Field Notes, Objects, Plants, Practices, Spatial Orders

The Maize Plant in an Incaican Microcosmos

Bat-ami Artzi dicusses the forms, usage, and iconographic symbolism of Andean queros (drinking vessels) through the example of a quero from the holdings of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.

Bat-Ami Artzi
Wood cup (detail), sixteenth century, unknown artist. V A 8915, heigth: 15.8 cm. Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo: Martin Franken.

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This wood cup, called quero in Quechua, was crafted in the 16th century, shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards to the Andean region. Queros serve—in the present as in the past—for the consumption of maize beer as part of Andean rituals; since these comprise two entities, queros are usually manufactured and used in pairs. In this particular case, the second element of the pair has been lost. Queros embody tree plants in all their materiality and visual potency: evidence suggests that the pair of cups was cut from the same block of wood; in other words, they would grow together, waiting to be given a common shape by the artist (Cummins 2007: 274). The inlaid parts are obtained from the resin of Elaeagia pastoensis, a plant locally known as mopa mopa, treated with a variety of colored pigments.

The outer surface of this cup appears to be fully decorated. It is divided into three sections: in the upper section is a narrow band replete with small buildings; the middle section, which is also the largest, is decorated with incisions of curved lines and zigzag bands; the lower section comprises three different registers—a series of rows with colored oval shapes; a red patterned design; and a band made of rectangular shapes with colored inlays (now lost). Connecting the three horizontal sections are the silhouettes of six maize plants, which cut the surface of the cup vertically from the bottom to the top. Each plant displays three corncobs with leaves, and each corncob is summoned by a standing bird. Thus, all elements in the composition are visually united by the maize plants.

If we join all these elements together, we may read this quero as a representation of an Incaican microcosmos supporting the cycle of cultivating, harvesting, storing, and consuming maize. The lower section of the quero represents cultivated terraces, which were built in layers of stones, fine sand, gravel, and soil; these made their appearance at a very early stage of the Andean civilization, owing to the necessity of expanding the agricultural land, especially for the cultivation of maize. The rows of colored oval shapes most likely correspond to the terrace wall and the construction levels below. 

The curved lines and zigzag bands in the middle section represent the stream of water in the irrigation canals, while the small buildings in the upper section are likely to stand for the warehouses where corn was stored; their positioning on the top edge does not seem to be coincidental: these constructions were often built on mountain slopes, for the cooler climate favoured the conservation of the crops. The tripartite structure, recurring in the number of corncobs on the maize plants and in the surface division into three main areas, recalls the three fundamental stages of growing maize: cultivation, harvesting, and storage of the crops. Finally, the use of the quero itself stands for the consumption of maize in the form of maize beer. 

Although the motifs represented on this quero are typically Inca, the style in which they are rendered significantly differs from that of Inca imperial art, which was highly geometrical. Queros from the colonial period present a more naturalistic style, probably due to the influence of the European art tradition. Despite stylistic affinities, throughout the colonial period queros were an instrument for Inca resistance and the perpetuation of the Inca memory. This piece, which was manufactured in a very chaotic period for the Inca Empire, depicts a typical Andean landscape. It reflects the aspiration to restore an Inca order sustained by the maize plant as the central axis of the empire. 


Cummins, Tom (2007): Queros, Aquillas, Uncus and Chulpas: The Composition of Inka Expression and Power. In: Variations in the Expression of Inka Power: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 18 and 19 October 1997, edited by Richard L. Burger, Craig Morris and Ramiro Matos Mendienta, pp. 267-312. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington D.C.

About the Author

Bat-ami Artzi (Ph.D., Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is an art historian, archaeologist, and curator interested in the arts and material cultures of the ancient and colonial Andean Indigenous societies. In 2019–2020, she joined the 4A_Lab as a Postdoctoral Fellow with the research project "Mutual Growth: The Agency of Plants as reflected in Inca and Chimú Visual Culture." Her research centers on the material representation of ideas and notions through forms, technologies, materials, and iconographies. Her other areas of interest include Andean representations/conceptions of the European invasion and the visual traditions in the colonial arts of the Americas. In 2017, Bat-ami was awarded the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines.