Lime container in the shape of a captive

Wari artist(s)

Not on view

This small carved wood figure in the shape of a kneeling prisoner with his hands tied behind his back is a container created to hold powdered lime. Created by a sculptor of the Wari culture and reportedly found on the south coast of Peru, traces of remaining pigment indicate the figure wears a checkerboard tunic, a garment often associated with warriors (see, for example, accession number 2017.674 in the Met’s collection). His helmet or headdress was sculpted in the shape of a feline with barred fangs. Traces of pigment remain from the designs painted on his face, and he is shown with a short, broad nose ornament inserted through the nasal septum. His hair is woven into braids, gathered by a cord on his back below his shoulders. His hands are tied behind his back with a rope. A circular bone inlay was placed at the center of his chest, embellishing an already richly ornamented figure.

In ancient times, this object would have held powdered lime made from calcined seashells. The lime would have been removed from the container through the hole in the top of the figure by means of a little spatula or spoon. Lime was a necessary part of the ritual of coca-leaf chewing; the coca leaves were put into the mouth to form a quid, and the lime was added to activate the drug. Ancient lime containers are known in a variety of different forms and materials, and those of the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures of the eighth and ninth centuries are of particular interest (for related works see Cleveland Museum of Art, 2007.193; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.412.237a, b; Museum Fünf Kontinente [formerly the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich], N.M. 186). Often sculptural in form and made of wood, they can be rather elaborately conceived for such small works.

The significance of a lime container made in the form of a bound figure is unclear but it continues an earlier tradition first elaborated in the Early Horizon period (900–200 B.C.). A small remnant of thread remains looped around the rope binding the prisoner’s hands. This thread may have been used either to secure the lime spatula to the figure or to bind to a wooden stopper.

The Wari Empire dominated much of the Central Andes in the Middle Horizon period (A.D. 500–1000), and its influence could be felt from Chiclayo in the north of Peru to Moquegua in the south. The empire’s name derives from its presumed capital, the ancient ruins of Wari (sometimes spelled Huari), near the present-day city of Ayacucho in the highlands of Peru. The container is allegedly from the site of Cahuachi, an important archeological site in the Nazca Valley. The Wari culture is renowned for its extraordinarily fine weavings, highly burnished ceramics, and refined mosaic works in shell and stone.

Published references

Lapiner, Alan C. Pre-Columbian Art of South America (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1976), p. 255, figs. 590, 591.

Jones, Julie. Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1975–1979 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979), p. 95.

Jones, Mark. The Art of the Medal (London: The British Museum, 1979). pp. 91–96. Museum of Primitive Art, New York. Rituals of Euphoria: Coca in South America (New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1974), p. 7, fig. 25.

Further reading

Bergh, Susan E., editor. Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes (New York and Cleveland: Thames & Hudson; The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2012).

Cabrera Romero, Martha, et al., Wari: Arte precolombino peruano (Seville: Centro Cultural El Monte, 2001).

Giersz, Milosz, and Cecilia Pardo, editors. Castillo de Huarmey: El mausoleo imperial Wari (Lima: Museo de Arte de Lima, 2014). Jennings, Justin, editor. Beyond Wari Walls: Regional Perspectives on Middle Horizon Peru (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010).

Young-Sánchez, Margaret, editor. Tiwanaku: Ancestors of the Inca (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2004).

Lime container in the shape of a captive, Wari artist(s), Wood, bone inlay, paint, fiber, Wari

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