Shell Llama & Gold Foil

Archaeologists from the Pennsylvania State University and the Université libre de Bruxelles have found a stone offering box near a reef close to the north-eastern shore of Lake Titicaca, which is located in the Andes between Bolivia and Peru. The carved stone box contained a llama carved from a Spondylus shell and a cylindrical laminated gold foil object.

A camelid figurine made of Spondylus shell and a rolled gold sheet found in a stone offering box from Lake Titicaca. Image credit: T. Seguin, Université libre de Bruxelles.

A camelid figurine made of Spondylus shell and a rolled gold sheet found in a stone offering box from Lake Titicaca. Image credit: T. Seguin, Université libre de Bruxelles.

The Inca Empire expanded rapidly throughout the Andes during the 15th and 16th centuries CE.

One of its central places was Lake Titicaca, in a region not only important for its rich natural resources, high population densities and strategic location between two mountain chains, but also its sacred, cosmological significance.

The Incas claimed Lake Titicaca as their place of origin both symbolically and physically, within a logic of legitimation focused on strengthening the empire’s new and expanding power.

Although the timing of the Inca expansion is still debated, various early Spanish chroniclers record two phases of expansion into the Lake Titicaca region.

The first (c. 1400-1440 CE) consisted of the military campaign and territorial conquest led by Inca Viracocha.

The second (c. 1440-1532 CE) was undertaken by his son, Inca Pachacuti, and featured the consolidation of power by transforming the large Island of the Sun into a major ceremonial complex through the construction of a series of temples, shrines and roads, and the promotion of ritual pilgrimage.

At the core of this complex was the Sacred Rock, the mythical location from which the primordial couple, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, and their siblings emerged, and later founded Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire.

The ritual activities carried out on the Island of the Sun included underwater offerings.

Archaeological evidence attesting to the existence of such remains was first discovered in 1977, when a group of amateur Japanese divers came across a series of submerged offerings near the Khoa reef, located to the north-west of the Island of the Sun.

“We knew Inca did some form of ritual offerings and that they did them in the lake,” said Dr. Jose Capriles, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University.

“The 16th and 17th century CE chronicles indicate there were submerged offerings.”

The stone offering box, its cap and contents, comprising a camelid figurine made of shell and a rolled gold foil (scale in cm). Image credit: T. Seguin, Université libre de Bruxelles.

The stone offering box, its cap and contents, comprising a camelid figurine made of shell and a rolled gold foil (scale in cm). Image credit: T. Seguin, Université libre de Bruxelles.

The newly-discovered offering box was sculpted and polished from an andesite block measuring 0.36 x 0.27 x 0.17 m.

It had two 3-cm perforations and grooves on each of its short sides, which probably held ropes to lower the box from a boat or raft.

A circular cavity, 10 cm in diameter, located in the center of its upper face was capped with a 7 cm-thick andesite plug with a convex top.

The box contained two miniature typical Inca-style offerings: a cylindrical gold foil (2.5 x 1.3 cm) with two small perforations and a small camelid figurine (2.8 x 4 x 0.4 cm) made of Spondylus shell.

“It presents not only one of the rare intact discoveries of an Inca underwater offering, but also that it was found at another place in the lake, which has an important implication for understanding the relationship between the expanding Inca Empire, the local communities who lived in the lake, and Lake Titicaca itself prior to European contact,” said Dr. Christophe Delaere, a junior research fellow at the Université libre de Bruxelles.

“The inland underwater world remains largely unexplored and offers outstanding opportunities to understand prehistoric societies,” he added.

“The underwater heritage of Lake Titicaca still has many surprises to reveal.”

The discovery is reported in a paper in the journal Antiquity.

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Christophe Delaere José M. Capriles. 2020. The context and meaning of an intact Inca underwater offering from Lake Titicaca. Antiquity 94 (376): 1030-1041; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.121

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