A bead in the form of an owl?s head, from 100-800 AD.

A bead in the form of an owl?s head, from 100-800 AD. Photo: Max Amaro

"It's the absolute sign of defeat, isn't it, if your head's removed from your body?" muses Christine Dixon.

The National Gallery of Australia's head of international art is referring to a deity with the wings of an eagle and the fangs of a jaguar, a figure engraved in a 3000-year-old carving from a Chavin temple in the northern highlands of Peru. The god is holding a severed head by the hair - grisly but fascinating, especially given its great age.

The granite slab is the oldest piece on display in the National Gallery of Australia's latest blockbuster, Gold and the Incas - Lost worlds of Peru, a show featuring more than 200 works of ancient Peruvian art, including jewellery, embroidered shrouds, feathers and turquoise, silver and gold, lots of gold, all buried with their original owners.

A gold vessel with bridge and double spouts from 750-1375 AD.

A gold vessel with bridge and double spouts from 750-1375 AD. Photo: Daniel Giannoni

Dixon has just finished unpacking a quartz crystal necklace with a rock the size of an avocado. It was, she says, probably once worn by "someone very noble, very important, a man" - a man who took it with him to the grave.

"There is one set of jewellery for a woman [in the exhibition], and the reason we know it's for a woman is that as well as the crown, the ear ornament, nose ornament and necklace there's a mouth ornament, and only women wear mouth ornaments, and that's true today as well," she says.

As ancient realms go, Peru is a part of the world that most people know little about, beyond the dramatic conquering of the Incas by the Spanish in 1533. But, as Dixon points out, the Incas were the last in a long line of around 20 ancient Peruvian cultures, and lasted only a century, a blip in time when compared to the two millennia that came before.

A portrait head, stirrup vessel ceramic (100-800 AD).

A portrait head, stirrup vessel ceramic (100-800 AD). Photo: Daniel Giannoni

It's a period of history marked today by striking artworks and jewellery, much of which has been recovered more than the past century, and particularly in the last 40 years, thanks to modern archaeology.

The Spanish looted as much gold and silver as they could, but they didn't get all of it. They missed many sites, says Dixon, or didn't dig deep enough.

"It's all from graves - buried in caverns, in temples, underground - interment differs everywhere," she says.

"Almost everything in the show is found in a grave. The gold and silver is made for the nobles, for the rulers, the priests and kings and emperors, whereas we've got some amazing things like a little woolly llama that was probably buried with a llama herder. So everybody got interred properly with things, but of course gold and silver last and ceramics last while textiles generally don't."

That's why the textiles in the show are so remarkable - 2.5 metre-long shrouds uncovered in the 1920s from cavern tombs in the cliffs of Caracas. Made of alpaca wool, they are as bright and vivid as they would have been when they were woven hundreds of years ago.

Dixon has also just finished installing a tunic made of feathers, mostly from the scarlet macaw, in yellow, red and blue, as well as a plume from an Amazon parrot.

"It's three colours of green - there's a creamy root and bright, dark centre part and lime-green tips, and this was made into a fan-like plume that would have been tied onto a crown or shoulders or costumes or the ends of belts and tassels and things. It's absolutely amazing," she says.

Dixon says she knew relatively little when she travelled to Peru to visit museums and collections and start planning an exhibition.

"I had a general knowledge of Peruvian art. I knew about the Incas, of course … but I actually knew more about the Mayans and the Aztecs, from Mexico, than Peru … I started reading more about ancient Peruvian cultures, and when I got there, I was absolutely amazed by the high quality, the aesthetic quality of the works."

She remembers being particularly struck by the ceramic portrait heads from the Moche culture, made around 500 AD.

"They're ceramic portraits of people and you look at them and you think, that's a person, it's not a generic," she says.

"There are all sorts of very human levels, and a lot of outlandish religious and philosophical ritual practices that we don't know anything about, like trophy heads, but there are also wonderful things like llamas. They're native to Peru, of course, and there are things like ceramic sculptures of potatoes and corn, things that we eat every day here … They grew things like guavas and pineapples and avocados, so there are a lot of things that are both humble and extraordinary. It's that mixture that people, I think, will find so interesting."

The works, representative of the country's greatest treasures, are borrowed from 10 private and public museums, and aside from gold - around 90 pieces - silver and ceramics, there are also unexpected motifs that pop up and reappear. Owls, for example, and a vampire bat on the end of a curled trumpet.

They're precious works, part of a rich history waiting to be discovered by a public that has already shown, through the success of recent shows on Egypt, for example, a fascination for the past.

"Every single work is registered with the National Heritage listing in Peru and every single thing has to be approved for export by the Ministry of Culture and then signed off by the President of Peru, so we're extremely privileged to be able to borrow these things," Dixon says.

"Everyone in Peru is extremely proud of their heritage, because it's a unique cosmos view of the world and universe and people know a lot about it. Peruvians know a lot about their history."

Gallery director Ron Radford anticipates the show will also be a success for children, and not just because of the spectacular family room that has been designed especially for the show.

"I think kids know about the ancient cultures of middle South America much more than I did when I was growing up," he says. "It becomes part of their world education - the drama and the objects being preserved with the dead."

Gold and the Incas: Lost worlds of Peru is on at the National Gallery of Australia until April 21.