Awesome artifact. Thousand-year-old drinking vessels like this one may provide new insights into one of the most important pre-Columbian cultures in the Andes.

A Sip of History

Archaeologists have discovered a rare trove of finely painted and beautifully sculpted drinking vessels on the shores of Lake Titacaca, Bolivia. The 1000-year-old jugs, 20 of which are unbroken, are shaped like human heads, offering a glimpse of the people of one of the most important pre-Colombian cultures in the south central Andes, the Tiwanaku. "These are finds of a lifetime," comments Tim McAndrews of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.

The vessels were found by Risto Kesseli and Antti Korpisaari of the University of Helsinki, working with Bolivian colleagues, in August while excavating on an island called Pariti, a particularly sacred site for the Tiwanaku. The site also included the shards of perhaps as many as 500 exquisite vessels, which priests may have smashed in a deep, narrow pit as part of a ceremony. Korpisaari speculates that the intact vessels might have been buried intact to prevent them from falling into the hands of enemies; the site dates between 850 and 1050 C.E., toward the end of the Tiwanaku culture.

The pottery includes 15- to 20-centimeter-tall busts of men and women as well as condors, serpents, and other animals. Ceremonial drinking vessels have been discovered before, but this quality of workmanship is extremely uncommon and represents "some of the very highest artistic achievements of Tiwanaku potters ever discovered," says Korpisaari, who announced the discoveries last week in a press release.

The find is significant because this area--the capital of the Tiwanaku empire--has been heavily looted ever since the Tiwanaku disappeared about 1100 C.E., so this sort of cache is very rare. Moreover, because textiles haven't survived in the moist highlands, archaeologists are eager for any information about what people wore. "To actually see what people might have looked like while alive is extremely valuable," says Deborah Eileen Blom of the University of Vermont, Burlington. "We have very few examples of Tiwanaku portrait vessels in which individuals are so realistically portrayed."

Related sites
More about the Tiwanaku people
Photos of Tiwanaku