Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Art History and Visual Culture



First Advisor

Sarah Cantor

Second Advisor

Trenton Olsen

Third Advisor

Khristin Landry


This thesis explores the Nasca use of plant iconography as part of their polychrome ceramics produced at the end of the Early Horizon around 100 BCE to those produced in the beginning and middle of the Early Intermediate Period circa 1to 450 CE. During this time the religious site of Cahuachi was in use as a pilgrimage center as well as the production center of polychrome pottery. The Nasca created their colorful ceramics here to distribute to visiting pilgrims during times of festival or ritual. The culture’s iconography has been studied extensively, most of which focuses on the forms of animals, people, divine beings, and trophy heads. However, one of the more prolific motifs on the Nasca ceramics are those of plants and vegetation. Very often images of plants that are painted as the main motif are considered decorative or mundane while plants incorporated into larger designs with mystical beings or abstracted figures are considered spiritual or sacred. While some iconographers have sorted these images into the categories of sacred or profane, this thesis works with Andean ontology to create a contextual approach that uses the Nasca concept of animism to view and interpret their material culture. The Andean penchant for duality and symbolism is another reason it is important to realize that plants represented in iconography were chosen for their importance rather than serving a merely decorative purpose. When animism becomes the basis of understanding the iconography, the spiritual nature of all plant motifs becomes evident. In addition to the use of Andean ontology and iconography, the inclusion of scientific data from palaeo-botanical studies establishes the specific plants available to the Nasca by both foraging and cultivation. Some of these cultivated plants find their way into the visual depictions painted on polychrome ceramics and this thesis uses the scientific data along with the visual representations to compose a list of what plants were considered most sacred.

Included in

Ceramic Arts Commons