About the Exhibition

The Wari civilization formed in the wake of a late-sixth-century drought that ravaged the central Andean region of what is today Peru and parts of adjacent countries. It was a new cultural experiment that, over the next four centuries, produced a society of such unprecedented complexity that many today regard it as South America’s first empire. As predecessors of the Inca Empire, which fell to Spanish forces after 1532, the Wari had no previous examples of expansionist states to draw upon and thus represent a major development in Andean civilization.           

Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes explores the Wari accomplishment through some 140 artworks in all major media in which they worked—polychrome ceramics, ornaments made of precious metals or colorful mosaics, sculptured wood and stone objects, and textiles of striking complexity. Together, these works paint a picture of the Wari state and offer insights into their expansion strategies. The exhibition explores several themes in Wari art.

The Gift of Food and Drink    See more images

This section presents vessels reconstructed from a three-ton deposit of ceramics that were deliberately shattered and buried at Pacheco on Peru’s south coast. Several such deposits occur in Wari territory, although none as large, and the ceramics in them carry some of the most distinctive imagery in Wari art. Specialists debate the purpose of the deposits, which may have accumulated over time; one strong possibility is that they are offerings of vessels used in feasts.

These feasts were lavish affairs with food and chicha (native corn beer) and were a major element of Wari statecraft. They allowed Wari hosts to build prestige, assert authority, and indebt guests through the giving of gifts that bound them in webs of reciprocity and cycles of obligatory return and served as ways to negotiate solidarity. The later Inca used feasting in this way, devoting much of their economy to it.

Such rituals may have been rooted in the Andean belief that the world exists due to the interaction of two competing but complementary forces harmonized through the bonds of mutual dependence that reciprocity creates. Known as dualism, this principle pervasively structured Andean social relations as well as humans’ interactions with nature and the cosmos.


The Wari Realm    See more images

This section demonstrates the spread of Wari imagery—most importantly, a staff bearing deity that was the focus of Wari state religion—to many areas of the Andes. This supernatural being is often presented as a frontally posed nature deity, perhaps the sun or thunder, who carries staffs of authority and is sometimes flanked by profile attendants in a formal expression of hierarchy that may have paralleled the Wari earthly political structure. Though the role of religion in the Wari’s expansion is not well understood, images such as this make it seem likely that religion and politics were part of a single process. Indeed, the art suggests that Wari lords drew their authority to some degree from affiliation with the divine, and that their success may have been owed in part to the belief that they could mediate human and cosmic matters, thus shaping the lives of women and men.


The Art of Regalia   See more images

Within the art of regalia, the Wari placed greatest emphasis on fine garments, which survive in relatively large numbers. Among them, tapestry-woven tunics were likely the most prestigious. This section presents other types of textiles and ornaments that were worn by Wari lords and spread to different places in the Andes, many perhaps as diplomatic gifts that fostered alliances or as imports treasured for their distinction. The exotic materials of some reveal access to long-distance trade networks.

After tapestry, tie-dyed cloth, used to make men’s tunics, was the most important Wari textile type. The prestige of the tied-dyed garments is established by the individuals depicted wearing them: warriors, dignitaries, and perhaps even supernatural beings. Cloth covered with the brilliant plumage of birds from the rain forest to the east of the Andes was surely also one of the most coveted of textile types, although its survival is rare. Personal ornaments were fashioned from precious metals or brightly colored mosaics of stone, noble metals, and shell, including Spondylus oyster shells from Ecuador, to the north. Common to many of these objects and textiles is an aesthetic preference for imagery made of colorful mosaics.



Offerings and Ancestors    See more images

The Wari made offerings of artistically ornate objects and other materials in varied contexts. One of the most common was the tombs of the honored dead, where many of the exhibition’s objects likely were found. In at least some Wari sites in the highlands, communication with the dead was facilitated by small holes in stones that covered the graves; the stones could be removed to allow the addition of other cadavers and offerings. Some believe that the Wari also maintained mummies aboveground, where these ancestors participated in important political and religious events, as they did among the later Inca. Whether or not this was the case, it is clear that Wari elites venerated important ancestors, who probably endowed descendants with political legitimacy and spiritual protection.

The Wari also buried fine works of art in offerings unassociated with human remains. These likely had votive or dedicatory purposes, which are still under study today. The most elaborate and distinctive of such offerings include dozens of figurines, which usually depict humans, or well-decorated ceramics—sometimes of enormous quantities—that were deliberately shattered in rites that must have impressed all who witnessed them. The Wari also created offerings with miniature textiles and ceramics, which occasionally have surfaced in funerary contexts.