Artifacts from Machu Picchu

Museo Machupicchu - Casa Concha

A selection of the objects recovered by the 1912 Expedition from the cave burials of the retainers that show the identity and daily lives of these women, men, and children.

Everyday Life Objects
The royal estate of Machu Picchu in its heyday held a thriving community of up to six hundred inhabitants during the dry seasons (May to September). The palace royalty were members of the Inca ethnic group from the Cusco Valley but the artisans and household servants belonged to many other ethnic groups and came from throughout Tahuantinsuyo. They devoted their days to mundane activities - cooking, brewing corn beer, cleaning, weaving, and producing metal objects - while the elite dedicated their time to feasting, hunting, and religious worship. Thanks to the Inca custom of burying individuals with their personal possessions, the objects recovered by the 1912 Expedition from the cave burials of the retainers provide us with a vision of the identity and daily lives of these women, men, and children. Other objects that were lost or discarded in the main architectural complex shed light on the activities of the elite. A broad selection of these materials are exhibited here for the first time since Bingham’s excavations.

Ceramic of the Servers or "Yanacona" of Machu Picchu: Style Cusco Inca
Accompanying the burials of the servers of Machu Picchu were their personal possessions, including their domestic ceramics.

Ceramic jar for transportation, preservation, and service of beer made from corn (chicha). This pottery was used in everyday life as well as for grave goods to serve the dead.

The Ceramic of Machu Picchu: Classic Inca Style
Among the serving vessels, plates are one of the most popular and elaborately decorated ceramics found at Machu Picchu.
Many of these plates had handles modeled in the form of birds or other creatures.

Fragment of a plate handle molded in the form of a feline.

Ceramic of the Servers or "Yanacona" of Machu Picchu: Provincial Inca Style
Although some of the burials in the Machu Picchu caves were from Cusco, the majority of these show people from diverse parts of the Inca empire, Tahuantinsuyo. This pattern reflects the ethnic diversity of the residents in Machu Picchu.

This pair of white kaolin plates seems to come from a burial of three adult females. They are a beautiful example of ceramic art from Machu Picchu that have a Provincial Inca style.

The pictorial decoration is remarkable, representing two butterflies in black, red and white. Careful representation of the eyes and antennae of insects.

Cuisine and Food Consumption in Machu Picchu
Ceramic pots were used for the preparation of meals in Machu Picchu. The most popular shape is a pot with a pedestal that could be placed in the interior of the stove. Ceramic tops were important for cooking 2400m above sea level.

Tools for Everyday Life
The workers in Machu Picchu used rock and bronze tools for the majority of their chores.

Stone Hands

Wild herbs were an important ingredient in the Inca cuisine. Mortars were used in order to grind the herbs; the size varied according to the meals being prepared.

Metallurgy at Machu Picchu
Metal working under the sponsorship of the Sapa Inca and his royal corporation (panaca) was an important activity at Machu Picchu. Workers from Peru’s north coast and other areas with advanced metallurgical traditions were brought to Machu Picchu to produce metal objects that could be distributed as gifts to reinforce the panaca’s prestige and power. The 1912 investigations recovered metal stock, works in progress, and waste materials left over from metal working, as well as the tools used in the production of metal objects. Excavations at Machu Picchu in the 1990s unearthed evidence of a bronze mace head abandoned in the process of being cast. Most of the evidence recovered at Machu Picchu relates to the creation of objects from tin bronze, an alloy of copper associated with the Inca State, but objects were fashioned of precious metal as well.

Inca Metal Objects from Machu Picchu
The excavations of 1912 found a wide variety of metal tools and jewelry. Though some of them were produced in Machu Picchu for specialists that worked for the royal family of Pachacuti, others were brought to the Machu Picchu from other regions of the Inca empire, Tahuantinsuyo.

Evidence of Inca metalworking in Machu Picchu
Metal workers used tin and copper to create bronze and this process left residue. The majority of the tools used in the metal production process in Machu Picchu were hammers, mortars, molds, and polishers.

Rounded rock hammer ("Qollota")

Black Scraping Stone

We can see here a metal worker beginning the process of transforming an irregular silver ingot into the thin sheet metal used in the production of tweezers, rings, and other items. He s shown hammering the silver with a polished hammer-stone. The artisan is dressed in a simple black tunic, sandals of llama leather, and a wool sling that doubles as a hair band.

Silver Bowl

Bronze Bowl

Cranial Deformation At Machu Picchu
Intentional modification of the shape of the head, widespread in ancient South America, was achieved by tightly wrapping the heads of infants with cloth bands, sometimes in conjunction with cloth pads or rigid boards. Early Spanish chroniclers noted the practice and laws were passed in Peru in 1585, and again in 1752, banning it. The Spanish believed the Inca imposed the custom to make their subjects more docile, but more likely it was a market of ethnicity and group membership. Particular head shapes may have been seen as aesthetically attractive as well, as in some modern cultures such as the Shipibo of the Amazon basin, who flatter their infants’ foreheads. Because infant skull bones are thin and flexible, reshaping their heads is relatively simple and poses no risk to the brain. Sometimes cranial deformation happens unintentionally, typically when infants are strapped to cradleboards or sleep in a habitual position on a hard surface. Cradleboarding produces a characteristic flattening of the back of the skull that persists into adulthood.   

Both intentional and unintentional cranial deformation are found among the Machu Picchu skeletons. The intentional forms, commonly called “Aymara”-style (for the ancestors of the Aymara people of what is now Bolivia), shown below in the photo of the skull cast and reconstruction, resulted in a distinctively-shaped head recognizable at a glance. In contrast, the unintentional flattening of the back of the skull is less noticeable to a casual observer, but nevertheless clearly present in a number of skulls at Machu Picchu, probably coastal natives brought to Machu Picchu to serve the royal estate.
Many of the skulls recovered during the 1912 excavations of Machu Picchu show typical cranial shapes from zones outside of Cusco. The two most frequently found shapes are shown here, in conjunction with a facial reconstruction using the base of one of the displayed skulls.

Inca Textiles
For the Incas, textiles were the world’s most precious items, more valuable than gold or silver. Because of their great value, textiles were frequently used as offerings to the golds and the ancestors. The Sapa Inca presented textiles as gifts to outstanding officials, successful generals, allies and the leaders of newly conquered groups as part of his imperial political strategy.   The finest weavings (cumbi), were usually produced from alpaca wool and cotton by The Chosen Women (aclla) and other specialized weavers. Clothing was emblematic of social status and political rank; the Sapa Inca and his kin wore special tunics decorated with rows of distinctive geometric designs known as tocapu or made of special materials, such as vicuña wool. Spanish chronicles related that the use of tocapu motifs and vicuña fiber was strictly limited by government regulations. Many of the textiles produced under imperial supervision were standardized and their designs had symbolic meanings related to prestige, cosmology and ethnic identity.

Royal Robe or Unku
The robes produced for the weavers that worked for the Inca show a high degree of standardization.

Unku with Tokapu (Inca dress decorated withquadrangles filled with motifs of various designs and colors) were popular with the high ranking officials However, the use of vicuña fur was restricted for the royal family, possibly because the wool was from a wild animal rather than a domestic one.


The Quipu
The quipu was a knotted-string device used for record keeping in the Inca empire; its name signifies “knot” in Quechua. Made of cotton or camelid fibers, the principal structural components of a quipu were a main, or primary cord to which were attached a variable number of so-called pendant strings. Subsidiary strings were often attached to the pendant strings. Information was recorded on quipus by a variety of techniques, including the color (both natural and dyed hues), the differences in the directionality of spinning and plying of strings, by attaching strings to the main cord, and by tying knots into the strings.

On most quipus, knots were tied individually or in clusters on different levels to signify numerical values in the Inca decimal place system of numeration. The information that was recorded on these devices included statistical data from censuses and tribute records, as well as information from which histories genealogies and other such narrative accounts were constructed and read by Inca administrators and specialized record keepers.

The residents of Machu Picchu had a wide variety of jewelry. For the women, the prenedor (tupu) was a principal piece of jewelry in everyday dress. The shape and composition of the women’s tupus tell us about their social status and ethnic origin. Necklaces, bracelets, and ornaments that were sewn to the headdresses were used often. Some of these objects, like the depiladores or knives, were pierced in order to be used like pendants. 

"Tupu" with representation of a bird

The quality of the handicraft and the material from which tupus were made shows the social status of the persons for which they were intended.

Silver "Tupu"

Bronze "Tupu"

Bronze "Tupu"

Machupicchu Museum - Casa Concha
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