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In a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science archaeologists compared the colors on pieces of ancient Peruvian pottery. Accordingly, the rich black pigment used in all the pottery of the Wari Empire is a sign of the power of the empire.

The study titled “The colors of the empire: Assessing techno-decorative innovations in local, hybrid and intrusive ceramic pigments within the wari interaction spheres, Peru” was conducted by Luis Muro Ynoñán and Donna Nash. The study's corresponding author Ynoñán is a research associate and scientist at the Field Museum in Chicago; co-author Assoc. Prof. Donna Nash is a curator at the Field and associate professor and head of anthropology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

The Wari empire was a civilization that spread over Peru's highlands and coastal areas from 600 to 1050 CE. "People sometimes think of the Inka as the first big empire in South America, but the Wari came first," says Luis Muro Ynoñán, “The Wari didn't leave behind a written record (or at least a system similar to the one we use now). Since they didn't use writing, elements of material culture like pottery would have been an important means for conveying social and political messages. The visual impact of these objects would have been super powerful. Even little details, like using the correct shade of a color, could help signify an object's importance and legitimacy as a part of the empire.”

The exact formulation of pigments varied from site to site, but overall, there was one striking similarity: many of the Wari pots examined in the study used black pigment made from minerals containing the element manganese. Some of the sites, specifically in northern Peru, used a different recipe for black, using iron- and calcium-rich minerals, before the Wari arrived. But after the Wari took over, they switched to the manganese-based recipes. The shift makes suspect that the Wari empire asserted some sort of "quality control" over the pottery produced in different regions, perhaps even supplying artisans with the "correct" black pigment. According to Ynoñán the symbolic meaning of using this black may have been very important. In general in the Andean region, the color black is related to the ancestors, to the night, to the passage of time. In Wari times, the color was likely important for imposing a specific Wari ideology to the communities they conquered.


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