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Worth a thousand words -- and more

By Mary S. Cowen / February 25, 1981



The written word is so important in our life and civilization it's easy to forget that writing may not be the primary means of communication. For some people to translate sensation, intuition, emotion, into a verbal mode can be a very difficult exercise.

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The touch of a hand can convey a great deal, as can posture, gesture, position and color. Some basic and fairly abstract ideas are thus made vivid in sculpture and painting, without words. Writing is something else, although it may begin as visual shorthand. Perhaps a mainly tactile means of communication does not lead to writing.

In William M. Ivins Jr.'s book "Art & Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions," the author points out that what the hand feels about space is not the same as what the eye sees. The great mental achievement, I gather, is to synthesize the two kinds of information and to figure out how to interpret visual illusion. The hand is not usually deceived.

Ivin's thesis is that the ancient Greeks always preferred what the hand told them to what the eye said. He thinks their sense of touch, of literally feeling space, determined the limits of their abstract reasoning and practical invention. It wasn't until the Renaissance that those limits gave way, he says.And the ancient Mochica people of Peru developed a complex civilization without ever resorting to the written word.

Perhaps the Mochica were even more touch-oriented than the Greeks. They often portrayed blind people. The Greeks were literate, and so we know what and how they thought from what they wrote as well as from artifacts. But remember, they adapted already existing written symbols to transcribe their thoughts. They did not inventm writing.

The Mochica, however, didn't seem to use anything more symbolic than a sort of comic-book style of drawing to record and convey information. They had oral traditions but wrote nothing. Their main mode of permanent record evidently was three-dimensional form, even when that form was covered with two-dimensional pictures. The form could be as small as a lima bean (memory aid for messengers) or as big as pyramid (structure for housing or ceremonies).

Very often the form was a pot. And from the immense variety of Mochican pots , researchers have been able to work out what life was like for these people on the north coastal desert of Peru between 200 BC and AD 700.

No other culture seems to have relied so much on ceramic forms to render its daily activities. Maybe that explains the excellent quality of manufacture, which indicates thorough technical mastery of the material. Sculpted and/or painted vessels show all sorts of people doing all sorts of things, from farming to lovemaking. Pots come in shapes of everything imaginable, real or mythical, even landscapes. Animals get as thorough treatment as people, with every nuance of posture and gesture accurately recorded. Apparently pottery was to the Mochica what photography is to us.

Portrait jugs were common. The man commemorated here was probably diplomat, warrior, business manager, engineer and maybe priest, all rolled into one. His portrait pot may have been designed to sit on the floor, because the Mochica apparently had little furniture. Hence -- some archaeologists speculate -- the upturned face, the better to be seen. Such pots have come from excavated graves , suggesting the idea of use in an afterlife, but they have been found elsewhere also. Perhaps a portrait of the chief in one's house of workshop was a bit of propaganda?

The practical stirrup spout is common on all sorts of ancient Peruvian pottery. It served as a handle or as a means of hanging the jug from a belt. When the jug is used as a flask, air flows in one side as liquid flows out the other.

The axis of the stirrup spout was always aligned with the sagittal line of the body or the profile of the face. The aesthetic effect is much more pleasing with this alignment than if the spout were set parallel to the frontal plane. Was there also an esoteric, symbolic reason for this alignment? That would indicate some fairly abstract thinking.

The designs on the headcloth and the facial painting indicate the status of chieftain, but they also illustrate the half-dark, half-light pattern noticeable in so many things the Mochica produced. It is as if a sense of duality permeated everything they did or thought: always they showed two aspects of any one thing, such as twins, couples, surface and depth, angle and curve, etc.

In this portrait we have a very perceptive rendition of both the inner and the outer man. Who needs words, after all?