Chimu Pottery and its meaning
Black and mass produced with maritime motives.
Chimu pottery reflects not only the technological and artistic innovations of its time but also the economic, political, and possibly social realities of Chimu state.
The majority of Peruvian pottery is black, characterised by a distinctive metallic black-grey look. It is estimated that 95% of such pottery was produced within the Chimu culture during its dominance along the north coast of Peru (c. 850-1470 AD).
Much of the pottery design with its symbolic and iconographic representations revolves around the people’s relationship with the sea. Maritime elements include clam shells, geometric patterns that reflect waves and references to sea birds and coastal animals through the decorative elements of the pottery.
Chimu pottery is very rarely painted and the consistency of the shapes and decorations are often achieved via the mass production technique of press moulding. Further away from the coast, the pottery is less consistently black and often not as dark. The maritime motives are also less prominent and the pottery reflects the different environment and its natural resources. Also there was less mass production in the Peruvian highlands.
The technology behind this pottery is the subject of speculation. What manufacturing processes were used to achieve the distinctive black colour and smooth surface on the exterior and interior of the pots? According to one theory, Chimu potters closely regulated the temperature and oxygen level in their kilns. This allowed them to reduce the oxidation of the pottery, producing its blackened colour. Another theory suggests that when the kiln reached its highest temperature it was completely covered with soil, stopping the oxidising process while promoting the effect of smoke and soot, both of which enhanced the black colour.
Most of the 106 pieces of pottery in the Australian Museum’s collection are black, as they came predominantly from the iconic Chimu sites in northern coastal Peru. Nearly all of these pots are water vessels. Many display religious or ritualistic symbols, the meaning of which is difficult to understand outside Chimu culture.
Numerous pots have representations of animals or human-like characters (adornos), usually monkeys, seabirds and anthropomorphic figures, some of which are included in the pots resembling a watering-can. Some double bridged pots were made in such a way that they could be used to make a ‘whistling’ sound, either by blowing via the spout or tilting the pot from side to side while it is half filled with liquid. Numerous pots were probably intended for decorative purposes or for specific ceremonial functions, such as grave goods.
Pottery is one of the most durable materials found in archaeological deposits. Pots were vital for domestic use, cooking as well as food and water storage. But they easily brake and old human settlements are saturated with pottery fragments. Potters were never out of a job, constantly resupplying households with new pots. In less diverse or stratified societies pottery, along with other crafts, was produced within each household. Pottery is remarkably distinct in each culture, where forms are dictated by function and the technology used. The decorations were influenced by entrenched tradition and intended symbolism.
It appears that in the Chimu state a large part of the pottery was produced in specialised workshops, possibly controlled or regulated by state administration. The reason for this and the large amounts of pottery produced is not understood but may have reflected wealth and status.
Prepared by Vickie Tran and Stan Florek
AD or Common Era indicates the period of time between year one and the present in the Western Calendar.
Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager