On the south coast of Peru, in an arid landscape between the foothills of the Andes mountains in the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Paracas culture thrived between 700 BC – AD 1. The origins of Paracas culture are unclear—yet their elaborate funerary bundles, recovered on the Paracas peninsula with embroidered textiles, exquisite ceramics, and other grave goods, have made this culture famous the world over. One of the earliest non-state societies on the south coast of Peru, the Paracas people relied on irrigation farming in river valleys and fishing and hunting for subsistence. However, Paracas society also supported tremendously skilled artisans. Paracas art is distinguishable from other Andean traditions because of its curvilinear forms, intense repetition, and motifs that reflect local subject matter. Using distinct techniques and styles, Paracas artists “took a ‘high-intensity’ approach to the ceramics, textiles, and goldwork they created” (Stone 2012: 56).
The techné of Paracas ceramic-making artisans is often overshadowed by the diverse and skilled techniques exhibited in Paracas textiles. “Techné” is a Greek term used to refer to “craftmanship” or “art”. We borrow this term in our study of Paracas ceramic vessels from the Nathan Cummings collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This collection demonstrates the tremendous skill of Paracas ceramic artisans. While Paracas ceramic production workshops have yet to be excavated, studies of vessels provide insight about the production process. Technical analysis reveals important information about the skills and social relationships required to attain the materials and create Paracas ritual vessels. Changes in ceramic style and technology over time, documented in the Paracas ceramic assemblage, are likely tied to changes in leadership, which affected access to and distribution of materials and objects (Cook 1999, DeLeonardis 1991, 2016; Peters 2013; Silverman 1994). Therefore the study of these artistic works provides information about relationships both within and beyond the borders of Paracas society, lending insight into the worldviews and ideology of Paracas artisans and their patrons. Through the study of the twelve selected ceramic vessels in this group, we highlight and celebrate the techné of Paracas ceramic artisans.