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Las Varas Bowl 2




Date: AD 1000

Material: Pottery

Culture: Mid-Valley Cajamarca or “Coastal Cajamarca”

Dimension: Diameter 17 cm, height 6 cm, ring base diameter 8.5 cm

Provenience: Las Varas, Cajamarca, Peru

Credit: Archaeological artifact recovered by Las Varas Archaeological Project

Image processing, 3D Conversion: Stephanie O’Malley, University of Michigan 3D Lab

Publications: Tsai, Howard. 2019. "The 'Coastal Cajamarca' Style Did Not Come from the Coast." Nawpa Pacha 39 (1): 121-144. Link.

Tsai, Howard. 2020. Las Varas: Ritual and Ethnicity in the Ancient Andes. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. Amazon link.

Freely available for download.

This bowl was found together with Las Varas Bowl 1. Bowl 2 depicts two foxes, each facing a plant. People who live near Las Varas tell me that the fruit of the sapote plant is a favorite among foxes. In the center is a post-firing incision drawn in the form of an arrow. This incision had been worn off at the bottom, indicating that the bowl had been first incised and then used. Repeated scrapes with a spoon, perhaps by someone hungry for that last scrap of stew, had eventually worn out the arrow.

The upper portion of a Las Varas painted bowl, near the rim on the exterior surface, is often slightly thicker than the body. The presence of this slight protuberance leads Montenegro (1997) to suggest that the bowls were made by a “self-duplication” process: the potter takes a finished bowl, and, using it as a mold, pushes a clump of clay into it to form another bowl. The pressing would result in a pronounced thickening near the rim, which can be seen in the 3D models.

The vast majority of the bowls are supported by a ring base averaging 7 cm in diameter; a few bowls, usually the smaller ones with diameter less than 12 cm, have tripods. The ring bases are made separately from the body and later attached before firing; close inspection of bowl fragments reveals a joint line between the ring base and the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes we find pieces of ring base that have fallen off a bowl.

Post-Fire Incision

An interesting feature of Bowl 2, and many other bowls from Las Varas, is the presence of a post-fire incision on the interior surface. Bowl 2 demonstrates that extensive usage occurs after the bowl was incised. We have documented a variety of post-fire incisions at Las Varas, and the uniqueness of each incised symbol suggests that the incision may have been an owner’s mark.

It is important to distinguish post-fire versus pre-fire incisions. The pre-fire mark allows the potter to distinguish his or her pot from other pots that have been piled together and fired within a single batch. The pre-fire mark identifies the potter or maker, whereas the post-fire mark perhaps indicates the user or owner of that bowl, like the signature or “ex libris” sticker on the inside cover of a book.

Classroom Use

My interpretation of Bowl 2’s post-fire incision is based on the principle of chaîne opératoire, or stages of production. Basically, when we analyze an artifact, it is important to consider how that object was made, used, and finally discarded (tossed, trampled, burnt, disintegrated). It is useful to draw a diagram that outlines each stage or step involved in the object’s manufacture and consumption, because in each stage the object picks up a new feature or characteristic, forming a sequence of characteristics that, like stratigraphy or architectural construction, proceeds along a linear or unidirectional history. Certain things are irreversible -- the owner of Las Varas Bowl 2 can’t just rub out the arrow and draw a new one, or at least if he does so, it would leave an obvious trace. The potter cannot un-fire the clay and knead the pottery into another shape.

So here is the “stratigraphy” or sequence in making a Coastal Cajamarca bowl:

(1) Obtaining and mixing the clay (there are several steps involved within this stage)
(2) Shaping the bowl by pressing a lump into another bowl
(3) Attaching the ring base
(4) Paint white background first, then paint red or black design on the white slip
(5) Dry, followed by firing
(6) After firing, some bowls were incised with a mark
(7) Serving and eating food from the bowl

A useful exercise might be to ask the students to first describe characteristics of the bowl, and then ask them to order those features in the sequence in which they were made. We could divide students into groups of 3-4, with each group examining a 3D-printed replica. Before this lesson, the instructor could maybe show a documentary on pottery to introduce students to the basic steps of pottery production.

In my research on adobe bricks, I made certain inferences on labor organization and supervision by considering the chaîne opératoire of adobe production. By asking this final question -- “What do you think these marks were used for?” -- maybe your students can help me solve the mystery of the post-fire incisions.