarities among the pottery created by the five cultures. Many of the pots show motifs such as animals, birds, domestic scenes and scenes from mythology. The Vicus and Moche cultures both produced so-called whistling jars, which made a sound when the chambers of the vessel were filled with water and air was blown into the spouts.
The Lambayeque and Chimu groups both made their vessels with a process called reduced firing, in which the amount of oxygen allowed into the kiln during baking is limited, therefore turning the pottery black. Both groups also depicted Sican, thought to be a local lord, in their work.
There are a lot of differences, however. The work of the Vicus people was less decorative than the work of the Moche. The Vicus and Moche produced pots of reddish-orange terra cotta.
The Lambayeque and Chimu also used molds in some of their work, while the Vicus hand-molded their pottery.
The Chancay were different from the other cultures in that quantity of work seemed to take precedence over quality. Not only is the decorative treatment not as fine, but the Chancay appeared to use even their mistakes — one of the items on display is a collapsed pot that appears to have melted in a kiln. Still, the melted pot was found in a burial area.
The arid climate also preserved textiles of the region, of which two examples are on display in the Hudson Museum. Both are still deeply colored, and the fine weave and skill is still evident. Copper items can also be seen, some with bits of textile still attached.
The dry air and forgiving soil were key to the survival of these works, as was the fact that they weren’t used in everyday life, but were reserved for burial purposes.
“The general thought is that they were put into graves because it was something that would be needed in the next life,” Sandweiss said. “That’s what we think they were doing, although we don’t know for sure. It kept the potters busy.”
The exhibit also includes panels explaining the Peru-focused work of UMaine faculty members, including that of Sandweiss. He has conducted archaeological research at Tucume, the largest pyramid center in Peru.
Constanza Ocampo-Raeder, an assistant professor in anthropology, works with contemporary fishing families to research the influence of ritual activities and social networks on the management of ocean resources.
And Ana Cecelia Mauricio, a Fulbright student at UMaine, is researching the impact of climate and landscape change on the Lima people, who were contemporaries of the Moche.
The academic connection between UMaine and Peru started when Sandweiss arrived at UMaine more than 10 years ago, and began taking colleagues and students to the nation. However, the Hudson Museum has had the Peruvian items in its collection for many years. The vessels, textiles and metalware were donated to the museum from a variety of sources and people, including William P. Palmer III, who gave to the museum hundreds of pieces from Central and South America and the Northwest coast of the U.S.
Faulkner said many of the collectors were stationed in Peru with American corporations or government organizations, such as the Peace Corps, and either practiced what’s known as avocational archaeology, or purchased items from looters, and then donated them to UMaine.
These items, however, all entered the U.S. before a 1970 United Nations agreement meant to stem looting, which means UMaine legally acquired them. The tragedy of looting, Sandweiss said, is that most of the information about an object is learned in context of the analysis of the entire site, and when one object is removed, that context is lost.
Still, he added, there is value to displaying the items.
“But we feel it’s better to have on display the ones that are already here,” Sandweiss said. “There is information in the objects, and hopefully people will be interested and have a respect for this aspect of the past.”
The Hudson Museum, located on the second floor of the Collins Center for the Arts, is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, and also during selected Collins Center and Bangor Symphony Orchestra events on Sundays. For information, go to www.umaine.edu/hudsonmuseum/ or call 581-1901. The museum is free and open to the public.