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Inca Art

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The Legacy of Incan Pottery and Art

The legendary Incas of Peru have been likened to the Romans for the innovations they created during their reign, especially when it comes to agriculture, architecture and construction.

On this page:

  • Incan Art - Background

  • Inca Pottery

  • Purpose of Incan Art

  • Incan Art Today

However, outside of the marvel that is Machu Picchu, the major ruins left behind after the near extinction of the Incas at the hands of the explorer Pizarro, Incan art is the most recognizable trace left to us of their remarkable foresight and skills.

Inca Art - Background

The first tribe in the Americas to develop planting cycles for agriculture, the scientific breeding of plants and animals, and some truly amazing and unusual architecture, they are also known for the creation of beautiful and durable art in the form of:

  • pottery,
  • tapestry and
  • jewelry.

Unlike tribes found in the Amazon basin, the Incan art form of pottery was made with considerable skill.

Experts believing that they were perhaps the first people to use something resembling a pottery wheel to create their pottery.

Inca Pottery

The pottery is hard finished, with every trace of their construction removed from the finished product.

The surface resembles glazed work of today, but is thought to be hand polished, and each piece shows signs of the clay having been chosen for the exact use the pieces were intended for.

Thicker, denser clay was used for the larger ceremonial pots and plates, while others were made of more delicate material, resembling today's ceramics.

Keep in mind that no evidence has been found that they had ever used anything resembling a kiln, or that the clay was ever heated in any way (for more detailed info on Inca Pottery, click here).

Inca Art - Its Purpose

In the original excavation of Machu Picchu certain artifacts were examined and closely scrutinized.

The archaeologists gave special attention to the more stylized jars, bowls, and plates. These appeared to be decorated with depictions of the Incan art representations of their God.

The British experts involved in this initial project determined that these objects were obviously meant for ritual use.

Other pieces that bore crosshatched designs and seamlessly attached handles were meant to mimic the less durable baskets of the region.

Sadly, it was found that very little of the similarly constructed idols and other religious materials made of metal or clay had survived in any condition at all.

It was theorized that Pizarro and his men had probably melted down anything made with precious gold or silver, and probably broke the other symbols of the Incan Gods, out of fear or a wish to intimidate.

Their likenesses continue on, however, in the carvings that are everywhere in Machu Picchu, and the surviving descendants now honor those same gods in their modern art works today.

Understanding Inca Art

The Incas took control over many cultures that had deep roots stretching far back beyond the Inca Culture itself.

As the Inca Empire grew, the art of the various previous cultures was absorbed and became an influence in what the Incas themselves were doing.

As a fairly recent civilization in Peru's history, the Incas therefore were drawing from a cultural art background going back thousands of years.

To understand Inca Art and its influences, it is almost essential to examine the sources of their art - the Chaving, Moche, Nasca, Chimu, Tiwanaku, and Wari were a few - and the best way to acquire this information is by buying the book Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca.

Author Rebecca Stone-Miller has achieved a difficult task that surely required many years of research background - uniting the art of the pre-Inca and Inca cultures in one volume - and doing this in a clear and fascinating way.

And no wonder - Rebecca Stone-Miller is Associate Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas at Emory University in Atlanta.

She has curated numerous exhibitions on ancient American art and is the author of
To Weave for the Sun: Ancient Andean Textiles; Seeing with New Eyes: Highlights of the Michael C. Carlos Museum Collection of Art of the Ancient Americas; and
Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca.

In this updated volume, not only does Rebecca Stone-Miller cover pottery and metallic arts but she goes into depth on textiles and architectural art and brings the information up to date with the latest archaeological finds of several ancient Peruvian sites.

Ms. Stone-Miller also helps us understand the meaning and symbolism of the art of the Andean people and the influences brought to bear on the art by the governing families, the religious element, as well as the commercial factors in some cases.

Not content with describing the art of these civilizations, Ms. Stone-Miller draws conclusions as to the philosophies and world views of the peoples involved.


Inca Art was built upon the art of civilizations that preceded the Incas themselves. This book covers those influences. It is an essential to a complete library on early South American art.

However, such an enormous task is bound to leave out some of the detailed photographic record of each of those cultures (although her book contains many photos).

So I would highly recommend, for a knowledge of each preceding and very important culture, to acquire several other works that offer more specific details about each of the foregoing peoples.

Purchase this excellent resource first, Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. Then, if you discover areas that you would like to explore further, you can acquire whatever book or books you need to fill the gap.

Inca Art Today

Today's Incan art carries on the traditions of the pottery, jewelry and weaving that their ancestors did.

In museums throughout Peru you can see the rescued originals, and purchase the restored patterns in modern materials.

Even the metalsmithing of their ancestors has been resumed, and you can find men and women everywhere creating the amazing rope chains of unbroken metal and handcrafted metal disks everywhere.

Nothing was ever written down, but apparently the mysteries of creation live on in their descendants.

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