In the last edition of Arte-Factual, we looked at the Golden Mask of Tornarsuk and learnt a little about Inuit culture and mythology. In this edition, we will be turning our attention to one of the collectible relics found in Tomb Raider: Anniversary: the Killer Whale Bottle.
Like many of the artefacts and relics that have appeared in the last few Tomb Raider games, the Killer Whale Bottle is modelled after a real-life artefact. In this case, a Nasca polychrome ceramic effigy vessel which is housed at the Larco Museum (Spanish: Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera) in Lima, Peru. The vessel, which is thought to date back to the early to mid-1st millennium AD, depicts an anthropomorphic mythical killer whale clutching a dagger, wearing a loincloth, and decorated with severed trophy heads. But before we go into any further detail, it seems prudent to first take a closer look at the people who created this vessel: the Nasca.**
The Nasca were a Pre-Columbian people who once lived in the valleys and arid deserts of the Nazca and Ica provinces of southern Peru and whose culture flourished between 100 BC and 800 AD. The geoglyphs known as the “Nazca Lines” are perhaps the first thing that comes to people’s minds whenever the Nasca are mentioned but they were also resourceful farmers, constructed complex irrigation systems consisting of aqueducts and underground canals to supply their crops and population, and had a ceramic tradition which spanned centuries. Like the Inca, the Nasca left no written records so much of what is known about their society and religious beliefs comes from primarily from their material culture and art. So what does this killer whale bottle tell us about Nasca society?
The killer whale figure shown above is, in fact, a “mythical killer whale”, an anthropomorphic representation of the most powerful and feared sea creature in Nasca culture. With its prominent teeth, dorsal fins, bifurcated tail and S-shaped body, the mythical killer whale was one of the most enduring motifs in Nasca ceramic iconography. While there seems to be no consensus on the age of this artefact, it may date back to the Early Nasca period (circa. 1-450 AD), when mythical and naturalistic motifs were commonly used in Nasca art. Popular motifs included hummingbirds, sea birds, fish, monkeys, spiders, and felines and it’s generally believed that Nasca spiritual life revolved around the need to understand and control the forces of nature around them, which is understandable in a region plagued by frequent earthquakes, drought, and flash flooding.
One of the more gruesome aspects of the vessel we’re studying is the presence of decapitated trophy heads painted on the body of the mythical killer whale. The decapitation of individuals (mostly warriors) was not only a symbol of power but also of death, regeneration, and agricultural fertility, another reminder of the harsh environmental conditions of southern Peru. This killer whale vessel is therefore testament to the Nasca people’s ability to not only survive but thrive in one of the world’s most arid and inhospitable regions.
Sources & further reading:
- Nazca culture (Wikipedia)
- Nasca culture (The British Museum)
- Nasca Art of the Americas (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)
- Nasca Killer Whale (American Museum of Natural History)
- The Nasca Culture: An Introduction by Donald A. Proulx (University of Massachusetts)
- Nasca Iconography by Donald A. Proulx (University of Massachusetts)
- Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview by Donald A. Proulx (University of Massachusetts)
- A Sourcebook of Nasca Ceramic Iconography: Reading a Culture Through Its Art by Donald A. Proulx, University of Iowa Press (2009)
- The Nasca by Helaine Silverman and Donald A. Proulx, John Wiley & Sons (2008)
- Chapter 29: Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru by Donald A. Proulx, in Handbook of South American Archaeology, edited by Helaine Silverman and William Isbell, Springer (2008)
** The names “Nasca” and “Nazca” can be used almost interchangeably, though some prefer to use “Nasca” to refer to the people and “Nazca” to refer to the geographical region they occupied.