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Nazca (Peru)

“Mythical being” polychrome bowl

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Object Details

Culture

Nazca (Peru)
Early Intermediate Period

Date

AD 300-500

Medium

Ceramic

Dimensions

Height: 4 1/2 inches (11.4 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Philip Pearlstein

Object
Number

82.116.002

WHERE WAS IT MADE?This vessel was made in what is now Peru. The Nasca culture primarily settled in t(…)

WHERE WAS IT MADE?This vessel was made in what is now Peru. The Nasca culture primarily settled in the narrow oasis-valleys that formed the basin of the Rio Grande de Palpa and Nasca, on the south coast of Peru. This region constitutes one of the most arid environments on earth. No specific Nasca pottery making sites have been identified. Most production probably took place in valleys where clay and water sources were more easily accessible.HOW WAS IT MADE?Nazca pottery was never made in molds (unlike Moche and Chimú wares, which were commonly mold-made). Although the true potter’s wheel was absent, Nazca vessels were often constructed on a round plate base, using coiling, drawing, and direct-shaping techniques, with the help of some hand tools. First, the concave-sided cup was formed and then fired. Next, it was coated with a white slip, then polished, and fired a second time so that the colored slips added later would not mix with the white. The Nasca were revolutionary in their pottery painting techniques. Unlike resin paints, which were added after the firing process, slip paints chemically fused to the surface of the vessel when it was fired, preventing chipping or fading. The Nasca utilized over 15 shades of slip paint, made from a combination of minerals, iron oxides and carbon. No other ceramic style in ancient Peru used as many colors. The Nasca often combined up to 8 to 12 different shades on their ceramic ware. An unusual aspect of Nasca painting is that motifs were first colored and later outlined to give them a crisper, more defined appearance.HOW WAS IT USED?The Nasca culture, as well as most other pre-Columbian cultures, left behind no phonetic script or textual documentation. Thus, it has been very difficult for archaeologists to understand the exact use of pottery in Nasca society. Nasca pottery has been found at a wide array of sites, including cemeteries, civic-ceremonial centers, and areas of habitation. This ubiquitous distribution suggests that ceramics not only played a role in ritual contexts but also may have functioned in day-to-day settings as well. This bowl, in particular, may have been used as a ritual drinking vessel, perhaps in ceremonial feasting. Most Nasca religious practices seem to have focused on issues of agricultural fertility and attempts to secure stable food supplies.WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?Take a moment to observe the main figure on the bowl. The image represents an Anthropomorphic Mythical Being, one of the most frequently represented sacred themes in Nasca art. Much debate surrounds the true meaning of this being. Some scholars claim the figure symbolizes a masked human dressed in ritual regalia, acting as a ritual performer or shaman— a human who could cross the boundary between the divine and mortal worlds. Others consider this figure to be a supernatural being who symbolically represented the powerful natural forces that controlled the world. Notice the dress of the Being. It wears a feline-like gold-mouth mask, forehead ornament, and Spondylus shell necklace, all of which have been found in the archaeological record. Feline figures often were associated with the powers of the earth. Notice that the figure is holding a club in one hand and a trophy head in the other (positioned below its face). If you look directly to the right of the figure you will see more trophy heads lining the rim of the cup-bowl. They are common subjects in Nasca art, and are often painted on pottery vessels. The artistic conventions of painted trophy heads appear to have their origins in verifiable cultural practices: over 100 trophy heads, most likely obtained from decapitated war captives, have been unearthed from Nasca archaeological sites.

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