My research focuses on sites on the northern coast of Peru, especially cultures related to the Cupisnique valley and its surroundings. The Cupisnique culture existed between about 1500 and 500 BCE and left no written documents, so modern scholars can only understand it through the sites and objects the people left behind.

Trained as an art historian and a ceramics artist, I also use the methods of archaeology and anthropology to help understand the cultures of this region. I am particularly interested in how groups of people created visual imagery to strengthen their cultural identities and interact with the natural world around them.

One of the ways that ancient cultures used imagery to create a sense of cultural identity was through adapting motifs from other cultures in novel ways.

The Cupisnique people used a specialized technique of engraving on the already-fired surfaces of their ceramic vessels to create line drawings of various subjects, including animal and shamanic figures. An example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art bears the typical stirrup-spouted design of Cupisnique vessels and exemplifies their unusual post-firing engraving technique on its surface.

Cupisnique ceramic vessel engraved after firing
12th–5th century BCE, Peru
Metropolitan Museum of Art 1978.412.38
From Moseley, M. Edward, and Luis Watanabe. 1974. “The Adobe Sculpture of Huac de Los Reyes: Imposing Artwork from Coastal Peru.” Archaeology 27 (3): 154–61.

Some of the Cupisnique engraved motifs were developed from similar imagery found on large architectural sculptures at the religious site of Huaca de los Reyes. While the remains of these sculptures are not complete, fragments show human faces with fangs, wings, and other animal features.

Certain motifs relating to the eyes, noses, teeth, fangs, and feathers of the chimerical sculptures at Huaca de los Reyes were adapted for the engraved drawings on Cupisnique ceramic vessels. The diagram below traces some of these connections.

The Cupisnique people used their post-firing engraving technique to create a wide variety of imagery, much of which was based around a basic motif of a human head. By modifying the mouth with fangs or rows of teeth, or by modifying the body with connective bands, elongations, or feathers, different combined forms could be created. The diagram below shows the main modifications in evidence in Cupisnique ceramics.

For more information on this material, see my article on engraved head motifs on Cupisnique ceramics in Ceramics of Ancient America: Multidisciplinary Approaches.

The diagrams above were designed by me and drawn by Eric Huntington. They may be used with attribution and for non-commercial purposes under the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

Publications (selected)

2018. Ceramics of Ancient America: Multidisciplinary Approaches. Co-editor with Dean E. Arnold and Johanna Minich. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

2018. “Engraved Head Motifs on Cupisnique Ceramics: Emblems of Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in Early Andean Art” in Ceramics of Ancient America: Multidisciplinary Approaches

2018. “Introduction of the Volume” in Ceramics of Ancient America: Multidisciplinary Approaches

2012. Mirrors of Clay: Reflection of Ancient Andean Life in Ceramics from the Sam Olden Collection. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

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© Yumi Park Huntington 2020

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