Tamara L. Bray

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Material Practice and Imperial Design in the Ancient Andes

Given that the Inca never developed a writing system, how did the political elites of this vast domain communicate their complex ideas about the state, the cosmos, and the nature of rulership? Architects of the largest territorial empire ever created in the Americas, the Inca controlled some 2600 miles along the spine of western South America at the height of their rule, which lasted from circa 1438 to 1532 C.E. From the city of Cuzco, they administered 80 ethnically distinct provinces that stretched from northern Ecuador to central Chile. According to Tamara Bray, the remarkably standardized state-produced pottery may have contributed to what one might call the empire’s “branding” campaign.

Long unappreciated due to its seemingly repetitive nature, this pottery is found high and low throughout the Inca realm. So uniform is it in appearance that it was once suggested that “a whole jar could confidently be reconstructed from a single sherd.” In Bray’s study, Materializing Ideology: Form, Function, and Style of Imperial Inca Pottery in the Service of the State, she investigates the possibility that the imagery noted on the ubiquitous culinary equipment of the Inca may have been “visually communicating the Inca origin story underpinning state claims to legitimacy.” Further, the forms and functions of the pots and their uses in the central practices of food, feasting, and reciprocity in Inca imperial politics reveals “the unique power of material symbols to silently communicate, condition, and compel desired actions and behaviors.”

By insinuating symbols of political authority into everyday practices, the Inca established an inconspicuous presence asserting social facts “which, if stated explicitly, could run the risk of controversy, protest, or refusal,” observed Bray. Her study engages the concept of “material agency,” or the power of objects to “extend the agency of those who produced them, and to participate in systems of social relationships.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Wayne State University

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