An animation of Lhouros elements

Revisiting a Professor’s Fictional ‘Lost Civilization’

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The University Archives recently acquired the late Norman Daly’s richly detailed ‘Llhuros,’ which captured imaginations in the ’70s

This story has been condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By David Nutt

Norman Daly spent years chronicling the lost Iron Age civilization of Llhuros—its relics, its rituals, its poetry, its music—as well as the academic commentary it inspired.

But the thing that makes Llhuros most noteworthy as a civilization?

It never existed.

Norman Daly
Daly reached Cornell’s then-mandatory retirement age of 65 in 1976—but convinced his college to let him return as an instructor, finally retiring in 1999. (Marilyn Rivchin)

Daly wasn’t an anthropologist or archaeologist, but an art professor who taught at Cornell for 57 years.

In the late 1960s, he created more than 150 Llhuroscian “artifacts” from everyday materials and industrial detritus, all of it corroded and pre-aged to appear ancient, and he invented elaborate backstories about the culture that supposedly produced them.

A small group of university and community collaborators helped him expand the project to include other kinds of media, such as sound and music.

In 1972, Llhuros was unveiled to the world in a one-of-a-kind exhibition on campus that didn’t announce itself as a fictional creation. Visitors had to puzzle it out for themselves.

Some were baffled. Some were angry. Most were delighted.

The exhibition garnered national media coverage and led to more showings throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Daly continued to expand the world of Llhuros throughout the years, but by the time he died in 2008, most of it was sitting in storage.

This fall, Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections acquired a trove of archival materials documenting the creation of this fictional society—giving researchers and historians a detailed view into a unique project that is both an absurdist critique of academic anthropology and an attempt to draw crucial connections between the past and the present.

“As an archivist, and someone who’s in charge of preserving the legacy of Cornell faculty, I saw right away that this was a collection that would be wonderful to have,” says University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14. “It documents just one tiny little sliver of Cornell’s history. But it’s a fascinating one.”

Two female students examining artifacts
Modern-day students in an anthropology course were tasked with examining Llhuros relics as though they were remnants of an ancient Cornellian civilization. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Over roughly six years, Daly conjured an enigmatic culture he named Llhuros, using everything from gaskets and blender parts to meat tenderizers and citrus juicers to pass as its ritual objects and scientific instruments.

He mapped out the geography and its cities and sacred sites. He conceived of cultural ceremonies. He wrote Llhuroscian poetry. All of these elements were organized, like any other classic anthropology, into distinct time periods that tracked the rise and fall of this imaginary Iron Age civilization, one that had much more in common with present-day America than casual viewers might suspect.

“Llhuros is here and now—a recasting of my 60 years of experience,” he says in a February 1972 interview with Newsweek. “You know, people won’t listen if you talk to them seriously. My show is like that Pennsylvania Dutch expression ‘half in jest and all in earnest.’”

It documents just one tiny little sliver of Cornell’s history. But it’s a fascinating one.

University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14

There wasn’t any precedent for something like Llhuros—at least not in the field of visual art. While writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien had built their own meticulous fictional worlds, Daly avoided any books or artworks that might be too similar. His sole literary influence, he once noted, was Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Underpinning Daly’s project was a subversive playfulness that was very much part of the 1960s counterculture, with a cultural critique that transcended mere hoax.

“Norman was a lot of fun. He was very witty, with very wry humor,” says Marilyn Rivchin, MFA ’91, retired senior lecturer in film. “And he was just full of energy. I mean, he wasn’t a kid at the time, but he was very sprightly.”

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In the early ’70s, Rivchin was working as an assistant to Thomas Leavitt, then director of the A.D. White Museum of Art.

A fictional exhibit catalog
A spread from the Llhuros exhibit catalog. (Ryan Young / Cornell University)

Recognizing the scope of Daly’s vision, Leavitt gave him the run of two full floors of the A.D. White House—which served as the university art museum from 1953 to 1973—to display “The Civilization of Llhuros,” and put Rivchin in charge of organizing the show. When it came to preparing the catalog, much of their work was to camouflage the role of artist and curator.

“The exhibition itself never gave away the fact that this was a fictitious civilization,” Rivchin says.

“It was Norman’s idea throughout that people would either pick up on the idea or not, and it was really up to the audience to sort of fill in the sense and the logic of the work and see that it was really more about contemporary society than it was any real, ancient civilization.”

The exhibition itself never gave away the fact that this was a fictitious civilization.

Retired senior lecturer Marilyn Rivchin, MFA ’91

The catalog described itself as “an exhibition of artifacts from the recent excavations of Vanibo, Houndee, Draikum, and other sites” and listed Norman Daly as “Director of Llhuroscian Studies, Cornell University.” The big reveal of Daly’s ruse came at the end.

A review in Newsweek raved that “The Civilization of Llhuros” was “an archaeological magical mystery tour the like of which has never been offered before,” filled with eerie, evocative music and artifacts that were “dazzling, witty, and disturbing.”

Some of Daly’s fellow academics were more than disturbed—they were outraged. The reaction delighted Daly.

Two women at a museum exhibit
Viewing Llhuros artifacts at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, part of a national tour. (Provided)

Over the next two years, the exhibition traveled to museums throughout the U.S., then went to Germany for a major show, for which Daly created new site-specific Llhuroscian material.

By 1977, all of Llhuros had returned from Europe in enormous crates that were put into storage.

And there, aside from one or two shows, they remained for decades. Daly died in 2008, at the age of 96.

Then, in 2017, Llhuros experienced an unexpected revival when a number of its artifacts were included in an installation in Montpellier, France.

That renewed interest culminated in a symposium this fall celebrating the 50th anniversary of “The Civilization of Llhuros,” a virtual event hosted by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s School of Art.

As much as Daly’s project makes sport of academia, the library’s acquisition of the Llhuros material means more scholars will now be able to engage with the work.

The collection includes photos of the artifacts, maps, text, recordings, old exhibition labels, Daly’s teaching materials, his early pre-Llhuros artwork, even an eight-track cassette.

two gloved hands with an artifact

Daly listed this object as “Lacunarium (Decorative Shield with Salamanders),” deeming it a newel post for “large, elaborate funerary couches for temple priests.” (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Since the archive is not equipped to store large three-dimensional objects, Daly’s approximately 150 handcrafted artifacts remain in a storage facility in nearby Elmira, New York.

However, it’s hoped that the renewed interest in Llhuros will lead to future exhibitions—and possibly a permanent home for the artifacts as well.

Top: Animation by Cornell University.

Published December 12, 2022.

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