Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Art Online. © Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Art Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Wari [Huari]free

  • Susan Bergh

Pre-Columbian civilization that, between 600 and 1000 CE, created one of the ancient Andes’ major art styles, drawing inspiration from contemporary and earlier traditions, such as the Nasca.

1. Introduction.

During the Middle Horizon period (600–1000 CE), the Wari people forged the most politically complex and geographically expansive civilization to have existed in the central Andean region since settled life emerged there in about 5000 BCE. Only the later Inka Empire (1400–1532 CE) had greater influence and territorial extent. The eponymous Wari capital city was in Ayacucho in the south-central highlands of Peru; underexplored due to the vagaries of history, the enormous urban center covers more than 6 sq. km (2.3 sq. miles). Smaller but still impressive are the often better-documented provincial centers the Wari built in far-flung areas of the highlands, western foothills, and eastern slope, including Pikillacta; Cerro Baúl; Jincamocco; Viracochapampa, which was never finished or occupied; and Espíritu Pampa (respectively, McEwan 2005; Moseley et al. 2005; Schreiber 1992; Topic and Lange Topic 1992; Fonseca Santa Cruz and Bauer 2013). Although the Wari did not build administrative centers in adjacent western coastal areas—Castillo de Huarmey on the north-central coast may be an exception (Giersz and Pardo 2014)—the copious numbers of Wari and Wari-influenced artifacts found in coastal graves and offerings testify to vigorous interaction.

Scholars disagree about whether the Wari forged an empire or a less dominant type of polity (Isbell and McEwan 2012; Jennings 2006; Schreiber 1992). It is clear, however, that the arts played an important role in the spread of their influence, by serving either as political gifts or as coveted prestige imports. Many Wari art forms feature representations of the supernatural beings central to Wari religion: a frontally posed divinity who in each hand carries a staff, a traditional Andean symbol of authority, and the divinity’s companions, one a winged creature who also holds a staff and the other associated with weapons and human sacrifice. The Wari shared this imagery with the Bolivian Tiwanaku, the other major power of the period.

2. Architecture and site planning.

Perhaps because the capital city grew incrementally over a long period of time, its layout seems to lack the neat geometry characteristic of Wari provincial centers, which manifest Wari planning ideals. Pikillacta and Viracochapampa are good examples. Each comprises a large, rectangular complex surrounded by high, imposing perimeter walls and, within the walls, a grid densely packed with structures of several major types (McEwan and Williams 2012). The outer walls tightly restrict access to just a few entry points and surprisingly few alley-like streets penetrate the internal blocks of architecture, where public gathering spaces are limited in size and number. These features suggest that, at least in provincial regions, the Wari focused not on politico-religious spectacles celebrated before large audiences but instead on more intimate rites confined to elites. The Wari’s emphasis on small-scale, personal arts rather than monumental public sculpture supports this idea.

The most ubiquitous building type, occurring at the capital and all known provincial centers, is the square or rectangular patio group, an arrangement of long, narrow, roofed chambers or galleries around a central, open-air patio. Many believe the largest patio groups fulfilled official administrative needs, especially by serving as the venues for feasts that apparently were a mainstay of Wari statecraft. D-shaped structures, represented most strongly at heartland sites but also present in a few provincial areas, are presumed to have served ceremonial purposes on the basis of the offerings buried in their floors. Rectangular halls with interior wall niches and rounded internal corners are so far confirmed only at Pikillacta and Viracochapampa; various lines of evidence have led to the suggestion that these structures were devoted to ancestor worship. Less common architectural features include rows of small, conjoined rooms of unclear function and, at the capital itself, a looted mausoleum so enormous that it must have been royal. A similar mausoleum was discovered intact at Castillo de Huarmey (Giersz and Pardo 2014). Wari architects usually created their signature buildings with rough fieldstone set in clay mortar and coated with brilliant white plaster; several in the capital, however, are made with carefully dressed stone. The Wari are also noted for the agricultural infrastructure they built in the environs of their centers: irrigation systems and tracts of planting terraces so vast they transformed landscapes into verdant gardens (McEwan and Williams 2012).

3. Ceramics.

The Middle Horizon saw the development of more than a dozen Wari and Wari-influenced ceramic styles, some more artistically elaborate than others. Known by such names as Atarco, Chakipampa, Conchopata, Robles Moqo, and Viñaque, many of the styles relate to each other via continuities of imagery and other traits, and they have been studied most intensively from the perspectives of chronology and the spread of Wari influence. The resulting temporal schema divides the Middle Horizon into four epochs based on changes in vessels’ shapes and iconography; the Wari apogee occurred during the first two epochs (Menzel 1964). Wari ceramics also incorporate features from earlier cultures’ styles. They owe a special debt in this regard to the coastal Nasca pottery tradition (1–750 CE), especially in the use of vibrant polychrome slips, thin black outlines that surround areas of color, and perhaps expert burnishing and firing (see Nasca, §). Also like the Nasca, Wari ceramists formed their wares by hand, making only limited use of molds.

Each ceramic style has its own inventory of typical vessel shapes, sizes, and spout types. Common among decorated forms is a variety of bowls, cups, bottles, and jars, many fashioned as effigies of humans, animals, and supernatural beings. Two hallmark vessel types, both found in several Wari-sphere styles, warrant special mention. One is the face-neck jar, in which an idealized human face is modeled in relief on the vessel’s tall, cylindrical neck, above a globular chamber that doubles as the figure’s body. Made in sizes ranging from small to very large, these figures could represent individuals, ethnic groups, ancestors, or offices, among other possibilities.

Second are thick-walled urns that, at heights of about one meter, are among the largest ceramics ever made in the Andes. Many urns are intricately painted, sometimes with representations of the staff-bearing divinity and its companions, and all known examples were deliberately shattered in antiquity. Shattered urns typically are found with other smashed fine ceramics, including face-neck jars, in buried deposits; the largest example, recovered at Pacheco on Peru’s south coast, contained over three tons of shards. The motivations for this apparently ritual treatment may have varied from place to place and through time.

Other prominent ceramic motifs include the “ventrally extended animal,” shown in aerial view with its underside down; an animal on all-fours with a humped or curved back; and the “Ayacucho serpent,” which has a long, lobed body and whiskered maw. These creatures have received little interpretive attention, but one reading takes them as symbolic representations of celestial bodies (Knobloch 1989). A “griffin,” so-called because, like its Old World analogue, it combines a feline body with an avian head and wings, may be a relative of the staff-bearing divinity’s winged companion. The common representation of richly attired warriors suggests military activity was important to the Wari enterprise. A chevron band that encircles vessel rims or necks is a trademark Wari ceramic trait.

Many fancy ceramics probably functioned as service and dining wares at feasts that Wari elites sponsored to create bonds of mutual obligation with important guests (Nash 2012). For instance, urns and very large face-necks may have been used as containers from which food and drink, respectively, were ladled or poured into bowls and cups. The function of other types of vessels is less clear.

4. Inlaid and metal ornaments.

Several ancient Andean cultures used flashy personal ornaments made of precious materials as markers of high status: ear spools, necklaces, nose and headdress ornaments, and the like. Although impressive Wari examples of some of these types survive, their numbers are modest enough to suggest that either they were not crucial elite gear or their importance varied from region to region (Bergh 2012a).

The Wari inlaid necklaces and ear ornaments made of bone, shell, or wood with tiny, precisely cut pieces of colored stones and shells (especially red-orange Spondylus or thorny oyster) as well as precious metals. Some necklaces comprise sets of small, trapezoidal plaques inlaid on the upper surface with imagery ranging from abstract motifs to humans. Larger are ornaments with a human figure inlaid on one valve of a Spondylus shell that sometimes is pierced with holes as though for use as a pendant. The figures’ elaborate accoutrements signal their high status, as does the Spondylus shell, an imported material that likely referred to both worldly wealth and ritual potency. Of two main types of inlaid ear ornaments, the most spectacular has a large, circular, shell frontal attached to a thick wooden shaft that passed through the ear lobe. The frontal’s surface is sumptuously encrusted with tesserae arranged to form a variety of motifs, such as mythical zoomorphic and avian heads or heads that may refer to the staff divinity’s companions.

The Wari also used hammered gold and silver sheet to create ornaments, including long, pin-like plumes that were probably thrust into garments, ear ornaments and pectorals, and plaques with intricate silhouettes that were mounted on a backing. Imagery varies but often includes sacred or mythical creatures, including the head of the staff-bearing divinity.

5. Sculpture.

With a handful of exceptions, the Wari did not emphasize large-scale artworks. Fewer than twelve, often fragmentary, sculptures have been recorded at the capital, most after having been moved from their original context (Rowe, Collier, and Willey 1950, 125–127). With a maximum height of about 1.25 m, the majority are anthropomorphic and all were carved with little extension of features beyond the stone block. Related to these monuments stylistically but more common are small, often exquisitely formed figurines in materials ranging from colored stone, especially turquoise or its look-alikes, to shell, such metals as copper or gold–silver alloys, and multicolored inlay. Representations of well-dressed humans, including warriors, dominate the known figurine corpus, although felines and supernatural beings also occasionally appear. Some figurines come from tombs or the surfaces of sites. Most intriguing, however, are three structurally complex buried offerings from Pikillacta, each containing dozens of figurines along with Spondylus shells, a tapered metal rod, and other materials. The figurines in these deposits have been taken to represent ethnic groups, ancestors, or conquests (Arriola Tuni and Tesar 2011; Cook 1992).

Wari artists also carved wood into small-scale objects of several types—cups, spoons, mirror supports, and personal ornaments, among others. Perhaps most numerous among surviving examples are sculpturally refined containers worked in the shapes of humans, animals, and supernatural beings, the latter usually associated with human sacrifice. These containers often have been identified as receptacles for powdered lime, which was made from seashells or limestone and chewed with coca leaves on ritual occasions. At least one, however, has no trace of lime on its interior, suggesting the contents varied (Bergh 2012b). In addition, the Wari carved elaborate three-dimensional objects of bone, including the thumb rests of spear-throwers; many ceramics also have sculptural forms.

6. Textiles.

Among the arts of elite regalia, the Wari placed greatest emphasis on fine textiles, which they made entirely by hand on simple, wooden looms using the dyed, silky hair of camelids, such as the alpaca, and undyed native cotton. This labor-, time-, and resource-intensive process helps to explain the centrality of cloth in ancient value systems.

Tunics woven in the tapestry technique—the most artistically complex objects that Wari artists created—probably were produced under state auspices to serve as the raiment of rulers and other elites (Bergh 2012c; Stone-Miller 1992). Accordingly, their traits are standardized. For instance, most are laid out as grids interrupted at regular intervals by vertical bands of solid color. Also, within the design modules of any given example, one of only about six image types repeats in different orientations and colors. Among the most common images are iterations of the two numinous beings that elsewhere appear as companions of the staff-bearing divinity. The wearers of such tunics may have identified with these creatures, at least one of which—the winged acolyte who carries a staff—likely was conceived as an intermediary with cosmic forces. Also common is a motif that pairs a stepped fret with a profile face that has a vertically divided eye, a marker of the supranormal. This motif’s meaning is undeciphered, but it is associated with warriors and conflict.

The imagery of many Wari tapestry-woven tunics displays the effects of a fascinating, rule-bound method of manipulating form: the parts of each motif closest to the tunic’s center seam expand from side to side and the parts closest to the sides narrow (Sawyer 1963). At its most extreme, this so-called “distortion” results in geometric abstractions celebrated for their similarity to certain strains of 20th-century art in the West. Its ancient meanings and motivations are still debated.

The technique Wari fiber artists used to fabricate tie-dyed tunics was complex. They first wove several small, identical geometric units—stepped blocks or U-shaped hooks, among others—in a continuous strip with white yarns. They then disassembled the units by removing yarns that temporarily held them together on the loom and tie-dyed each unit in one of several colors or color combinations. (Small, white diamonds typically resulted from the tie-dyeing process.) Finally, they reassembled the units to create kaleidoscopic geometric designs. The significance of these designs is poorly apprehended; the same is true of the function and identity of those who wore these striking garments, which survive in smaller numbers than their tapestry-woven counterparts (Rowe 2012).

Many ancient Andean people held cloth decorated with the glossy, brilliantly colored feathers of tropical birds in high esteem. The Wari probably were no exception, although perishability and other factors impair understanding of their accomplishment in this regard. The most famous group of Wari feather works—ninety-six large cotton panels covered with Blue-and-yellow Macaw feathers—likely served as hangings (King 2013). The Wari also made feathered garments of various kinds.

A final notable garment type is a box-shaped hat with peaks arising from its upper corners. Most four-cornered hats were made entirely with knotting; short tufts of brightly dyed camelid hair were pulled through the knots to create a furry, pile surface and a range of imagery, including winged figures similar to one of the staff divinity’s companions (Frame 1990). In ceramics, such hats are shown on humans who wear tapestry-woven and tie-dyed tunics.


  • Rowe, John H., Collier, Donald, and Willey, Gordon R. “Reconnaissance Notes on the Site of Huari, near Ayacucho, Peru.” American Antiquity 16, no. 2 (1950): 120–137.
  • Sawyer, Alan R. “Tiahuanaco Tapestry Design.” Textile Mus. J. 1, no. 2 (1963): 27–38. Simultaneously published in Studies 3, Museum of Primitive Art, New York; repr. in Peruvian Archaeology: Selected Readings, edited by John Howland Rowe and Dorothy Menzel. Palo Alto, CA: Peek, 1967, 165–176.
  • Menzel, Dorothy. “Style and Time in the Middle Horizon.” Ñawpa Pacha 2 (1964): 1–106.
  • Knobloch, Patricia J. “Artisans of the Realm: Art of the Wari Empire and Its Contemporaries.” In Art of the Andean World, edited by Shozo Masuda and Izumi Shimada, 107–123. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1989. Eng. trans. available at: (accessed Sept 1, 2018).
  • Frame, Mary. Andean Four-Cornered Hats: Ancient Volumes; From the Collection of Arthur M. Bullowa. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.
  • Isbell, William H. and McEwan, Gordon F. “A History of Huari Studies and Introduction to Current Interpretations.” In Huari Administrative Structure: Prehistoric Monumental Architecture and State Government, edited by William H. Isbell and Gordon F. McEwan, 1–17. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1991.
  • Cook, Anita G. “The Stone Ancestors: Idioms of Imperial Attire and Rank among Huari Figurines.” Latin American Antiquity 3, no. 4 (1992): 341–364.
  • Schreiber, Katharina J. Wari Imperialism in Middle Horizon Peru, Anthropological Papers 87. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1992.
  • Stone-Miller, Rebecca. “Creative Abstractions: Middle Horizon Textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” In To Weave for the Sun, edited by Rebecca Stone-Miller, 35–42. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.
  • Topic, John R. and Lange Topic, Theresa. “The Rise and Decline of Cerro Amaru: An Andean Shrine During the Early Intermediate Period and Middle Horizon.” In Ancient Images, Ancient Thought: The Archaeology of Ideology: Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Conference of the Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary, 1990, edited by A. Sean Goldsmith, Sandra Garvie, David Selin, and Jeannette Smith, 167–180. Calgary: University of Calgary, 1992.
  • McEwan, Gordon F., ed. Pikillacta: The Wari Empire in Cuzco. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005.
  • Moseley, Michael E., Nash, Donna J., Williams, Patrick Ryan, deFramce, Susan D., Miranda, Ana, and Ruales, Mario. “Burning Down the Brewery: Establishing and Evacuating an Ancient Imperial Colony at Cerro Baúl, Peru.” Proc. N. Acad. Sci. 102, no. 48 (2005): 17264–17271.
  • Jennings, Justin. “Understanding Middle Horizon Peru: Hermeneutic Spirals, Interpretative Traditions, and Wari Administrative Centers.” Latin American Antiquity 17, no. 3 (2006): 265–285.
  • Arriola Tuni, Carlos A. and Tesar, Louis D. “The Pikillacta 2004 Eastern Gate Offering Pit.” Ñawpa Pacha 31, no. 1 (2011): 1–44.
  • Bergh, Susan E. “Inlaid and Metal Ornaments.” In Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, edited by Susan E. Bergh, 217–231. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2012a.
  • Bergh, Susan E. “Wood Containers and Cups.” In Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, edited by Susan E. Bergh, 243–247. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2012b.
  • Bergh, Susan E. “Tapestry-woven Tunics.” In Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, edited by Susan E. Bergh, 159–191. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2012c.
  • McEwan, Gordon F. and Williams, Patrick Ryan. “The Wari Built Environment: Landscape and Architecture of Empire.” In Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, edited by Susan E. Bergh, 65–81. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2012.
  • Nash, Donna. “The Art of Feasting: Building an Empire with Food and Drink.” In Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, edited by Susan E. Bergh, 82–101. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2012.
  • Rowe, Ann Pollard. “Tie-dyed Tunics.” In Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, edited by Susan E. Bergh, 193–205. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2012.
  • Fonseca Santa Cruz, Javier and Bauer, Brian S. “Dating the Wari Remains at Espíritu Pampa (Vilcabamba, Cusco).” Andean Past 11 (2013): 111–121.
  • King, Heidi. “The Wari Feathered Panels from Corral Redondo, Churunga Valley: A Re-examination of Context.” Ñawpa Pacha 33, no. 1 (2013): 23–42.
  • Giersz, Milosz and Pardo, Cecilia. Castillo de Huarmey. El mausoleo imperial wari. Lima: Asociación Museo de Arte de Lima, 2014.