The pottery of the Nazca civilization, which flourished in ancient Peru between 200 BCE and 600 CE, is amongst the most distinctive art produced by any civilization from antiquity. Endlessly inventive both in form and in its use of strong colours and bold decorative designs, the ceramic wares of the Nazca are instantly recognisable. This ease of identification is no doubt because, in a culture without writing, designs on pottery vessels were an important means of communicating shared ideas and religious practices. Not simply for everyday use, then, the Nazca created vessels for ritual use, burial offerings, and pure decoration. Nazca potters, although employing very simple techniques, were technically accomplished and their ceramics display the widest colour range found in any ancient Americas pottery.
Nazca pottery, made where the pottery wheel was unknown, was made by hand, mostly by the method of coiling where a tube of clay was spiralled around a base to build up the vessel. Potters did use a turntable but this was for manual slow-turning during the decoration process. The sides of the vessel - both inside and out - were then thinned and smoothed by hand or using a flat stone as desired. Vessels were thin-walled and could take on a wide variety of shapes. Distinctive forms include the double-spouted containers with a single handle and generally bulbous vessels without a flat bottom or base. Bowls, beakers, plain jars, and effigy jars were also common. There were vessels in the shape of human heads too, no doubt inspired by the Nazca practice of taking trophy-heads following battles. The three-dimensional stepped fret shape is unique to the Nazca. Besides vessels, ceramic effigy figures, drums, panpipes, and masks were also produced, typically for burial with the dead.
Influenced by the earlier Paracas culture designs, Nazca pottery vessels were decorated with a slip (before firing) to produce a wide array of vividly rendered patterns. Specific real people and events are never represented in Nazca art. Rather, vessels are decorated with an endless variety of unspecific images of gods, people (abstract, more women than men, and most often just faces), shamanic imagery in various anthropomorphic transformational stages, crustaceans, killer whales, condors and other predatory birds, monkeys, lizards, insects, trophy heads, decapitated victims, and mythical transformational creatures, especially felines which are highly stylized but almost always recognisable via their whiskered mouths. Staring eyes - achieved by painting the iris all around the pupil in stark white – are another typical Andean feature which most scholars believe depicts a drug-induced trance state. Sometimes the naval on figures is represented as an eye and may also represent a shamanic blending of the senses. In earlier vessels plants and fruit were another popular subject and indicate their importance to this agricultural society.
The Nazca did not simply follow the traditions of their predecessors, though, as they eventually created their own unique style and designs evolved from naturalistic to highly ornamented and then, in its final stages, to highly abstract forms and a sort of artist’s short-hand. Colours are bold and made more striking via thick black outlines. Often the design covers the entire vessel producing a wrap-around three-dimensional effect, even a narrative, for example, with battle scenes. Designs might also exploit the contours of the vessel, for example, a nose on a protruding part. The lower body of figures is rarely presented and usually blends with the lower, rounded, form of the vessel itself. Designs can even overlap each other to create the illusion of space and depth.
Maroon, light purple, and blue-grey were a favourite choice of colours but a very wide range was used, more, in fact, than in any other ancient Andean culture. Up to 12 colours were made from mixing water with mineral pigments such as manganese for black and iron oxide for reds. Backgrounds were usually in white, brown, red, or black. Colours were rarely used to depict objects as they appeared in reality but, rather, were used according to a set of artistic conventions. Outlining figures and colour areas with a black line which never varies in thickness is another feature and another example of the Nazca delight in linear design. After firing a final polishing gave the colours a brilliant glossy shine.
The late Nazca pottery is increasingly abstract in its decoration. Shamans, in particular, are represented with masks carrying many protrusions and body parts disappear into abstract lines and shapes so that the figure is now difficult to identify. This attempt to capture the transformational process during shamanic rituals is known as the Bizarre Innovation Style and it would influence later cultures as the art of the Americas generally became increasingly abstract. The Nazca civilization was conquered by the Wari but their artistic influence on their successors would be passed on again to the Inca civilization and ensured that their art, at least, endured. Nazca artists also worked in precious metals but the fact that they so valued pottery - archaeology’s best survivor - as an art form has meant that their remarkable work has been preserved for posterity.