Pots, People, and Pilgrimage: Elemental Analysis of Surface Pigments on Nasca Polychrome Vessels from the Nasca Drainage

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The Nasca (1-700 CE), best known for their monumental geoglyphs, also produced ancient South America’s most elaborate polychrome pottery. While changes in the iconographic content of Nasca ceramics have been well documented, less is known about the political and economic organization of ceramic production across the polity. This study aims to assess models of centralized and decentralized production through the analysis of pigment composition across distinct iconographic phases. By closely examining pigments among a widespread sample, inferences can be made about either the homogeneity or heterogeneity of production techniques across vastly different stylistic phases. In addition, this study briefly explores how Nasca polychrome may have served to spread ideology, and the subsequent distribution of these vessels across the Southern Nasca Region, chiefly by spiritual pilgrimages. Using portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF), the pigments of 27 intact polychrome vessels were read and then analyzed using Principal Component Analysis to determine whether compositional changes are concomitant with changes in iconographic phases. The results of this analysis found that though pigments were chemically distinct from each other, there is no significant variation within individual pigments between different iconographic phases. This finding suggests the Nasca potters utilized a rigorous tradition of recipes, sources, and techniques that endured for centuries, but also expanded and morphed over time to create a tradition of incredible visual diversity. This preliminary study sheds some light on production, but additional compositional studies on pigments and clay matrices from Nasca polychrome ware could greatly contribute to the troublingly bare provenances of vessels in museum and university collections.

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iconography; Nasca; pigment analysis; polychrome; pXRF; Peru; Archaeology


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Velasco, Matthew C.

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Henderson, John S.

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M.A., Archaeology

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Master of Arts

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dissertation or thesis

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