Bryn Mawr College Art & Archaeology Collections

Mass Production of Art in Pre-Columbian Cultures: Moldmade Peruvian Pottery from the Bryn Mawr College Collection

August 31, 1998 through November 24, 1998
Rhys Carpenter Library for Art, Archaeology, and Cities
Kaiser Reading Room

Handmade objects are often associated with notions of originality and intricate, slow labor. These ideals are also intertwined with a nostalgic perception of the artistic traditions of ancient civilizations.

However, in many pre-Columbian coastal desert cultures in Peru, beginning with the northern coast Moche (200BC-AD700), a large majority of "handmade" ceramic vessels were produced quickly, often in standardized forms, and in large numbers. For example, pottery from the later southern coast Chancay people (AD900-AD1550) gives visible evidence of hasty manufacture. Slips used in painting the pots are sometimes unevenly applied and drip down the surface. (Exhibit Fig. I)

How did they do it?
This Moche made innovative technological use of press molds in order to mass produce their ceramic wares. With press molds, wet clay was pressed into ceramic molds. As the clay dried, it would pull away from the inside of the mold and was then removed. The method deviated from the traditional techniques of building the pots by modeling or coiling the clay. The use of press molds, rather than coiling, lessened the amount of time it took to make pottery. The molds also made it easy to produce replicas with little need for creative resolutions. Among the pottery exhibited in this case, the contrast between these two methods is particularly exemplified in those from the southern coast Nasca (100BC-AD600) and from the later Chimú (AD900-AD1550 ) of the north coast. The Nasca pots (Exhibit Fig. II) were made by coiling and were intricately painted as compared to the plainly decorated moldmade Chimú blackware (Exhibit Fig. III). Most of the vessels in this exhibition are part of a collection of over 600 ceramic vessels from Peru donated to Bryn Mawr College in the 1960's by Ward M. Canaday. There are also some selected pieces from the recently acquired William S. Vaux Collection.

Why did moldmade pottery become popular?
One reason why the use of press molds became a popular mode of ceramic production within many Andean cultures was probably due to an increased demand from upper class individuals. The Moche, Chimú, and Chancay cultures were based upon a hierarchical structure of elites and commoners. Pottery was one artform which was used by elites to indicate status. An example of one display of status was in the form of burial offerings. The greater the offering, the greater the individual. One of the largest offerings, 1,137 pots, was excavated in a royal tomb at the pyramids of Sipán, the remains of a Moche kingdom in the Lambayeque River Valley.Elites may have also coerced an intensified manufacture of vessels in order to spread a particular idea or message throughout their entire domain. The Moche elite, for example, did this, in order to advance their imperialistic goals. Some of the standardized imagery of the moldmade wares displayed signs of aggression that expressed a commonly held social value for Moche elite and commoners alike. Consistent and recognizable forms, such as a cat with a teeth-bearing grimace, allowed a diverse population under Moche rule to easily comprehend the messages on the pots. The pottery then transported Moche identity and offered a means of social control. Commoners who valued aggression could be easily called upon to kill in battlefields or fiercely enforce the laws of their rulers.

Another reason why moldmade vessels grew to dominate ceramic production in these cultures may have been a result of their growing popularity and use among commoners. Press molds made ceramics available to a wide range of people. Because of this, pottery as a mode of status indicator eventually fell out of favor with elites in some cultures, such as the Chimú.

In Bryn Mawr's collection, there are examples of duplicated vessels, though none are exact replicas. Several animal types, forms, and portrayals are repeated. For example, cats, are depicted on several Chimú pots in this case. They (Exhibit Fig. IV) are all in the form of the cat's head, depicting nearly the same open round eyes and teeth-bearing grimace as in the earlier mentioned imagery on Moche pots. Several monkeys on the Chimú blackware (Exhibit Fig. V) are sprawled in the same position, all embracing the top of the body of the pot with the same stoic facial expression. Little monkeys also typically appear on stirrup spout bottles (Exhibit Fig. VI), seated at the juncture of the arch and the spout, embracing the upright tube. The bird stamp decoration on three of the Chimú stirrup spout pots (Exhibit Fig. VII) are nearly identical.

Moldmade pre-Columbian Peruvian pottery presents a counter perspective to ideals of handmade objects from ancient civilizations. The popularity of replicas over original, highly crafted items was probably a result of both the influence of a self-aggrandizing upper class and the heightened consumptive power of the commoners.


All photographs have been provided courtesy of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angles. For more information on Pre-Columbian Peruvian pottery and culture see: Royal Tombs of Sipán by Christopher Donnan and Walter Alva; Ceramics of Ancient Peru by Christopher Donnan and Fowler; Art of the Andes from Chavín to Inca by Rebecca Stone-Miller.

This exhibit and its accompanying text was prepared by guest curator, Laura Smith for Bryn Mawr College's Collections. Special thanks for their patient consultation to: Clark Erickson, Curator of South American Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania University Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology and Steve Ferzacca, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College.

Of course this exhibit would not be possible without the generosity of our excellent donors: Ward M. Canaday and his family and William S. Vaux and family, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.


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