This bottle is a unique example of an architectural vessel in silver from ancient Peru. Echoing the ancient stirrup-spout form first seen in Cupisnique ceramics perhaps two thousand years earlier, the body of the vessel is in the form of two audiencias, a type of architectural structure known from Chan Chan, the capital of the Chimú Empire. This great Andean desert city flourished on Peru’s North Coast, near what is now the modern city of Trujillo in the Moche Valley, for some five hundred years before the Chimú were conquered by the Incas around 1470 A.D. The core of the city was composed of ten monumental mud-brick compounds thought to be the palaces of the Chimú rulers. Most likely built sequentially by succeeding rulers, the compounds combined administrative, ceremonial, and domestic functions, but they ultimately became the funerary monuments of rulers, their descendants, and their retainers.
This bottle, made of pieces of silver sheet that were cut, embossed, and soldered together to create a vessel with a body in the shape of an architectural platform with figures, may have been meant to evoke an area within the Chan Chan palaces. A central figure with a conical headdress and large ear ornaments is shown seated within a niche-like space, flanked by two figures seated in front of him, one wearing a similar conical headdress and ear ornaments, and the other bearing what may be a sack over his shoulders. The scene is repeated on the opposite side of the vessel. The walls of the structure are decorated in the style of the Chan Chan palaces and other nearby structures such as Huaca el Dragón, with reliefs depicting figures with crescent headdresses and marine birds. The principal individuals are seated on throne-like audiencias—U-shaped structures that were often located adjacent to storage facilities. Whether the figures with sacks over their shoulders were intended to represent long-distance traders or bringers of tribute is unknown, but surely the scenes speak to some sort of interchange within the walls of this wealthy city.
Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, the Chimú kingdom dominated some 800 miles of Peru’s North Coast, from just south of the modern border with Ecuador to just north of Lima. The remains of Chan Chan, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, encompasses some 8 square miles (20 km2). The royal compounds had high perimeter walls, grand open courtyards, walk-in wells, and ample storage facilities. These palaces had a single entrance, on the north perimeter wall, and progress through the palaces was impeded by a system of baffled entries, further restricting the flow of visitors into the compounds’ interiors. Sixteenth-century accounts of the looting of these palaces describe the immense quantities of riches they once held, including dozens of vessels of silver and gold. Few such works have survived to the present day, particularly works in silver—a metal that does not survive well in the archaeological record as it can deteriorate when exposed to salts and other minerals in the soil when buried. A rare survival of Chimú silverwork, this bottle speaks to a tradition for which the Chimú were once famed. That fame is reflected in the fact that shortly after the Chimú were conquered by the Incas, the silversmiths of Chan Chan were taken to Cusco, the Inca capital, where they were pressed into service of the newly dominant Inca Empire.
Joanne Pillsbury, Andrall E. Pearson Curator, Arts of the Ancient Americas, 2018
References and Further Reading
King, Heidi, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, and Paloma Carcedo de Mufarech. Rain of the Moon: Silver in Ancient Peru. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Pillsbury, Joanne. “Imperial Radiance: Luxury Arts of the Incas and their Predecessors,” in Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy F. Potts, and Kim Richter, pp. 33-43. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017.
Pillsbury, Joanne. “Reading Art without Writing: Interpreting Chimú Architectural Sculpture,” in Dialogues in Art History, from Mesopotamian to Modern: Readings for a New Century, Elizabeth Cropper, ed., pp. 72-89. Studies in the History of Art 74, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts Symposium Papers LI. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, Distributed by Yale University Press, 2009.
Pillsbury, Joanne, Patricia Sarro, James Doyle, and Juliet Wiersema. Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.