British Museum blog

Exploring the lost kingdoms of South America

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970sLeonora Duncan and Jago Cooper, British Museum

South America has witnessed the emergence of some of the most intriguing and diverse ancient cultures in the world.

Four of these dynamic and fascinating cultures are being explored in a BBC Four series, Lost Kingdoms of South America, which starts broadcasting on Monday 14 January at 21.00. The series explores the different pathways to social complexity taken in four cultural regions of South America long before Europeans arrived over the horizon.

Here at the British Museum, the South American collection includes over 50,000 objects collected over the past 350 years. These treasures reveal some fascinating stories about the diverse cultures that existed for over 12,000 years before the arrival of Columbus and many of which continue to thrive today.

Tunjo, Muisca, AD 600-1600

Tunjo, Muisca, AD 600-1600

We wanted to draw attention to some of the amazing objects in the collection that can help tell the stories of the four cultures featured in the BBC Four series. New thematic content on the Museum website takes a look at how the Chachapoya, Tiwanaku, Muisca/Tairona, and Chimu lived in completely different environments, from the Amazon to the Andes, from desert to the Caribbean coast and yet all had in common the highest of cultural achievements.

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970s

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970s

However, what is particularly interesting is that they all took different routes to developing social complexity building on trade, agriculture, craftsmanship and warfare respectively. Each of the objects we’ve chosen contributes its own individual story to this narrative revealing in all their wonderment the truth behind the rise of the Lost Kingdoms of South America.

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Explore the featured kingdoms and related objects in the British Museum collection, or for more information contact Leonora Duncan or Jago Cooper in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

Lost Kingdoms of South America is on BBC Four at 21.00 on Mondays from 14 January

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, What's on, , ,

8 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Earlier this week in the article “El Dorado: The truth behind the myth” by By Dr Jago Cooper
    published by BBC Magazine (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20964114 ) with collaboration of Leonora Duncan, there’s a short time line with information related to South America in which you wrote “1772 Scientist Alexander von Humboldt and botanist Aimé Bonpland travel to South America to once and for all prove or dispel the myth of El Dorado. They return to Europe and spread widely their believed conclusion that El Dorado had been nothing but a dream of the early conquistadors” We all know Herr Humboldt was a man that from a young age took great interest in science and exploration…but he was 3 years old! He and Mr Bonpland started their famous voyage in 1799.
    Need I remind you you are working in one of the most prestigious cultural institutions of the world!

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    • Thank you so much for your eagle-eyed observation of the erroneous date in the sidebar of the recent article on El Dorado on the BBC website, I shall be sure to forward the correct date to the BBC editor to see if they can make the change.

      Jago Cooper, British Museum

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      • Philip Seely says:

        Dear Dr Cooper

        Re. GUAYABO, COSTA RICA
        I visited the fascinating archaeological site of Guayabo in the central volcanic highlands of Costa Rica a couple of years ago. When I saw your programme about Colombia I was rather struck by the similarities between Guayabo and La Ciudad Perdida. Guayabo too has circular building platforms, plazas and processional ways – and it is in a magnificent jungle setting too.
        In the capital, San Jose, there are two very interesting museums – the Jade Museum and the Gold Museum. The former shows jade artefacts that show the influence of Mesoamerican (indeed Mayan) cultural influences, both in the style and choice of material. In the Gold Museum, by contrast, the artefacts strongly resemble the gold Tairona objects you showed us in your programme.
        Costa Rica clearly was a kind of ethno-cultural border region between the jade-loving cultures of Mesoamerica to the north, and the gold-loving cultures of Colombia to the south.
        I think the archaeology of Costa Rica is not as appreciated internationally as it deserves to be – and indeed probably deserves more consideration locally too. I would love to see you do a programme on the subject. Any chance of the BBC sending you that way some time for more ‘Lost Kingdoms’?

        Philip Seely
        London NW3

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      • LizzyH says:

        Dear Jago
        It was absolutely brilliant seeing the images of Bogotá, La Laguna de Guatavita and Villa de Leiva the other week. I lived in Colombia for nearly 4 years and have worked and travelled in Chile, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador. It’s giving me serious wander lust again….ho hum maybe when the kids are older. PS hablas muy bien el español. Dónde lo aprendiste?

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  2. alina says:

    i saw recently on History Chanel a documentary about ancient aliens, they portrait a interesting theory, the tuinja musca reminds me of an ancient astronaut found sculpture found on the Aztec empire.

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  3. Diana lambton says:

    Dear Jago,
    I inherited some stones, which i have been told are either pre-mexican or polynesean but as to date i have been unable to find out their exact origins, can i send you some pictures of them please
    Kind Regards

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  4. Christina says:

    Dear Jago
    Your recent series brings back a lot of memories from our time spent in Bolivia and Peru in 2008-9. It was a wonderful series, we learned so much (we had visited a lot of the places featured and thought we were pretty clued up, but it turns out we were not!). Please please do more as soon as possible! We love South America and we loved your tv series!
    Christina

    Like

  5. Ricky Fairs says:

    Dear Jago,
    It seemed to me the very interesting program about the culture at Tiwanaku was somewhat coy about the ritual snuffing of hallucinogenics as compared to ritual drinking of beer. Was that because we dont know what they were snuffing?
    Ricky

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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