Killer Whale Effigy Vessel
Earthenware with slip
4 3/4 × 8 1/2 × 3 1/8 in. (12.1 × 21.6 × 7.9 cm)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
GRADE LEVEL3, 4
SUBJECT AREASocial Studies
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
This dynamic vessel takes the form of a killer whale—Orcinus orca—a creature both feared and revered by the coastal-dwelling Nazca. Identifiable by its black back, white belly, and zigzag of sharp teeth, the killer whale is a voracious predator. Here, the teeth appear bloodied from a recent meal. The victim of this feast was not a fellow sea creature but a person, whose trophy head is painted on the whale’s belly. Based on the belief that the life force was centered in the head, the trophy head cult was a key factor in religious life along Peru’s south coast.
Killer whales have a long history in the art of this region, predating even the Nazca culture. Scenes of whales and other sea creatures threatening humans are common in Nazca art, illustrating the ever-present dangers of the sea.
The Nazca culture produced terra-cotta vessels of extraordinary quality, mastering the application of polychrome slip painting to pre-fired clay. Thin-walled vessels such as this example are typical of Nazca art. Although Nazca ceramics are usually simple in shape, some—especially during the early period—are modeled in enterprising ways. Twelve different colors decorate the surface of this vessel.
Located on the west coast of South America, Peru is home to a variety of climates and geographies. From the dry coastal plains in the west to the rugged Andes Mountains in the center and the tropical jungle of the Amazon basin in the east, Peru is a land of extremes. Peru’s southern coast—once home to the Nazca—is a desert.
The Nazca are one of the oldest and most mysterious cultures of Peru. These desert dwellers developed advanced farming methods, building an irrigation system to cultivate the dry soil. They were also skilled weavers, potters, and architects. However, the Nazca are perhaps most famous for the perplexing Nazca Lines, which remain visible today.
The Nazca Lines constitute gigantic ground art, the complete imagery of which is visible only from the air. By removing the dark topsoil to expose the light-colored earth beneath, the Nazca carved huge linear representations of people, plants, and animals. While the purpose of these images is uncertain, archaeologists speculate that they were of religious or astronomical importance.
The Nazca were contemporaries of the Moche, who lived along the northern coast of Peru. Both cultures relied upon the sea as a source of food and folklore. Marine themes—such as sea creatures and fishermen—appear frequently in Nazca and Moche art.
Describe this vessel as though you were talking to someone who has never seen it. What is it made of? How is it decorated?
Discuss the vessel’s handle and decorative qualities.
Let’s take a closer look at the details on the vessel. Describe the features of the whale.
Talk about the colors that you see.
A human head is painted on the whale’s stomach underneath the vessel, what might that tell us?
Consider how the object was created. Was it created very simply or is it more complex? How do you know? How many colors do you see? What is the purpose of this kind of vessel? Where might this vessel have been used? How would it be used?
What is the significance of the whale; of all the creatures in the sea, why choose a whale? What associations do you have with killer whales?
The Nazca people both feared and respected the killer whale. Which aspects of this vessel suggest fear? Which indicate respect? Explain.
Why would you think so highly of something that was so deadly? Why choose to venerate the whale? Is there anything else you know of that we both fear and respect?
Connecting to the Classroom
Although we may fear certain animals, they still play a role in culture, society, or the food chain/ecosystem.) It is important to conserve species and save animals from extinction.
This culture developed advanced farming systems and built an irrigation system to cultivate dry soil. What is an irrigation system? Why is it important? What other cultures do you know that developed an irrigation system? The Nazca people lived on the southern coast, also home to a desert.
What other sea creatures could the culture look to for stories of folklore? Why did you choose that particular sea creature?
The Nazca people lived in Peru which is in South America. Peru has many different climates. Research different areas of Peru. Write about the different climates present in that area. After this research, why do you think the Nazca people chose to settle on the coast? What would be the importance of settling in this region? What are some ways they adapted in this region in order to survive?
Research another culture that also used an irrigation system. What was it? How did it work? What was its job? What is it meant for? How did it help the community and the people living in that area or region? Put the findings in a one-page paper or on a poster board.
Research other animals that are going extinct on the planet. How are they going extinct? Is it from human interference or something else? What are some things you can do in order to help these animals going extinct? Write a one-page paper covering your findings.
This culture relied on the sea for stories of their folklore as well as for food to survive. How does the whale represent its purpose in this community? How can it relate to both a food source and stores of folklore for the region? What are some stories in your families’ culture or ancestry that that have been passed down? Write a one-page paper of your finding and research.
Subject Matter Connection
In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, and political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.