Art History Wari (Huari) Art and Architecture
by
Susan E. Bergh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0079

Introduction

Art-historical investigation of the Wari (also spelled “Huari”), who created one of the ancient Americas’ most aesthetically and technically accomplished corpuses of artworks, is relatively nascent. Fine textiles and ceramics have received the most attention; in many cases, objects made of other materials—feathers, metal, shell, stone, and wood among them—await systematic description and interpretation. Accordingly, art-historical studies are less amply represented in this article than is archaeological investigation, which provides critical background on context. The Wari, whose homeland was the Ayacucho region of the south-central Peruvian Andes, held power during the Middle Horizon period (AD 600–1000 CE). Through the quirks of history, it was not until the mid-20th century that archaeologists identified the Wari’s sprawling, eponymous capital city, one of the largest ancient sites in South America. Since then, archaeological study has focused on defining the development of the Wari civilization and the extent of its sphere of influence through exploration of its heartland and far-flung provincial centers, all in the highlands or adjacent slopes and foothills, as well as western Pacific coastal areas, where the Wari did not build much architecture but Wari and Wari-influenced artifacts are plentiful in tombs and buried offerings. Although much has been discovered since the 1960s about the Wari’s transformational impact during their heyday, there is still no agreement about the form that their political organization assumed. Some scholars believe they forged the central Andes’ first empire, while others suggest alternative models that downplay the Wari’s dominance while recognizing the crucial role they played in the period’s surging interregional interactions. One interpretive challenge is that the Wari did not use a writing system; thus, modern knowledge is based solely on the remains they left behind. Historically, study of the Wari was closely tied to the contemporary Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco), whose heartland was on the Bolivian altiplano. Although today recognized as powerful, independent polities with distinct material cultures, the two shared a few features that, until the Wari capital was identified, caused Wari-type artifacts to be attributed to the Tiwanaku. Prominent among the shared features is a religious iconography so important that it functions as one of the period’s signatures: a frontally posed staff-bearing deity often depicted with supernatural attendants or companions, here collectively termed the “staff deity complex.” To date, no journals have been devoted entirely to Wari studies, although Boletín de Arqueología PUCP, Latin American Antiquity, and Ñawpa Pacha are regular publishing venues. Also lacking are bibliographies, anthologies, reference works, and textbooks.

General Overviews

General overviews are scarce. The only effort that focuses on Wari arts is Bergh 2012, which is intended for a general audience. For an earlier overview of archaeology that emphasizes architecture, see Isbell and McEwan 1991, a landmark volume that helped define the Wari as a legitimate focus of research and remains essential reading. Chapter 3 of Schreiber 1992 (cited under Perspectives on the Wari Phenomenon) provides a more succinct summary of archaeological knowledge in the early 1990s.

  • Bergh, Susan E., ed. Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2012.

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    A profusely illustrated exhibition catalogue that serves as a good introduction to the Wari and their arts. Essays by major specialists offer summaries of counterpoint views of the Wari’s political structure as well as architecture, feasting traditions, staff deity iconography and religion, major artistic media (ceramic, fiber, feathers, metal, shell, stone, and wood), and legacy in the Andes.

  • Isbell, William H., and Gordon F. McEwan, eds. Huari Administrative Structure: Prehistoric Monumental Architecture and State Government. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1991.

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    This still-important publication, which summarizes the state of archaeological research in the late 1980s, includes contributions focused on architecture and site planning by major archaeologists working in the Wari heartland (the capital, Conchopata) and provincial centers (Azángaro, Cerro Baúl, Jincamocco, Pikillacta, Viracochapampa). The introductory essay provides a useful synopsis of varying interpretations of Wari political structure, the issue that prompted the volume’s production and remains relevant today (see Perspectives on the Wari Phenomenon).

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