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News Release

November 12, 2009


Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

Stanford archaeology workshop recreates the world of Incan pottery

Life as they knew it had stopped. A wealthy, once-mighty empire had been riven with smallpox, civil unrest, a royal war of succession and finally foreign conquest.

The Spanish invaders told the Inca that the diseases were payback for idolatry. But the Incan priests of the Taki Unquy opposition had their own take: Their people had taken European names, clothes and religion; they had abandoned the native languages for Spanish. The Inca hadn't kept to the old ways – and the ancestors were displeased.

So, to propitiate them, indigenous potters began to make small vessels again, just like their ancestors had 40 years earlier, before the 1530s conquest.

Half a millennium later and thousands of miles away, Incan vessels were pulled from an alpaca-dung open-air kiln at Stanford this month – as close to the "real thing" as one could reasonably expect to get.

"We're putting ourselves in the positions of people from Peru in the 1570s who need to know how to make things that the ancestors want – but the craftsmen had been dead for 40 years. They're picking up their old pots, trying to figure out how to do this," said Melissa Chatfield, the research fellow in ceramic geoarchaeology who spearheaded the replication effort.

It's quite a task: No one has been able to copy the skill or technology developed by these imperial artists of the Andes.

The brief revival, before the old ways vanished forever, revived the highly prized imperial Incan pottery that was known for its standardized forms, the richness of its colors, the perfection of its design motifs and the thoroughness of its firing methods. Sometimes as large as 8 inches across, the clay vessels were used to hold maize and beer offerings for ancestor worship. They were often colored with ochre, scored around the edges and decorated with images of llama, bird or alpaca heads.

Second of six events

The event was the second in the Stanford Archaeology Center Pottery Workshop Series – six campus-hosted pottery replication events to examine teaching, learning and innovation in early clay and firing technologies used from 7500 B.C. in the Americas, Europe and Anatolia. Chatfield will lead all the events. The project is sponsored by the Archaeology Center and the Stanford Presidential Fund for Innovation in the Humanities. The alpaca dung was donated by the Bonny Doon Alpaca Ranch of Santa Cruz.

On the patio outside the Archaeology Center earlier this month, the artisans were taking a stab at replicating the Incas' efforts, starting with powdered clay the color and consistency of a bowl of dry cocoa. The "cocoa," imported from the Incan pottery production site of Choquepukio in Cuzco, arrived as Andesite, an igneous rock, to California, and was ground to powder with a grindstone. The members of the group mixed the powder with water and carefully kneaded it like dough to work out the lumps.

Then the clay was pressed to a mold to create a shallow bowl – about the size and shape of a yarmulke – simple enough for beginners, said Chatfield. The artisans smoothed the surfaces, inside and out, while the clay was still malleable before they set the clay bowls to dry overnight. Afterward, hours and hours of burnishing with a small stone made the bowls smooth and polished. Then the vessels were painted, fired in a kiln and finally allowed to oxidize, which took the dull browns to orange-red.

"It's labor-intensive. You couldn't sell them for profit, given the amount of work," said Chatfield, a specialist in the Inca to Spanish transition in pottery.

As they burnished the bowls in the late afternoon sun, the disparate group at the drop-in workshop chatted in a smattering of languages. Some are students or spouses of faculty and students; others are from the community. Chatfield, wearing a pale blue lab coat, answered questions and offered assistance to all.

According to Chatfield, these potting events "will contribute to our understanding of technological landscapes and innovations of the pre-industrial past."

Understand pottery from inside out

For Chatfield, the events provide an opportunity to understand pottery from the inside out: "It seemed like the best way to recognize what you're looking for in shards.

"You experience the relationship the potter had with raw materials, learning the physical world with your hands, learning how craft and innovation occurred, where the ideas came from."

The coda and climax occurred a week later on Nov. 6, outside the gym dig site near Frost Amphitheater, where the bowls were fired in an outdoor kiln. "From my perspective, this is when the 'action' happens," said Chatfield.

The group arranged the vessels under a sheltering configuration of broken flowerpots, chosen for their ability to withstand high heat (the Inca had done the same with their own broken pottery). Alpaca dung, pine needles and wood provided the fuel. Then, the bonfire was ignited. Two thermocouples to measure heat ran out of battery power, and the group was left to more homespun and certainly more authentic means to determine when the vessels had finished baking. "We're putting a lot of heat on the outside – hoping it will ignite the dung," said Chatfield. "Eventually, the temperature will go above 500 Celsius."

As the sun dropped through layers of apricot, pinks and blueberry in the sky above the nearby Cantor Arts Center, the potters assembled expectantly in the dying light to watch their vessels pulled from ash and smoke.

Chatfield poked the smoking silt, the broken flowerpots, releasing ancient smells.

She carefully pulled the vessels out, one by one, with high-temperature oven gloves and a heavy branch. One had a bird head, several had a characteristic Incan band of color down the center, one had Russian words for the artist's husband. The group oohed and ahhed as each was rescued from ash – "Oh! That one's mine!" – its colors deepening and changing in the minutes afterward.

"Oh, yeah, everyone is very attached to their pots," said Chatfield. "We treat objects as disposable, because there are so many of them. In the past, a pot was unique. If it was a tool to care for the people in your family or to store vital goods, the people were even more attached to it."

Meanwhile, still poking through the ashes, Chatfield smiled at a small triumph in the ancient art: Not one of the vessels had been broken in the heat; each was intact, a latter-day sign of the wealth and power of a long-vanished kingdom.

For more information about Inca pottery workshops, check the Archaeology Center's special events calendar  or send an email to">Melissa Chatfield requesting to be added to the workshop mailing list. 




Melissa Chatfield, Archaeology: (650) 736-0892,

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