Unearthing secrets of Chimu culture at Cayalti Estate in Peru.

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

In 1906 The Illustrated London News reported that the Royal Scottish Museum (now National Museum of Scotland) received an important gift of over two hundred specimens of ‘picturesque pottery peculiar to old Peru’.

The gift was made by Thomas Colston, an Australian of Scottish descent, who in the last years of the 19th century built a sugar mill on the Cayalti plantation, southeast of Chiclayo in Lambayeque Province of Peru. While digging for the mill’s foundation he discovered a rich cache of ancient treasures, many of gold and silver. Soon he unearthed, at a nearby location, what is described as an extensive cemetery, with graves abundantly stocked with black pottery.

The types that caught the potters fancy – continues the newspaper – are as quaint as they are varied. The human form and face in all sorts of grotesque contortions, and what is perhaps most interesting, animal, fish and fruit forms, are exquisitely reproduced, with great fidelity and attention to detail’.

The pottery, it was later found, represents the iconic vessels of Chimu culture (c. 850-1470 AD), one of the most prominent civilisations of the Peruvian pre-Columbian era. This culture was nurtured and held together by its own state or Chimu Kingdom. It was defeated and absorbed by the Inca Empire, which borrowed some elements of Chimu culture and employed its skilled artisans in its capital, Cuzco.

Unwilling to be outwitted, the Australian Museum purchased over 50 Chimu pots from Mr Colston in 1910 – for the enjoyment and enlightenment of the Australian public. It was building on its small collection of over 30 pieces of Peruvian pre-Columbian pottery acquired earlier, before the end of the 19th century, including curious whistling pots.

And Mr Colston had another surprise in store: ‘the maize with which the food vessels were usually supplied has been found still intact, and … on being planted in the moist soil, it has germinated, even after the long interval of probably ten centuries or more’.


AD or Common Era indicates the period of time between year one and the present in the Western Calendar.