The Incas: Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca Trail

Inca Pottery

Incas molded clay,
Graceful symmetry in pots,
Artisan's delight.

The Incas carried to a remarkable extreme the manufacture of graceful, symmetrical pottery.

Inca pottery art was heavily influenced by geometry, and many of the designs and patterns used in Inca pottery were based on geometric shapes and patterns.

One of the most common geometric motifs found in Inca pottery is the step pattern, which is made up of a series of triangular steps or terraces. This pattern was used to create a sense of depth and dimensionality in the design, as well as to create a sense of movement and rhythm.

Another common geometric motif found in Inca pottery is the spiral, which was used to represent the cyclical nature of life and the cosmos. Spirals were often used in conjunction with other geometric patterns, such as the step pattern, to create more complex and intricate designs.

Inca potters also used mathematical principles to create symmetrical and balanced compositions. For example, they would use the principle of reflection to create mirror-image designs, and they would use grids and other mathematical tools to create designs with precise proportions and symmetry.

Overall, Inca pottery art demonstrates a deep appreciation for the principles of geometry and mathematics, and the intricate designs and patterns they created continue to inspire and fascinate people today.

Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911, wrote:

 In addition to agriculture and the breeding of useful plants and animals, the Incas carried to a remarkable extreme the manufacture of graceful, symmetrical pottery. They learned to recognize different kinds and qualities of potter's clay. They selected localities marked by the finest type of clay for the worship of favorable divinities and the manufacture of the most delicate dishes. It seems likely that a form of potter's wheel must have been used in the manufacture of their jars.

There was nothing crude or uncouth about their pottery. Most of it was made with the utmost skill, hard finished with polished and painted surface from which every trace of the process of manufacture had been removed. Unlike the primitive pottery of the Indian tribes in the Amazonian Basin, and in many parts of America, Inca pottery gives abundant evidence, in its symmetry and fine proportions, as well as in its finish, that the makers were the inheritors of a thousand years of culture and love of beauty. Their pieces were admirably designed for the uses to which they were put and just enough decoration to please and satisfy the most fastidious owner.

On the Peruvian coast, the ancient peoples who were conquered by the Incas carried their pottery making to a much more elaborate degree than did the Incas. Inca designs were nearly always geometrical and conventional. They included squares repeated one within the other, cross-hatching, rows of triangles, parallel lines, rows of lozenges, elaborate scrolls, a conventionalized necklace design consisting of a large number of disks each suspended by separate strings from the principal cord. This necklace design may possibly have been a representation of the royal fringe of sovereignty, the crown of the Incas.

The bar and double-cross pattern which occurs frequently on the handles of Inca pottery is clearly imitative of ancient basketry and derives from the easiest from of making handles. The pattern took the fancies of the ancient potters and consequently reappears in various panels and frequently constitutes the central portion of a geometrical design.

The most striking Peruvian pottery exhibited in collections comes from the sea-coast of northern Peru, where, before the days of the Inca Empire, native potters excelled in producing realistic human groups and even vivid portraits. Some of the Peruvian coastal pottery still stands unequaled in the life-like portrayal of human action and emotion. One finds the naked body depicted in many attitudes, some of them so degenerate as to be excluded from public exhibits. Mannequins in every conceivable posture, tragic groups representing human sacrifices, humorous caricatures of intoxication, persons afflicted with terrible diseases, comedy and tragedy, all are found represented in coastal ceramic art. The striking lack of any such tendencies in the pottery of the Incas leads to the conclusion that they must have had a strong prejudice against the use of the human form in decoration. The growth of such strict ideas of decency would naturally promote a sense of shame which would lead to the practice of using geometric patterns or conventionalized birds and animals rather than the human form. Consequently it is not surprising that Inca pottery does not represent the human form even though their highly developed sense of the beautiful induced them to make jars and dishes as graceful as those of ancient Greece. Practically all the pottery found in our excavations at Machu Picchu was pure Inca.

Inca effigy jar from Machu Picchu
(Photo: Yale Peabody Museum)

The most characteristic Inca pattern and the most common of the vessels intended for holding liquids was a bottle-shaped vase with a pointed bottom, frequently two and two-and-a-half feet in height and capable of holding six or seven gallons of chicha (corn beer) with two band-shaped handles attached vertically to the lower body, and a strikingly long neck. Each jar as a rule has two pierced, ear-like nubbins attached to its rim. The front of each bottle-shaped vase has on its shoulder a stout nubbin decorated to represent the conventionalized head of a fierce sometimes ears, lips, teeth and even nostrils. It has been suggested that the makers believed that the ill-natured demon who caused good chicha to be spilt might be frightened away by this uncouth animal. These nubbins could have been used to tie on a cover to keep the precious chicha from spilling, or for decorative tassels which would indicate the quality of the maker of the beverage. Since these jars were intended to be carried on the back and shoulders by means of a rope passed through the handles and around the big nubbin, they were nearly always decorated on only one side, and the side which rubbed against the back of the carrier was left undecorated. Although not at all like a Greek aryballus, that name has been applied to it by Peruvian writers for many years. So far as I know it is not found in any part of the world except where Inca civilization prevailed. Many examples of it were found at Machu Picchu.

A shallow dish or saucer used for drinking has a handle on one side, sometimes a broad loop but more often the conventionalized head of a friendly bird or animal, which sets comfortably under the thumb, and a small raised decoration on the opposite rim. These dishes are always carefully made, attractively painted only on the inside with elaborate geometric patterns.

In a mountain region where is little fuel for open fires and where the drinking of cold water frequently brings on mountain sickness which is often disastrous, it is natural that the craving of the body for additional heat and liquid should be gratified by soup and beer. The utensils used for chicha are carefully painted and polished. In this they differed markedly from the fire-blackened cooking pots, or ollas, in a which the Incas made their soups and stews.

Inca Pottery

A common form of olla has a handle on one side and a single foot or base. The side opposite the loop handle is usually decorated in low relief, possibly the echo of the base of a second handle. These beaker-shaped ollas were usually nine or ten inches high. The form undoubtedly was the introduction into the fire of a simple two handled pot. Then somebody discovered that by adding a base or a foot to it the pot could stand better in the embers of a small fire. Later the discovery was made that only the handle nearest the cook was really necessary since the other handle got too hot to be of much use and it was finally abandoned, its place being taken by a little ornament in low relief that was attached to the pot just before it was baked.

Another common design was a two-handled food dish with band-shaped handles ordinarily attached horizontally below the rim, wider than it is high and broad enough so that the hands of the diners might readily extract the delicacies therein, undoubtedly stews, which were not used in the fire, but were of fine clay, carefully polished and soberly decorated on both sides with conventional geometric patterns.

Loving cups and dishes connected with drinking chicha were frequently amusingly decorated with fierce looking jaguars or pumas glaring at each other with open mouths and bared teeth. Or the handle might consist of the head of a laughing fox or coyote, exquisitely modeled. The spirit in which the modeling of these Inca dishes was worked out shows great artistic ability and frequently a nice sense of humor. Sometimes a drinking jug would be made in the form of a fat man with his hands comfortably supporting his stomach.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and rarest forms of Inca pottery was a three-legged brazier with a band-shaped handle attached to its top, its mouth irregular in form, placed on one side. In the top are three openings or vent holes, the legs are solid and cylindrical and long enough to permit of a small fire-blackened within and without. The Incas metallurgists gave them such hard usage that the frail little braziers did not last long and no perfect specimens have been found.

The usual size of the three-legged brazier was about seven inches high, six inches wide and seven inches long. They appear to have intended for a charcoal fire in which metal could be kept hot while being worked. The vent holes on top would have admitted the insertion of blow pipes, a practice referred to in several of the early Spanish chronicles, and they were made thin enough to enable them to be rapidly heated. They were undoubtedly used in the manufacture of bronze knives, axes, chisels, and shawl-pins in which repeated heating and annealing were necessary.


‘Lost City of the Incas, The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders’ by Hiram Bingham
The American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu
The inspiration for Indiana Jones?