Inhuman eyes: looking at Chavín de Huantar
Inhuman eyes confront anyone who looks at the monoliths from Chavín de Huantar, a temple complex in the Peruvian Andes that dates to approximately 1000-1300 BC, and has attracted pilgrims1 from great distances for thousands of years. Those who came to the site and looked at the stones saw other eyes looking back; this interaction between humans, non-humans, and things is the subject of my study. This paper is a manifesto for a new kind of archaeological writing about looking
at artifacts. The existing literature on Pre-Columbian works of art2 is almost exclusively iconographic; here, I want to invite researchers to think about ancient objects not just as texts, but also as things in the world. The materiality of these stones – their various shapes, their huge scale, their shallow engravings, and the hard, heavy substances that render them so immobile – is as signiﬁcant as the images they bear. Previous studies of the Chavín stones have looked at them as representations of a deity, of the cosmos, or of an origin myth. These models are not wrong, but they do not capture the active, working life of the great stones. The monoliths were more than mirrors that reﬂected a cultural world: they were vital matter (Bennett 2010) in a social world where animals and things were interlocutors and sensory perception was a reciprocal, rather than a unilateral, activity. Material characteristics of the stones communicate aspects of this lost Pre-Columbian ontology, especially when read through ethnographic and ethnohistoric data from non-Western, non-modern societies. The analysis I present here builds on the work of previous researchers, who have
painstakingly unraveled the iconographic conventions that underlie Chavín art, and identiﬁed the ﬂora and fauna depicted. Iconography is a necessary tool for interpreting Chavín’s stones, which are covered with complex designs executed in a
recondite style. It is an especially useful approach given the site’s long post-occupation history, during which many of the monoliths were relocated and most contextual data was lost. But although the stones have been moved, they still exist; they only become dematerialized when scholars turn their backs on the three-dimensional sculptures in favor of two-dimensional copies (Weismantel 2012). Art historian Tom Cummins (2008:280-81) aptly characterizes this methodology as one that “dissociates the image from the object and space of which it is a part.” My goal is to reverse that separation, and reintegrate iconographic analysis with a consideration of the stones themselves: their materiality and their spatial context, and especially the peculiar forms of interaction they demand of their viewers (Weismantel 2013, 2014). I want to brieﬂy address two potential objections. First, archaeological studies
that espouse a phenomenological approach (e.g., Tilley 1994) have been criticized for ethnocentric and ahistorical assumptions (see e.g., Hall 2000:48-52; Smith 2003:62-63). As I demonstrate here, careful analysis of the body/artifact interface can produce the opposite result: a means to partially escape the inherent biases imposed upon us by our formal and informal training as modern Western observers (Watts, this volume; Weismantel 2011, 2012). Secondly, in focusing on the bodily and sensory aspects of the stones, I appear to
be abandoning the heady cosmological questions asked by twentieth-century researchers. Their approach had an implicit politics: to treat Pre-Columbian artifacts as sacred texts was to insist that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were as capable of complex abstract thought as Europeans (Weismantel 2014). But new developments in Western philosophy are changing the ideological terrain that made this argument necessary and compelling. Recently, a group of philosophers and other humanists known as the ‘new materialists’ (e.g., Bennett 2010; Coole and Frost [eds.] 2010; Promey 2014) have turned their attention away from the disembodied structures of language and thought. They emphatically reject the Enlightenment hierarchies that privileged cognition over emotion, abstract thought over concrete experience, and mind over body. By insisting that bodily and sensory forms of knowing are as signiﬁcant as more abstract forms of cognition, their work opens the way for Pre-Columbianists like myself to move away from narrowly iconographic studies without abandoning an interest in ancient ways of thinking. Indeed, it is quite the opposite: close attention to the minutiae of bodily interaction between image, object, and perceiving body may ultimately give us greater insight into the most subtle and profound aspects of Pre-Columbian thought than could be attained by ignoring the materiality of the objects we study and the bodily practices of the people who made and used them. There are related intellectual developments in other ﬁelds across the humanities
and social sciences. These include Tim Ingold’s materialist anthropology (e.g., 2000, 2011); the writings of art historian W. J. T. Mitchell (e.g., 1994, 2004) and literary theorist Bill Brown (e.g., 2001, 2003); posthumanist and animal studies (e.g., Braidotti 2002; Buchanan 2008; Calarco 2008; Haraway 2008); and a renewed interest in phenomenology among geographers (e.g., Llobera 2007). In this paper, I will rely in particular on Mitchell’s 2004 book, which asks a provocative question:
What do pictures want? – a question we could also ask at Chavín. As works of art go, the monoliths seem exceptionally demanding: they bristle with aggressive animals and inﬂict diﬃcult viewing experiences on those who come to look at them. Paraphrasing Mitchell, we can ask: what do these demanding stones want? Mitchell answers his own question as follows: “what pictures want, and what we have failed to give them, is an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology” (Mitchell 2004:47). In this article, I set out to provide the monoliths with just that: a theory adequate to their particular form of visuality, and to the particularly Pre-Columbian ontology that underlies that demand. Mitchell’s intellectual gambit is carefully constructed: he theorizes as though
works of art have needs and desires that drive them to interact with humans. “I am concerned here,” he says in setting out his project, “not so much to retrace the ground covered by semiotics, but to look at the peculiar tendency of images to absorb and be absorbed by human subjects in processes that look suspiciously like those of living things” (Mitchell 2004:5). Bracketing the question of whether things actually have agency, he points out that we act as though they do – producing the eﬀect of agency, even while disguising its origins in human actors (see also Gell 1998). For twenty-ﬁrst-century empirical researchers studying sacred objects that are several millennia old, this is a useful conceptual tool. There is little doubt that the ancient people who came to Chavín saw the stones as animate and personiﬁed; Mitchell enables us to do the same. “Pictures are something like life forms, driven by desires and appetites,” writes Mitchell (2004:6); like him, I approach the stones as “something like life forms,” not because I literally ascribe agency or cognitive and emotional capacities to them, but because that is how they were treated by the people who made them, and by those who traveled great distances to see them.
The site of Chavín de Huantar is located in the north-central Andes of Peru at an altitude of 3,150 m asl. Its chronology is currently the topic of debate (Burger and Salazar 2008; Rick 2008; Rodriguez Kembel 2008), but it was certainly thriving between 1000 BC and 500 BC, and was occupied for many centuries during the Early Horizon (900-200 BC) and the preceding Initial Period (1800-1900 BC). The temple complex sits at the junction of two rivers, and comprises a tightly interconnected set of monumental buildings, plazas, terraces, staircases, passages, and underground channels. It is best known for its elaborately carved monoliths, such as the Obelisk Tello, the Stela Raimundi, and the Yauya Stela, as well as for the network of stone-lined interior passageways or galerías, at the heart of which lies perhaps the most famous of the carved stones, a tall splinter of granite known as the Lanzón. The brilliant Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello (1943; see also Burger 2009) was the ﬁrst in a line of distinguished excavators to have worked at the site, including Wendell C. Bennett, Luis Lumbreras (1977, 1993), Richard Burger (1984, 1992), and John Rick (2005, 2008). Excavations are currently ongoing and will continue to transform our understanding of the temple compound.