The a checkerboard fashion. Turquoise ornaments hang off parts

The Sicán culture (also known as
Lambayeque) existed along the North Coast of Peru from around 800-850 A.D. to
1375 A.D. (“Who Were the Sicán” 4).  This
area had been previously dominated by the Moche people until around 700 A.D. (“Ceremonial
Knife”).  At it’s height, the Middle
Sicán had approximately 1.5 million people within their political and economic system
(Klaus and Shimada 121).  Some
distinctive developments of the Sicán culture range from “major, multi-level platform
mounds (commonly called huacas,) and literally tons of copper and gold alloys,
to mold-made, highly lustrous, black ceramics” (“Who Were The Sicán” 7).  One characteristic piece of art from this
culture is the tumi, a ceremonial knife with a semicircular blade (“Ceremonial
Knife”).  Tumi have been known to exist
in this area since the third century B.C., and were often depicted in Moche
artwork as tools for sacrifice (see figure 1) (“Ceremonial Knife”).  In the Getty exhibit “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury
and Legacy in the Ancient Americans,” one of these Sicán tumi is on display; this
tumi was specifically from the Middle Sicán period, which lasted from around 900-1100
A.D.  More specifically, it is from the Middle Horizon—Late Intermediate
Period (Stone 170).  This tumi appears to present itself as an
important piece of work of the Sicán culture because of its depiction of the
Sicán Deity reliably found in other Sicán art, its intricate metalworking and
turquoise inlay techniques, and its ritual and ceremonial meaning as a status
symbol.  Through these physical and
cultural insights, as well as the more recent discovery of tumi in their historical
context in tombs beneath Huaca Loro in Peru, we can conclude that this knife
did in fact come from the Sicán culture. 

The visual aspects of this
particular tumi give us insight into the culture that created it.  It is made of gold, silver, and has turquoise
stone inlaid in its design (see figure 2). 
It is 14 ” tall, 6 ” wide, and has a depth of 1 ” (“Ceremonial
Knife”).  The top handle of the tumi
depicts a human-like figure, wearing a detailed semicircular headdress.  He appears to be made of out gold with very
intricate metalworking techniques. This figure is highly decorated with turquoise
ear ornaments and turquoise stones as eyes. 
The head and headdress of this figure are very large in proportion to its
body.  Something is protruding from both
sides of his back, possibly depicting wings. 
The bottom of the tumi is more plain and has a rectangular shaft with a semicircular
blade; it seems to be decorated in a checkerboard fashion.  Turquoise ornaments hang off parts of the
knife, appearing as if they would dangle and move.  The materials, style, and person depicted on
the tumi are all characteristic of the Sicán people. 

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The figure depicted on this
ceremonial knife clearly has the distinctive features of the Sicán Deity (also
known as the Sicán Lord), which makes it obvious that this piece was in fact
created by the Sicán people. The same Sicán Deity is depicted in all forms of
Sicán art, on “fine and some utilitarian
ceramics, precious and base metal objects, textiles, and murals” (“Who Were the
Sicán” 11). Specifically, most
Sicán tumi contain either a partial or full-body representation of the Sicán Deity
(see figures 3 and 4) (Jones 69). It was often not necessary to show his full
body because his face has enough specific characters to convey his identity to
the viewer.  The Sicán Deity has almond
shaped eyes, a crescent headdress, and pointed ears (“Ceremonial Knife”); he
often has round ear ornaments inset with stones such as turquoise (Jones 70).  In figure 5, we can see the
Sicán Deity depicted on a Sicán funerary mask, with these same facial
features.  Furthermore, he has been depicted with wings and
talons, sometimes holding object like a trophy head or a tumi (“Who were the Sicán”
11).  If shown in full view, he is
portrayed in “a knee-length tunic; at times,
sandals or knee decorations; and a podium or pillow upon which the figure
stands” (Jones 70).  The figure seen in
the tumi at the Getty contains a majority of these characteristics, so we can
easily infer that this is the Sicán Deity.  The Sicán people believed this figure ruled
the supernatural world (Hearn 1). However, there are many theories of who or
what the deity specifically represents. For example, “The Sicán Lord is often interpreted as ñaymlap, the mythical
founder of the Sicán dynasties, described in a sixteenth-century Spanish
chronicle” (“Ceremonial Knife”).  Additionally,
many scholars have also argued that the Sicán Deity is a personification of the
moon (Stone 168).   Either way, the Sicán people were ideologically
unified by their religious devotion to this deity. 

Metalworking was extremely important
to the Sicán, and they used a variety of intricate techniques that can be seen
on this specific tumi.  Tumis were made
using a variety of goldsmithing techniques such as “repoussé, soldering, and filigree.”  Metallurgists also used sheathing and
inlaying methods. Many of these techniques were based off innovations by the
previous Moche culture (Jones 65).  The
tumi on display at the Getty clearly fit these characteristics; the detailed
gold work is easily recognizable as Sicán.  As stated by Izumi Shimada in “Who Were the
Sicán, “Overall, the Middle Sicán can be called a ‘metallic culture’ as metals
permeated all facets of it, not only serving as the prestigious medium of
political and religious expression, but also as social status markers” (23).  Metals were important as a status symbol for
the Sicán; the objects and type of metal they were made with helped express
people’s power.  For example, copper was
often used to make objects for regular people, while gold and silver were
reserved for the elite.  Additionally, “Metallurgy
was the primary medium for the expression of the power of the Sicán rulers;
vessels, headdresses, body adornments, funerary masks, and tumis were
delicately made with gold, silver, and arsenical copper” (“Ceremonial Knife”).  We can tell that this ceremonial knife was
made using classic Sicán materials and techniques, and additionally we can
infer that it held power as a status symbol based on its materials and design.

When examining art, it is important
to look at it in historical context; this can provide us with important clues about
how a culture used it ritually or ceremonially. 
Up until recently, all of our knowledge of Sicán tumi came from ones
that had been stolen or looted.  The
discovery of decorated tumi in their original cultural context and location by Izumi Shimada in 2006
was important to
provide us with the historical context and spatial narrative of the item.  Izumi and his team discovered a tomb complex
beneath Huaca Loro, a temple mound typical of the Sicán (Hearn 1); they found “deep
shaft-tombs with wall niches” some of which were approximately 14 square meters
and 20 meters deep” (Jones 63).  In the
tombs they found “12
ceremonial tumi knives. Eight of the knives were plain, four were decorated,
and two bore the likeness of the Sicán Deity” (Hearn 1).  Tumis could be found in the tombs of both the
lower class and the elite; lower class tombs may have contained only one copper
knife, while the high-status tombs would have highly decorated ones made of
gold and silver (Jones 69).  The tombs
also had additional gold and metal funerary items.  Based on the finds in the burials, it is
inferred that these elite individuals probably played an important role in
Sicán religion and politics.  Also, these
tombs show that the Sicán had a “deep reverence for their ancestors, and that
people apparently made repeated pilgrimages to the site” (Hearn 2).  Tumi were also found in habitational areas, however
these were smaller and undecorated (Jones 69). The tumi also bring up the question of ritual
sacrifice, because other cultures, such at the Moche, used them for this purpose.  Some have considered that Sicán tumi may have
been used for sacrificial purposes; for example, it is possible the knife could
have been used in some ritual bloodletting ceremony.  However, this appears unlikely because that
blade is malleable and non-functional; instead, it seems the Sicán tumi were
used ceremonially and to portray status (Klaus and Shimada 125).  This corresponds with the spatial narrative
we see from their discovery at burial sites. 
As for sacrifice, it does appear that the Sicán did practice forms of
ritual violence, but there is very little iconography depicting it, and
therefore still much is unknown about it (Klaus and Shimada 147).  With the discovery of the tombs beneath Huaca
Loro, we are now able to verify that the Sicán tumi is a ceremonial item used
to help express status. 

The tumi on display at The Getty
demonstrates many defining characteristics of the Middle Sicán culture: it
depicts the revered Sicán deity that appears in countless Sicán works, it displays
intricate metalworking techniques often performed by these people, and its
discovery in the burials of Sicán elite fit the spatial narrative of the
ceremonial knife as a status symbol.  Additionally,
by comparing this tumi to similar works of art, we can be certain they were in
fact created by the same people—the Sicán. 
While there is still much we do not know for certain about the Sicán
culture and even the exact use of the tumi, recent discoveries have helped us
to see Sicán artwork in its historical context, which is extremely important in
understanding their ritual and ceremonial meaning.  For this reason, archaeology and art history
are crucial to learning about the history of ancient cultures.