The Blanton’s special exhibition Between Mountains and Sea: Arts of the Ancient Andes closes this Sunday, August 17. If you have only half an hour to peruse the show between now and then, here are five objects you shouldn’t overlook:
Paracas culture, 900–200 BCE
Mantle with birds (first gallery)
Though it is displayed under low light to protect its natural dyes and fibers, the oldest and largest textile in Between Mountains and Sea is impossible to miss. This exquisite mantle from the Paracas culture consists of an embroidered checkerboard of squares in indigo and red that is densely populated with an intricate, stylized bird design–likely a representation of the majestic Andean condor. Mantles like this one were sometimes used to adorn the bodies of the dead, forming a “mummy bundle.” The incredible state of this textile owes in part to the extremely arid desert in which it was buried and to the alpaca or vicuña fibers from which it was woven, which are highly effective at retaining dye.
Moche culture, 100–800 BCE
Stirrup spout bottle of Supernatural Crab Being (third gallery)
Peer into the mirror positioned behind this ceramic vessel to fully understand its enigmatic designation as a “Supernatural Crab Being.” The figure depicted on the bottle boasts a human face, a decorated shell for a back, both human and crab legs, and pincers for hands. Its feline headdress and protruding fangs connect it to a Moche deity known today as Wrinkle Face. Moche ceramicists often drew upon local fauna, particularly marine life, to depict supernatural beings in a highly narrative and naturalistic style. Though seemingly readable to the modern eye, such objects are embedded with religious and secular symbolism, much of which remains a mystery to archaeologists and historians.
Sicán culture, 750–1350 CE
Single-spout bottle with Sicán Lord and two attendants (fourth gallery)
The Sicán culture is known in part for its advancements in metalwork, and blackware ceramics like this one reflect that interest. The bottle was made using a reduce-fire technique: during firing the amount of oxygen entering the kiln was limited, allowing smoke to darken the clay of the vessel. The surface was then burnished, or polished, to create a striking metallic sheen. The heads depicted on the bottle belong to the Sicán Lord, a mythical ruler, at center, and two attendants, who flank him on either side.
Chancay culture, 900–1470 CE
Anthropomorphic effigy (fourth gallery)
The Chancay produced some of the largest human-like figurines, known today as cuchimilcos, in the Andes. This figurine was likely made to accompany a funeral bundle and may have been dressed in textiles, which explains its undecorated nude torso. The holes along the head crest are typically associated with female figurines. Though technically crude, such effigies are visually appealing, with their outstretched arms, anatomical detail, and black painted decorations, which sometimes represent tattoos or have animal associations.
Chimú culture, 900–1470 CE
Stirrup spout bottle as sea lion (final gallery)
Like the Moche culture that preceded them on the northern coast of what is now Peru, the Chimú demonstrated an affinity for naturalistic renderings of local marine life. This sea lion bottle is remarkable both for its elegant simplicity and the ceramicist’s sensitivity to detail, from the whiskers to the earflaps. North coast cultures like the Chimú placed symbolic importance on this sea mammal, which relied on the same marine resources as humans and was equally disrupted by the climatic changes brought on by El Niño events.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Research Associate for Latin American art.