Book Review

GEORGE F. LAU. Andean expressions: art and archaeology of the Recuay culture. xiv+338pages, 70 illustrations, 9 colour plates, 2 tables. 2011. Iowa City (IA): University of Iowa Press; 978-1-58729-974-2 e-book; 978-1-58729-973-5 paperback $39.95.

Review by Rebecca E. Bria
Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville (TN), USA

Bria image

George Lau has recently emerged as the leading scholar on the Recuay, a conglomeration of social groups in the northern Peruvian highlands that are known for their intricate art styles and impressive architecture (c. AD 1–800). A first of its kind, Andean expressions provides a much needed and incredibly thorough synthesis on the Recuay by integrating a dispersed array of research articles, site reports, historical documents and primary fieldwork from the region of Ancash. Although the title may lead one to think the book approaches the Recuay culture from an art-historical perspective, Lau's goal is to move far beyond the static culture-historical and atheoretical art-centred analyses often employed in archaeological studies of the Recuay. However, instead of eschewing art studies in archaeology, Lau brings Recuay's elaborate art and monumental architecture to the forefront of his analysis, arguing that such materials and designs indicate what was valued in the ancient past. In so doing, he focuses on the social role and agency of artefacts and the built environment, thereby elucidating the dynamic encounters in which Recuay material culture was created, used, or experienced.

Lau identifies several independent polities that emerged over the 800-year period of Recuay development, coexisting alongside egalitarian communities in a two-tiered settlement hierarchy. Given the high degree of variation in Recuay community organisation and material culture, Lau decides that none of the available categories of sociopolitical complexity fit the Recuay case, and employs the term 'commonwealth' in the place of common archaeological categories such as 'chiefdom' or 'state'. Nonetheless, he asserts that several settlements within the Recuay commonwealth were clearly the centres of powerful integrated polities. By employing the term commonwealth, though, he emphasises the shared non-political interests and values of disparate Recuay groups.

After an introduction to the theoretical and analytical approaches employed (Chapter 1), Chapter 2 discusses how the Recuay culture flourished within an extreme environmental setting, characterised by steep mountain slopes and stacked ecological zones. Climate data provide surprising explanatory power to the diachronic study of Recuay settlement patterns, for it appears that population centres moved to higher ground during warmer and wetter periods, and relocated to lower elevations during times of colder and dryer conditions. Through these movements, Lau argues, people were able to monitor and exploit a variety of resources at the threshold between the upper limits of agriculture and the lower limits of camelid pastoral lands.

In Chapter 3, Lau reviews the common architectural components observed in multi-functional community hilltop settlements, such as closely integrated elite and commoner housing complexes, enclosures, shrines and temples, tombs and defensive works. While there is a high degree of variation in the presence and arrangement of these elements, architectural forms indicate that privacy between lineage groups or other internal community factions was an extremely important concern for Recuay societies. This is primarily evidenced by the various apartment-like compounds with restricted access found in many Recuay settlements. Lau suggests that these compounds represent segregated multi-family collectivities that valued autonomy, privacy and protection. Such spatial and social boundaries were replicated at the settlement level, where heavily-defended, nucleated settlements indicate exclusionary relationships between distinct communities. The defensive structures are monumental, suggesting that they also served to celebrate the strength and the power of community elites who cast themselves as divine warriors and protectors.

Chapters 4–6 analyse Recuay ceremonial architecture and material culture, such as standing stone shrines, ceremonial plazas and enclosures, funerary structures, fancy ceramic vessels and stone sculptures. Here Lau discusses how, during the Recuay period, people began to build monumental above-ground tombs. He argues that these tombs were conspicuous political statements about the land claims of local communities and divine ancestry of local elites. Lau further observes how elite power and authority were reinforced through the use of elaborate ceramic forms during feasts, and represented on the stone sculptures that adorned ceremonial spaces. In Chapter 7, Lau contends that Recuay leaders legitimated their authority and solidified social relations by orchestrating performative displays in which distinct objects were animated as social agents. These analytical insights are summed up in a final chapter that provides a narrative of Recuay's emergence and decline and suggests areas for future research.

Lau deserves great praise for his insightful synthesis, bringing this fascinating culture to the attention of both scholars and students of Andean prehistory. The book's numerous illustrations and colour plates give opportunity to appreciate the beauty and intricacy of Recuay material culture, providing visual referents for Lau's profound theoretical analysis. This book will appeal to a broad audience beyond the Andes. Indeed, Lau's innovative approach to the study of art can provide a model for archaeological studies worldwide.