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The Aesthetics of Clay: Mapuche Pottery, Visual Identity and Technological Diversity.

The ceramic artefacts produced and created by the Mapuche people (1) display a tremendous aesthetic richness embodied in a variety of forms and technical solutions that express different visual identities. These ceramics have been made in Mapuche lands since the 3rd century AD, in the territory of whal is now known as Chile, in South America. Major changes were introduced when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in these regions in the 16th century, and the lives of these indigenous peoples changed radically. But ceramic artefacts continued to be an important form of expression as incarnations of a wide range of social and cultural signifiers.

In examining the principal ceramic works of historic Mapuche groups inhabiting the region between the 16th and 19th centuries, in terms of decorative modalities and social uses, we observed individual visual identities in pieces intended for domestic and ritual use. (2) The embodiment, in each one of them, of complex aesthetic codes and subtle symbolic content revealed a strengthening in a sense of cultural and ethnic belonging that resulted when ancient elements were combined with European features, and elements that were incorporated as part of the inter-cultural dynamics in play during the colonial era. Today, the relevance of new pieces that recreate and renew these historic ceramic expressions bears witness to the technological and aesthetic power of the Mapuche ceramics universe, and its importance among the ceramics cultures and identities of the southern cone of South America.

Additionally, local and chronological differences in Mapuche ceramics production point to some of the political and social processes that the Mapuche people, and their culture, historically faced and continue to face today. As an historical and ethnographic testament and the main archaeological vestige --especially in relation to funerary practices these clay artefacts, through their technological particularities and their place in the material culture, provide insight into different settlement modes, daily lives linked to political and territorial dynamics, and a range of other practices associated with rituals, commensalism and etiquette practiced under shared aesthetic choices and visual identities.

Mapuche ceramic artefacts in the past

The archaeological ceramic styles that emerged in the territory that is now southern Chile provide essential background for the study of Mapuche ceramics because their specific forms and modalities reveal ceramic styles that developed in the region in the 3rd century AD and following. (3) The earliest of these are part of the ceramics culture known as Pitren, which is related to other ceramic styles in the Southern Cone region. The study of museum collections has led to the assertion that these artefacts were created and produced by populations practising a way of life based on horticulture, as well as hunting and gathering, in a territory dominated by temperate rainforests. These groups also travelled further east, across the Andes Mountains.

A wide variety of pieces, designs and technologies have been identified from artefacts found as grave goods in burial sites, revealing their ritual usage and their deep symbolic and social content. The Mapuche's ample production of pots and pitchers for holding liquids and preparing food feature regular shaped volumes based on geometric forms, and polished monochromatic surfaces. Another notable feature is the enormous quantity of sculpted pieces--especially in the 9th century AD and beyond--representing animals such as frogs and birds. These are notable for their elaborately detailed features, which display a marked aesthetic realism. Added to these complex sculpted zoomorphic vessels are anthropomorphic representations in which figurative body parts, such as arms and legs, offer finely detailed representations of the human form. While artefacts from this time were usually a single colour--indicating that the works sought to highlight volume and detail rather than surfaces--some less common vessels are decorated with negative paintings in red and black, which evokes an aesthetic characteristic of the Pitren tradition. This tradition is the oldest in the region, indicating specialized knowledge and a high degree of technical mastery embodied in the use of fine paste and thin vessel walls.

Around the 11th or 12th century AD, south-central South America was undergoing major social and cultural change as a result of increasing social complexity, environmental impact, and the circulation of the human population, all of which are evoked in the ceramic traditions of the time. Transformations in ceramic styles such as changes in form and volume, less sculpting of human and animal forms, and increased production of ceramic pieces painted with red engobe and precise white reticulated forms would provide a new aesthetic for pitchers and vessels. The most notable aspect of this tradition, which is known as El Vergel, is the appearance of large ceramic containers for everyday use that were installed in a corner of the dwelling to hold liquids and grains. When a member of the family died, these vessels were used as funerary urns and were buried in small cemeteries with the deceased and their respective grave goods. This change of usage-context invests these large urns with special social and symbolic meaning. Their extraordinary girth reveals a meticulous use of manufacturing techniques, complemented by an austere aesthetic of polished, monochrome walls. Analysis of different museum collections further reveal that these voluminous ceramic artefacts were made by groups whose lives centered around agriculture as part of their largely sedentary way of life.

Artefacts from ceramic traditions, such as Pitren and El Vergel, can be linked to regional Mapuche identities through their shared technical knowledge and aesthetic concepts, aspects that would have been transmitted from generation to generation over the centuries. One notable aspect of the manufacturing process is the use of round strips called piulos, hollowed out and manually assembled to create complex additions such as human and animal features without the use of a potter's wheel or molds. Indeed, this mode of production can still be observed in present-day Mapuche ceramics. Work with texture can be identified in surfaces that have been smoothed, polished and occasionally covered with red and white engobe or paint. In Pitren ceramics, the highest expression of the use of colour as a significant element is found in the achievement of bichromatic pieces through the use of smoke to produce a negative effect (resist-painting), which yields a dramatic red and black contrast.

Post contact: tradition and change in late Mapuche ceramics

Many texts penned by early colonial chroniclers, and accounts left by the Spanish conquistadors, describe the production and use of decorated ceramics as one way of articulating the social and political system. A short verse in Canto VI of the epic poem by Pedro de Ona entitled Arauco Domado (Arauco Tamed) written in 1596, provides just one example:
   And then, the female company
   Who were two leagues behind, waiting
   Come out to welcome them on the road
   With their painted pitchers of wine. (4)

These verses cite the use of decoratively painted ceramic artefacts in a style that would later be known as the Valdivia Style, which shortly thereafter would acquire two further decorative modes--the so-called Tringlo Style --and decoration by means of inlaid sherds of Spanish mayolica tiles, and pieces of glass. Once again, interest in surfaces emerged as a central feature in an aesthetic that would define certain visual ceramics identities of the late Mapuche period, pointing to the relevance and vitality of the society and its culture. These additional decorative modalities reflected the major changes that the Mapuche world was experiencing as a result of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, in which periods of war alternated with those of truce to create complex scenarios of cultural exchange and shifting territorial boundaries.

The Valdivia Style represents a frequent and extensive decorative modality in which different compositions were applied to ceramic vessels, mainly pitchers, but also cups, plates, bottles and, occasionally, asymmetrical jugs, and complex sculpted anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms. Named after the city of Valdivia in Southern Chile where early 20th century ethnologists first described the style, the Valdivia style references pre-Hispanic styles such as El Vergel in both its aesthetic and forms. Its high visibility--given the size of its artefacts and the dramatic contrast of the red designs against a white background--is consistent with its use and handling in collective ritual acts in which courtesy and the political and economic management of Mapuche lineages would have been exhibited and embodied in the act of serving. The power of certain visual identities expressed in these painted artefacts is demonstrated in their long-standing use, which extended into the Republican era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, transforming these domestic utensils into signifiers of social hierarchies and cultural practices. In those later centuries, the Chilean State would occupy indigenous lands, engendering great changes in indigenous social relations and subsistence strategies, and in that context ceramic artefacts would become an important resource for Mapuche ethnic and cultural reaffirmation.

The Tringlo Style emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries in the form of vessels with white lines on a red background--the inverse of the Valdivia Style--and represents an innovation in painting modalities that enhanced the variety of visual codes shared by Mapuche groups in colonial times. It also combined with previous painted geometric and linear styles, evidence of which can be found on jugs with decorations on their edges, handles or upper bodies. The most common forms are plates decorated with starred motifs around the edges and truncated cone shaped cups with complex handles and completely flat bases that point to contact with and the incorporation of Hispanic knowledge and techniques. Many of these pieces are identifiable by their European tile and glass shards, which bear witness to the creativity and flexibility of the Mapuche potters who appropriated and incorporated these new elements into their artistic expressions and everyday social life.

A final decorative variety of Mapuche ceramics in the late colonial and Republican periods is decoration with inlays of Spanish tiles and porcelain, with jugs being the predominant form, although cups and sculpted anthropomorphic forms also occur. The lips of these pieces are often marked by regularly spaced dots and geometric motifs such as crosses on the handles and upper part of the bodies. In some cases, representations of a circle with a cruciform figure resembling a topu inside have been identified. The topu is a silver brooch used by Mapuche women to fasten their shawls, and its presence here reinforces the idea that a piece is often 'dressed up' with an aesthetic gesture. These tiny shards of porcelain and decorative tiles inlaid into the Mapuche vessel from the late period show how the social and material history of integration of European and American peoples can be condensed into a subtle gesture. Historic and archaeological studies reveal that the decorative tiles found on these pieces originated mainly in Panama or Lima before making their way to cities in the south of Chile. Mapuche craftspeople worked on the shards and then applied them to their monochromatic vessels, thereby appropriating and giving new life to the European elements of their vessels. It was a subtle display of their social interaction, their ability to adapt their knowledge and techniques, and their search for a new aesthetic.

Ceramic visual identities, interculturality and political dynamics

Mapuche ceramic assemblages from the 15th to the 19th centuries included styles that employed different modalities--polished surfaces, the use of engobes and paint, and the incorporation of inlays--to reflect the makers desire to create a shared visual identity. In a society such as the Mapuche, with its complex social hierarchies and delicate political alliances, the ceramics universe was always an essential part of the material culture, as it was exhibited in both everyday and ritual contexts. It is no surprise that diverse decorative modalities associated with a certain visual identity occur precisely at a time in history dominated by intercultural relations in the midst of circumstances that shifted frequently from peaceful coexistence to out-right war. During this time, Mapuche ceramics production, the artisans involved, and the communities that consumed and discarded their wares, conserved both pre-Hispanic and colonial traditions, and also gradually incorporated yet other modifications as a result of their contact with neighbouring groups and other settlers of European origin.

Today, the capacity for innovating and maintaining the relevance of Mapuche ceramic traditions can be observed in several creative projects by Chilean artisans and indigenous communities. Contemporary efforts to create ceramic pieces that embody the traditions of the Mapuche include the work of Ignacia Murtagh, an artist and designer who, inspired by Pitren ceramic forms created 1500 years ago, has developed an assemblage of porcelain artefacts, called Lof that reinterpret the aesthetics of prolific geometric forms and polished surfaces found in that ancient tradition. The Widiilafquen, Alfareras de Lago (Potters of the Lake) project, based in a Mapuche community near Lago Panguipulli in Southern Chile, in which a group of women are reproducing original pieces from the Pitren tradition with the same aesthetics and techniques, creating sets of earthenware that are used today as decorative pieces and as souvenirs for tourists

Evidently, both change and tradition are visible in ceramic assemblages of the past and present, revealing not only the Mapuche society that created them, but also an intercultural society in which indigenous, European and Republican traditions were combined from the 16th century onward, and in which the diversification of decorative modalities described herein helped to perpetuate cultural traditions inherited from pre-Hispanic times, but always in combination with a certain capacity for innovation that remains present to this day.


(1.) Bengoa, J. 2003. Historia de los antiguos mapuches del sur. Desde antes de la llegada de los espanoles y las paces de Quilin. Catalonia, Santiago-Chile; Boceara, G. 2007. Los Vencedores. Historia del pueblo mapuche en la epoca colonial. Universidad Catolica del Norte, Santiago-Chile.

(2.) Project FONDECYT1130730 Historical Archaeology of Valdivia and its jurisdiction in the Colonial Period.

(3.) Adan, L. & M. Alvarado, 1999, 'Analisis de colecciones alfareras pertenecientes al Complejo Pitren: una aproximacion desde la arqueologia y la estetica'. Actas de las III Jornadas de Arqueologia de la Patagonia, pp. 245-268. Neuquen-Argentina; Adan, L., R. Mera, M. Alvarado & M. Uribe, 2005, 'La tradicion ceramica bicroma rojo sobre blanco en la region sur de Chile: los estilos decorativos Vergel y Valdivia'. Actas delXVI Congreso Nacional de Arqueologia Chilena, pp. 399-410. Sociedad Chilena de Arqueologia, Concepcion-Chile; Adan, L., R. Mera, D. Munita, & M. Alvarado, 2016, 'Analisis de la ceramica de tradicion indigena en la jurisdiccion de Valdivia: estilos Valdivia, Tringlo y Decorado con Incrustaciones', Arqueologia de la Patagonia: De Mar a Mar, pp. 313-323. Ediciones CIEP & Nire Negro Ediciones, Santiago-Chile.

(4.) Ona, P. de [1596] 1918, Arauco Domado. Imprenta Universitaria, Santiago-Chile, p. 242. Translated from the original Spanish: En tanto la feminea compania/Que estaba atras dos leguas, aguardando ... Salen a recebillo al camino/Con sus pintados cantaros de vino.

Leonor Adan is an archeologist with a PhD in History, specialising in Ethnohistory. She currently works at the Universidad Austral de Chile. She has studied Mapuche ceramic styles ranging from the earliest expressions to those of historic periods. She is currently directing the project FONDECYT 1130730.

Margarita Alvarado has a Licentiate degree in Aesthetics and a PhD in Latin American Studies. She works at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. She has conducted ethno-aesthetic studies on Mapuche ceramics and textiles and on indigenous-themed Photography.

Simon Urbina is an archeologist with a Masters' in Ethnohistory. He works at the Universidad Austral de Chile. He has directed research on settlement systems during historic periods and intercultural relations in frontier regions.

Caption: Pitren jar, detail. Image credit: Carlos Fischer 2016.

Caption: Lof Collection. Image credit: Josefina Eyzaguirre, 2013.

Caption: Pitren jars. Image credit: Carlos Fischer, 2016.

Caption: Anthropomorphic Pitren jar, H: 15 cm. Image credit: Carlos Fischer 2016.

Right: Tringlo style cup, H: 13 cm. Image credit: Carlos Fischer, 2016. Following page: Widulalken modern ceramics of Panguipulli commune. Image credit: Diego Saavedra, 2015.
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Author:Adan, Leonor A.; Alvarado, Margarita P.; Urbina, Simon A.
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Apr 1, 2018
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