The Pottery Left Behind By Peru’s First Great Empire Gives Archaeologists Clues As To How The Empire Functioned
A new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports shows that Wari potters throughout Peru were influenced by the Wari culture, but blended it with their own local cultural practices, creating their own ceramics rather than using official Wari pottery.
A recent study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports sheds light on the pottery practices of the Wari Empire, which existed in Peru from 600-1000 CE. Researchers have long studied the pottery left behind by the Wari, as it offers valuable insights into how the empire functioned. However, a new discovery has upended previous assumptions about Wari pottery production.
This discovery challenges our understanding of the Wari Empire’s economic and political structures, suggesting a more decentralized system of production and trade. The use of laser beams in the analysis of the pottery’s chemical makeup highlights the important role that technological advancements continue to play in archaeological research.
“In this study, we looked at the idea of cosmopolitanism, of incorporating different cultures and practices into a society,” explains lead author M. Elizabeth Grávalos. “We’re trying to show that potters were influenced by the Wari, but this influence was blended with their own local cultural practices.”
According to Grávalos, this concept of cosmopolitanism can be compared to attempting to make a dish from a different culture while adding a unique local twist.
“If you live in the US and you’re making pad thai at home, you might not have access to all the ingredients that someone living in Thailand would have, so you substitute some things,” she adds. “Wari ceramics are a little like that — people throughout the empire were interested in Wari material culture, but they weren’t necessarily getting it directly from the Wari heartland. More often than not, we see local people trying to make their own version of Wari pottery.”
In an effort to uncover the intricacies of the Wari civilization, Grávalos and her team embarked on a series of archaeological expeditions across Peru. Collaborating closely with local communities, they painstakingly sifted through the thousand-year-old ruins of households, tombs, and administrative centers in search of clues to Wari culture. After collecting a diverse range of ceramic samples from their excavations, the researchers were granted official permission by Peru’s Ministry of Culture to transport the artifacts to Chicago for further analysis.
Given that clay from various regions has unique chemical properties, analyzing the chemical makeup of the ceramics provided valuable insight into their origins. The researchers were able to determine whether the pots were crafted in different locations or if they were all imported from the Wari capital.
“We’d take a tiny piece of a pot and used a laser to cut an even tinier piece, basically extracting a piece of the ceramic’s clay paste,” adds the lead author. “Then helium gas carried it to the mass spectrometer, which measures the elements present in the clay paste.”
Unlike other empires that employed a “top-down” approach to imposing their aesthetic, Wari seems to have taken a more “bottom-up” approach. The analysis showed that the pottery from different regions had distinct chemical signatures, indicating that they were made with different clays, and potters across the empire were creating their own ceramics, decorated to emulate the traditional Wari style rather than using “official” Wari pottery imported from the capital.
“Of course, local people in all empires have some degree of agency and creative control — the only empire that’s truly top-down is the Borg from Star Trek,” adds senior author Patrick Ryan Williams. “Even the Romans had local people doing things their own way. But what we’re finding in this study is the agency of local peoples and the importance of local economies. In some regions, we find that Wari colonists had their own production centers and were recreating Wari lifeways locally. In other areas, we see that local communities made Wari pottery in their own way. I think that’s what’s really important about this study.”
The experts believe that the patterns that have been revealed by this pottery might assist explain why the Wari empire was successful for such a long period of time.
“Local production, even in a cosmopolitan society with lots of far-flung connections, makes a society more resilient,” adds Williams. “If you’re entirely dependent on someone far away sending you things you need, you’re extremely vulnerable.”
Grávalos argues that the study is significant because it “challenges some of the assumptions we have about how societies work, particularly Indigenous groups who are often misrepresented or left out of broader narratives of world history. There are many people whose stories haven’t been told, and this study shows their resilience and their accomplishments.”
Image Credit: Emily Sharp