Paccha (Ritual Watering Vessel)

South America, Central Andes, Inka. Late Horizon, AD 1440-1540.
Ceramic. 13 x 5 x 3 in.
Gift of William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

One of the rarest objects in the collections, this Central Andean ritual watering vessel is called a paccha in Quechua, the Inka language. It was made entirely in clay to imitate several objects placed together symbolically to encapsulate the stages of growing maize. It traces the process of planting, harvesting, and consuming the most important foodstuff in the Inka Empire.

The hooked and pointed portion represents the traditional Andean foot plow, known as a taclla, used to punch a hole in the soil for planting. Atop the shaft is an ear of corn molded directly from nature; the smoothed side seams remain visible. It represents the successful harvest. Finally, above the hook is a miniature urpu, the long-necked storage jar for fermented corn drink (asua).

However, Andean art is rarely -if ever- truly complete without activation through ritual. Wear on the tip of this entirely hollow object shows that it was itself “planted” during rituals. Scientific tests on residue left in the hooked part of the taclla proved that corn beer was poured through it into the earth. This shows the abiding Andean belief in reciprocity: humans give the earth what they hope to receive from it. Sand in the residue matches that of a particular valley, the Chancay, conquered by the Inka. The type of maize and the style of the urpu also point to this location. Through the intersection of scientific and art historical research, we now know exactly how and where this intriguing object was used five hundred years ago.