Inca Ceramics: Legacy and Techniques of the Millenarian Art

Inca pottery is an incredible facet of pre-Columbian art, originating in the South American Andes, in what is now modern-day Peru.

His works represent one of the most outstanding expressions of Inca craftsmanship and culture.
These fantastic pieces created from clay stand out for their beauty, reflecting the advanced pottery technique of one of the most emblematic empires of the Americas.

I am going to tell you the origin of this art, its history and how the Incas made these incredible works.

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The history and origin of Inca ceramics

The Inca people originated in the 12th century in the Andean region of what is now Peru, emerging from one of many local tribes to expand and form the largest pre-Columbian empire in the Americas through conquests and alliances.
Their capital was Cuzco and they made great achievements in organization, architecture and engineering, under a strong influence of their religion that worshipped the Sun God, Inti.

The Incas inherited the pottery knowledge of pre-existing cultures, such as the Nazca and Moche, further enriching the diversity of shapes, colors and techniques that define Inca ceramics. However, what really distinguishes these works is the ability to capture, in clay and mud, a reflection of their cosmovision, their social organization and the nature that surrounded them.

The Inca civilization, known for its amazing ability to integrate diverse peoples and cultures, also fused and elevated the art of ceramics.

The pieces were not merely decorative; they were also used for ritual, ceremonial and everyday purposes, demonstrating the integration of art into Inca daily life. The qiru, ceremonial vessels, also called queros or keros, are outstanding examples of this multifunctionality, used both in offerings to the gods and in the consumption of chicha (a traditional Latin American fermented beverage, mainly made from corn) during festivities.

What Inca pottery was like

Pottery was much more than an artistic activity for the Incas; it was a way of documenting and transmitting their knowledge, beliefs and traditions. This cultural dimension elevates Inca pottery from a mere object to a living testimony of a civilization. Through these pieces, today we can delve into fundamental aspects of Inca life, from their social and economic structure to their religious beliefs.

Inca ceramic pieces stand out for their diversity of shapes and meticulous designs.
Inca potters mastered the use of molds and burnishing, which resulted in shiny and resistant finishes.

They had great knowledge of ceramic polychromy, which added an explosion of color to each piece, making each one tell a story in a striking way.

Inca pottery is also a testimony to the technical and aesthetic skill of the artisans of the ancient American continent.

These are the main techniques they used:

  • Hand modeling: The basic technique of forming clay with the hands to create different shapes.
  • Use of molds: To produce multiple identical pieces, the Incas used molds, which was especially useful for large-scale ceramic production.
  • Roll or churro technique: It consisted of rolling the clay into long strips that were then rolled or stacked to form the walls of the vessels, a common technique for the creation of large pieces.
  • Incised and applied decoration: Decoration was achieved by incising designs on the surface of the ceramic before firing or by applying pieces of clay to create reliefs.
  • Painting before and after firing: They used natural pigments to paint the pottery before firing, and in some cases, they applied color after firing.
  • Burnishing technique: To achieve a smooth and shiny surface, the Incas burnished the ceramic surface with a stone or hard tool before firing.
  • Firing in open kilns or pits: Pottery was fired in simple open-air structures, where temperature control was limited compared to closed kilns.

Through the analysis of these pieces, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct important aspects of pottery and pre-Columbian culture, demonstrating that pottery is a window into history.

Characteristic works of Inca ceramics

  1. Aríbalos: Spherical ceramic vessels with a narrow base and a long neck, used to store and transport liquids such as water or chicha (fermented beverage). They are emblematic for their functionality and the iconographic representations that often adorn them.
  2. Urpus or Urpos: Vessels with a rounded base and a handle in the form of a bridge, characterized by having a single opening. These vessels were used for rituals and offerings, and their unique design made them easy to hold and use during ceremonies.
  3. Queros: Ceremonial wooden or ceramic vessels, often richly decorated with Inca motifs. They were mainly used to drink chicha during important ceremonies and rituals. Ceramic queros sometimes feature intricate painted or incised designs that reflect the Inca worldview.
  4. Pitchers and jugs: Used to store and serve liquids, these vessels come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and are fundamental to understanding the daily life and culinary practices of the Incas.
  5. Plates and bowls: Basic in daily life for serving food, these elements show the functionality and aesthetics of Inca ceramics, often decorated with simple geometric or symbolic motifs.

Today, the influence of Inca ceramics is evident in contemporary craftsmanship in various regions of Latin America. Modern artisans, inspired by traditional techniques and designs, continue to keep this rich cultural heritage alive. They not only reproduce the classic forms and patterns, but also reinterpret them, creating a vibrant fusion of past and present.

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Buy pre-Columbian ceramics

Find original pieces and also reproductions identical to the traditional ceramic works that were made in pre-Columbian America and that are only found in museums, making them affordable.

This legacy is not limited to artisanal production; it also nurtures contemporary artists and designers, demonstrating the timeless relevance of Inca ceramics and its ability to inspire new generations. The essence of this ancient art still resonates in modern times, an enduring reminder of the grandeur and sophistication of Inca culture.

The continuing legacy of Inca craftsmanship

Inca ceramics have left a significant legacy that continues to influence contemporary art. Today’s artists are inspired by the forms, symbols and techniques of pre-Columbian ceramics, including Inca pottery, to create new works that merge the past and the present.

Inca pieces can be appreciated in several museums around the world, standing out for their rich symbolism and artisanal techniques. For example, the Museo de Arte de Lima has hosted important exhibitions that include Inca ceramics, offering a glimpse into the cultural and artistic complexity of this empire.

In addition, the Larco Museum in Lima is well known for its extensive collection of pre-Columbian pottery pieces, including Inca pieces. This museum is notable for allowing visitors to explore not only the pieces on display but also its vast repository, offering a unique experience in the understanding of Inca pottery.

Another highlight is the Inka Museum in Cusco (, which specializes in Inca history and culture, featuring a variety of objects from pre-Inca times to the colonial period, including ceramics, textiles and more. The museum is housed in a colonial mansion known as the Casa del Almirante, near the Plaza de Armas in Cusco.

The legacy of Inca ceramics is very broad and fortunately the conservation and dissemination of this art is gaining strength.

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