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Photo Credit: Joseph Mills, Dumbarton Oaks

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Vessel in the Shape of a Trophy Head

Nasca, Early Intermediate Period
350-450 CE
15 cm x 13.3 cm x 12.5 cm (5 7/8 in. x 5 1/4 in. x 4 15/16 in.)

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A human trophy head stares with open eyes, prominent eyebrows, painted cheeks, and lips sealed shut with cactus spines. It wears a headband with geometric motifs surmounted by a series of colorful hummingbirds that appear to pierce the band with their beaks. Hummingbirds are typically associated with plants and fertility, and, in some parts of modern-day Peru, they are thought to embody the spirits of the dead who come to revisit those they knew in life.

Fertility also abounds in the remains of ancestors and in severed human heads, which, when buried “feed” the earth and promote the growth of plants and the cycle of life. In Nasca art, human heads are often depicted with plants growing out of their mouths, and they are used interchangeably with plants or parts of plants on the streamers that emanate from the bodies of mythical figures. There is abundant evidence that human heads were prized and collected as high-value offerings and ritual implements throughout the Andes. Several depictions of war among Nasca communities suggest that warriors severed the heads of enemy combatants during battle, a fact that is supported by the strong predominance of young males among the trophy heads found archaeologically. Once taken, the heads were subjected to a careful treatment. The skull was emptied and stuffed with a cloth, the lips were pinned shut, and a hole was punched or drilled through the center of the forehead to tie a carrying rope. In some cases, ceramic jars like this one may have offered a substitute for a real human head. At least one has been found in a tomb with a decapitated body, and some are adorned with a carrying rope or have specks of red paint representing blood on the base.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill (ED.) 1996 Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 1. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. vol. 1, p. 112-113, pl. 17.

Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 272-3.

Acquisition History
Gift to Dumbarton Oaks by Michael D. Coe, 1974.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Anthropomorphic | Heads | Nasca | Trophy heads