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At the Kimbell, A Civilization Discovered
by Stephen Becker 26 Jun 2013

The Inca may be the most well-known pre-Columbian empire. But a civilization that predates the Inca has recently begun to demand scholars’ attention. Here’s the story of the Wari people of Peru, currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum.

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Tapestry-Woven Tunic with Sacrificer, camelid fiber and cotton, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Tapestry-Woven Tunic with Sacrificer, camelid fiber and cotton, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Inca may be the most well-known pre-Columbian empire. But a civilization that predates the Inca has recently begun to demand scholars’ attention. Here’s the story of the Wari people of Peru, currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum.

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There’s a good reason scholars don’t know as much about the Wari as they do about other ancient civilizations. The Wari didn’t have a written language. No Rosetta Stone is going to suddenly appear to help us understand how they thought.

“How do you put together an empire without the use of written language?” asks Sue Bergh of the Cleveland Museum of Art. She organized the exhibition, called “Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes.” And the answer to her question about empire building is on display at the Kimbell.

“They’re using the objects as durable communication in ways that we aren’t accustomed to because we write,” she says. “We’re literate.”

Bag With Human Face, alpaca or llama hide, human hair, pigment, cotton, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Bag With Human Face, alpaca or llama hide, human hair, pigment, cotton, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

The exhibition features 145 Wari artifacts, created between 600-1000 A.D., when the empire ruled what is now Peru. Embedded in the objects are pictures and patterns. Their art provides clues about how the Wari lived.

A couple of pieces stand out. One is a colorful woven tunic full of geometric patterns. It took 19 miles of material to make – an indication that someone important wore it.

“It stands out because of the amount of material that goes into it and the extreme fineness of the iconography,” Bergh says. “Because of the extremely fine weaving, they achieve a level of detail in this that they don’t often in other tunics that are similar to it.”

The piece is also special because it’s so well-preserved. Many of the textiles, ceramics and metal items in the show are in such good shape because of a dry Peruvian climate and the special care the Wari took to preserve them. Another of the showstoppers is a small bag decorated with a rawhide face framed by real human hair.

“It’s so beautifully preserved that the tresses are still lustrous,” Bergh says.

It’s easy to dismiss ancient civilizations like the Wari as primitive. But the Kimbell exhibition introduces us to a sophisticated society – one that Bergh thinks is worth further study.

“Knowing more about them I think would tell us more about our human past – our shared past – and the various ways in which people develop and invest things with meaning and the various ways in which people used artistically ornate objects to express themselves.”

Urn with Staff Deities, ceramic and slip, Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia, Peru

Urn with Staff Deities, ceramic and slip, Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia, Peru

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