Objects of Andean Art

Ancient Andean art can be challenging to teach to undergraduates. In order to explore the art these civilizations produced, students first have to understand the complex cultural contexts. From the second and first millennia B.C. major urban centers with rich artistic and architectural traditions developed along the coast and in the highlands of modern-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. It was a unique cradle of civilization—a barren desert wedged between towering mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Unlike many ancient civilizations that developed in valleys, which allowed for extensive agriculture, early Andean settlements were sustained by fishing the rich Humboldt Current along the Pacific coast. This led to very different cultural and artistic trajectories compared to those in other parts of the world. Although ceramic arts never reached the heights seen elsewhere, the making of fishing nets gave rise to a sophisticated textile tradition. Cultural isolation led to particular uses of materials. For instance, innovations in metalworking were largely for prestige objects rather than tools or weaponry. As a result, many Andean artifacts have different structures, shapes, and functions than those that students learn about in other art history courses.

However, the most difficult aspect of teaching ancient Andean art is that these civilizations never developed writing systems. This means research has to rely on additional bodies of knowledge. One method of understanding the cultural significances of Andean art is to intensively examine the ways in which it was made. This can reveal the resources makers had access to, the time they dedicated, their knowledge and skill sets, and ultimately their objectives.

For the past two years, I have been teaching a survey called “Objects of Andean Art” that trains Princeton undergraduates in this method of inquiry. Each week, the first lecture introduces the geographic, historic, and cultural contexts of a civilization, while the second focuses on a particular art form. A grant from the Program in Latin American Studies has made it possible to acquire relevant materials and technologies and bring them into the classroom so that students can engage with them firsthand. For example, to teach students about sources of Andean fiber, I plant a pot with Peruvian “Pima” cotton that bears bolls by midterm. In another class, students attempt to use Andean drop spindles to produce thread and then compare this technology to a European spinning wheel and an Indian charkha. In a classroom generously made available by the Lewis Center for the Arts, we grind dried cochineal insects to dye alpaca yarns. To understand the mechanics and techniques of weaving, students manipulate a warp-patterned Andean backstrap loom and compare it to a Diné (Navajo) upright tapestry loom and a European floor loom. Each of these interactive modules is designed to reveal the hidden processes behind Andean art-making.

Late Intermediate, Chancay, Central coast, Peru, Weaver’s basket, A.D. 1200–1400. Woven plant material (reeds?) containing nine spindles, three balls of spun wool, and two pieces of unprocessed wool; basket: 10 × 29 × 14 cm. Gift of Charles Craig, in honor of Monique Parsons, Class of 1988Directly following these experiments, the course reconvenes for preceptorials in the Ancient Americas study room in the Art Museum. The Mellon Fund for Faculty Innovation generously supported the implementation of this aspect of the course. The students meet around a table laden with objects that exemplify the artistic processes just explored. This allows the students to apply their kinetic and sensory experiences of Andean art-making to the hundreds- or thousands-of-years-old artifacts. The opportunity to directly examine and handle the objects makes possible depths of understanding that could never be gleaned from projected photographs. While exercising the knowledge they build from the readings, lectures, and interactive experiments, the students hone their observational abilities in order to deduce how objects were formed and to analyze their significances. As they learn to identify areas of wear, repair, and modern conservation, the students reconstruct the life histories of the objects—making ancient Andean art part of their knowable present.

“Objects of Andean Art” can only flourish because of the immense resources of the Art Museum and the University’s profound commitment to undergraduate teaching. In particular, the course highlights the successes of the former curator of Art of the Ancient Americas, Gillett Griffin, and the present curator, Bryan Just, at building an encyclopedic collection of ancient American art that can sustain student exploration semester after semester. The course also depends on the Museum’s study rooms—crucial classroom spaces that enable object-based teaching—as well as on Reva Main, collections associate, who tirelessly brings the artworks from storage to the study table and back again each week.


Andrew James Hamilton

Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows