Beyond Nasca Lines: The Compelling Mystery of Nasca Pottery


Photo by Cristina Stockton-Juarez.
Archeologist gives inside look at their research process & unpacks discoveries

Archeologist gives inside look at their research process & unpacks discoveries

courtesy of the Cornell University Library Digital Collections

Double Spout Suspected Forgery

“It was this diversity of color and iconography that first drew me to the Nasca vessels at Cornell University.”

Cristina Juarez

When one hears the name "Nasca,"* the first thing that comes to mind is probably the monumental geoglyphs of the Peruvian desert; swirling designs of plants and animals incised into the desert sand on such a massive scale that they can only be seen in their entirety from the sky. But if you visit a museum in search of Nasca art, whether in Latin America or elsewhere, what you’ll find are the incredibly detailed and colorful fine ware ceramic vessels of the Nasca. So why are the Nasca Lines so well known, when so few have heard of this beautiful (and abundant) polychrome pottery that they produced for almost a millennium?

These ceramics are the most colorful pre-Columbian pottery ever produced in Peru. They are painstakingly handcrafted and painted with complex, sometimes dizzying, geometric and natural designs. Rich reds, yellows, oranges, and browns depict scenes of life, death, birth, and war. The iconography is broad in scope: both mundane plants and life-giving waters of the desert contrast with fantastical chimeras of animal-faced gods and startling motifs of severed trophy heads, lips sutured, and eyes closed in death.

It was this diversity of color and iconography that first drew me to the Nasca vessels at Cornell University. The collection consists of almost three dozen intact vessels which span a roughly 700-year period. By viewing this assortment, one can easily see how the iconography has changed drastically over the centuries. But, in order to more fully understand its significance, one must know more about the Nasca people themselves.

A series of chiefdoms linked by a common religion and culture, the Nasca resided in the Ica and Nasca Valleys along river drainages. An alluvial basin, these lands were rich with mineral deposits such as iron oxides and white kaolin clay.

Now inhospitable and arid, this desert would not have been much more habitable in the early third century CE, but it would have been greener during the wet seasons. These drainages were the only fertile areas (and sources of fresh water) for hundreds of kilometers in this region. During the driest part of the year, this water would retreat underground, making it a precious resource that featured prominently in Nasca iconography.

Though harsh for life, these are ideal conditions for pottery production. Nearby iron mines provided an abundance of minerals perfect for creating a wide palette of colors. One particular mine in the Ingenio Valley, Mina Primavera, was regularly drawn from over the entire course of Nasca history for its rich stores of hematite, an iron oxide that can produce rich red or black pigments depending on its preparation. Other iron oxides and natural kaolin clay deposits were used abundantly by the Nasca to produce hues of black, white, purple, red, orange, yellow, gray, brown, violet, pink, and light blue.

These vibrant color schemes didn’t come about all at once, however. It took centuries of experimentation with different “recipes,” and likely firing methods, to produce the range of hues we see at the end of Nasca ceramic production. And, as the Nasca experimented with color, so too did their creativity grow in depicting the world—natural and supernatural—around them. Pictorial depictions in early Nasca pottery, often referred to as “Monumental,” frequently consist of naturalistically modeled plants and animals—those that would have played important roles in the daily lives of the Nasca.

Through the centuries, their imagery became more complex, intricate, and—in many cases—abstracted. Deities (amalgamations of beasts and men) become more common, along with themes of war, hinting at the encroaching presence of the Huari civilization. By the final phase of production, referred to as “Disjunctive,” the iconography is full of weaving labyrinthine designs; thin precise linework covers the entire surface of the pots and here and there an eye or a menacing mouth can be seen.

As archeologists, we often ask ourselves how we can quantify something as complex and abstract as visual culture. How can we make sense of it scientifically? This is what I sought to do with my thesis: to determine if the expansion in colors and the change in iconography over the centuries were associated with a physical, chemical change in the pigments used. And subsequently, did the Nasca production centers expand? Were more people making more of these pots in different parts of the desert, drawing from different sources, or did it stay the same? And what would that imply—an unchanging pigment recipe for over half a century?

Finding a way to measure this was tricky. Many methods of compositional analysis for pottery (or the paints on the surface) are destructive, requiring the researcher to crush the material they are testing and suspend it in a liquid solution.

Nasca Pottery
Photo by Cristina Stockton-Juarez.
Nasca Pottery
Photo by Cristina Stockton-Juarez.
Nasca Pottery
Photo by Cristina Stockton-Juarez.

At the Cornell Institute of Archeology and Material Science, I was fortunate enough to have access to a pXRF device (Portable X-Ray Fluorescence) and, while rarely used for ceramic analysis, it has some precedence in archeology for finding out the source of obsidian artifacts and how far they may have traveled. I used the device to see if the basic chemical composition of the paints stayed the same as the iconography changed.

Before shooting X-rays at these pots, however, they needed to be categorized. Using publications from two leading Nasca ceramic scholars (Roark and Proulx), I put each usable vessel into one of three iconographic groups. Each represent major phases of production: Monumental Nasca, usually full of naturalistic depictions of plants and animals; Transitional Nasca, a liminal period with growing abstraction; and Proliferous Nasca, full of unfolding lines and geometric designs, far from the simplistic thick-lined animal motifs of the Monumental Phase. It was also necessary to identify which colors occurred most frequently.

Finally, the pXRF device was used to measure exactly what was in those pigments across the entire collection of vessels.

After running all of my elemental data through statistical analysis, I discovered that—while there were very slight differences between iterations of pigments (maybe a little more hematite in this one, or a little more wood ash or mica in the other)—the recipes did not significantly change over the course of 700 years, even as the iconography became all but unrecognizable from its earlier styles.

So—why is this significant?

This small amount of data can provide so many new avenues for research and can challenge questions that other researchers have posed. First, and unexpectedly, this analysis helped me confirm a suspicion scrawled on one of the notecards associated with a vessel: “suspected forgery.” Indeed, the chemical matrix of the paints on that vessel was completely different from all of the other vessels, which allowed me to confirm one precocious researcher’s hunch from over fifty years ago!

Beyond that, this discovery poses bigger questions. For one thing, the mining source for the pigments may have been the same for multiple centuries, and moreover, the extreme similarities of the pigments suggest that the same type of minerals—in color, luster, and composition—were consistently being selected. This suggests a complex level of organization in the potting tradition of the Nasca. Perhaps most awe-inspiring to me is that the recipes for these rich, colorful pigments endured for almost a millennium. How were they passed down? Did mothers teach their daughters? Who was making these pots? And why, if these delicate and beautiful vessels were most likely ceremonial, can we find them in every level of Nasca society, at every known habitation site, and in every grave?

Often, archeological research produces more questions than it answers—but if you’re okay with a little uncertainty, unlocking the doors of the past can be a richly rewarding adventure. And while it’s easy to be wowed by larger-than-life spectacles like the Nasca Lines, there are fascinating mysteries and breathtaking works of ancient art to uncover right under our noses, gathering dust in museum collections all over the world.

*Throughout this feature, “Nasca" is used instead of "Nazca." This has been the convention in Latin America and most academic circles for some time, as "Nazca" more closely ties the pre-Columbian indigenous culture to the Spanish language and colonization.

About the Author

Cristina Juarez

Cristina Juarez is a Philadelphia-based artist, educator, and archaeologist. Their academic research focuses on pre-Columbian visual culture in Mexico and Peru, and they currently work as the Museum Educator at the Wagner Free Institute of Science. They are particularly interested in art history, archaeology, and natural science.

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