When it comes to the artwork of ancient Peru, nothing is more fascinating than ceramic works of the historic cultures.
In ancient Peru, pottery had practical, ceremonial and religious purposes. For that reason, ceramic vessels were often elaborately decorated or made to represent important human figures or animals. However, considering the number of ancient civilizations that once thrived in Peru, there is great diversity among the pieces that have been unearthed by archeologists around the country. Each culture had a unique style of pottery that is clearly visible today.
The Chavín culture of the Northern Andean highlands was likely the first culture of Peru to create fine pottery. Their civilization was centered in the Mosna Valley where the Mosna and Huachecsa rivers merge. It is believed that they produced pottery between 1,000 and 300 BC. The vessels that have been uncovered from the Chavín culture are often in the shape of the jaguar god and other mystical creatures and beings. The Chavín were also experts in the use of subtle colors. While they colors they had at hand were mostly reds and brown, they would produce geometric pattern using different shades. The Chavín were also the first culture to produce the typical “stirrup-spout” pottery in which two twin vessels share a central spout.
The Paracas were a culture that inhabited the Southern coast of Peru. Their pottery, while similar to that of the Chavín culture, favored the use of geometric designs and brighter colors. They also applied patterns to their pottery by making incisions and carvings into the already-fired clay. Some pots that have been uncovered from the Paracas culture show images of fruits, vegetables and other useful plants.
The most impressive pottery in Peruvian history definitely comes from the Moche culture that thrived along Peru’s Northern coast from AD 100 to 700. The Moche pottery is known for its realism depicting portraits, individual characteristics, conditions and even emotions. Moreover, the Moche were the first Peruvian culture to mass-produce their pottery using molds.
The most famous pieces of Moche pottery are those that depict erotic scenes. Archeologists have uncovered numerous vessels showing men and women engaging in various sexual acts. However, these pieces are not believed to be pornographic but rather ceremonial, and they have given anthropologists great insight on the sexual behavior of ancient Peruvian people. If you’re interested in viewing the erotic Moche pottery, the Larco Herrera Museum in Lima has an entire gallery devoted to this particular theme and it is definitely worth a visit.
The Nazca were people who flourished along the Southern coast of Peru and produced some very distinctive art. Using strong colors and bold designs, the images portrayed on their pottery were an important means of communicating and sharing ideas and religious practices. Most Nazca pottery was not meant for everyday use but for rituals, burial offerings and decoration. Of all the ancient civilizations in the Americas, the Nazca people employed the widest and most creative color range.
The Chimú culture lived in the North of Peru around Trujillo and the Moche Valley between the years AD 1,000 and 1470. When it comes to pottery, the Chimú are known for making black pottery, which they accomplished by reducing the oxygen levels when firing the clay. Before firing the clay, they would often burnish the vessel in order to give it a unique silver sheen. The potter from the Chimú culture is quite striking and surprisingly modern.
By the time the Inca Empire emerged, the indigenous people of Peru had already been making pottery for thousands of years. And while the Incas are the most famous Peruvian civilization, they were not particularly known for their pottery. For the Incas, utility was incredibly important, so they focused mostly on making practical vessels rather than intricately detailed pieces of art. For that reason, the Inca pottery lacked the artistry of earlier civilizations. The Incas rarely portrayed human figured in their pottery – they focused mostly on geometric patters and the shapes of animals which they considered sacred.
If you’re interested in the pottery and artwork of ancient Peruvian civilizations, be sure to schedule some time in Lima. The nation’s capital is teeming with culture and there are numerous museums where you can go to immerse yourself in the historic cultures of this incredible country. The Larco Herrera Museum and the National Museum of Archeology and Anthropology are just a couple of our favorites, but we are always happy to give further recommendations.