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Unearthing the source of an Andean empire's power

[image] A team of archaeologists led by Donna Nash and Ryan Williams of the Field Museum in Chicago excavates the remains of a Wari palace at Cerro Baúl in southern Peru. Evidence from the site shows the Wari may have maintained their empire in part by entertaining locals rather than forcing them to submit to imperial control. (Courtesy of The Field Museum of Natural History)


In the clear Peruvian mountain air, the view from the sunbaked summit of Cerro Baúl stretches 50 miles or more. The vista is dominated by dozens of arid valleys and distant Andean peaks. A thousand years ago, a person on this 2,600-foot mountain would have been standing at the southern frontier of the Wari Empire, which dominated much of what is now Peru from A.D. 600 until it disappeared around 400 years later, a period archaeologists call the Middle Horizon. The Wari likely thought of Cerro Baúl as sacred; even now, the ground here is littered with carefully arranged pebbles in the shape of houses or farms and the occasional empty bottle of liquor, left behind by locals as offerings to the spirit of the mountain. But archaeological evidence shows the mountaintop was much more than a holy place on the fringes of an empire. It may be the key to understanding how the Wari managed to control a state that stretched some 800 miles to the north.


The boiling room at the Cerro Baúl brewery had stone pedestals that once supported ceramic vats. (Courtesy of The Field Museum of Natural History)

To me, the hilltop looks like a lifeless jumble of tan boulders. But Donna Nash, an archaeologist from Chicago's Field Museum and codirector of the Cerro Baúl Archaeological Project, sees something quite different. Striding across the bleak surface, pointing to the outlines of walls and corridors that have long since collapsed or been blown away, she conjures a vision of what once stood here--a palace complex of colorful two-story buildings. At one time, she says, hundreds of people lived up here. Everything they needed--water, food, precious stones for crafting beads, clay for making pots, and corn for brewing beer--had to be carried to the top.

Living on top of a mountain was a tremendous display of power and wealth. And mountaintop temples would have had great views of other peaks, perhaps an important element of Wari rituals. "It's not an economically efficient production site," Ryan Williams, the dig codirector and Nash's husband, tells me later. "But you impress the neighbors by living closer to the gods."

And, perhaps, by showing them a good time. The most critical building at Cerro Baúl may have been the brewery. A four-room structure about 2,500 square feet, it had all the equipment needed to make chicha, a corn-based beer still popular in the Andes. As we stand among the ruins, Nash tells me the Wari--usually thought of as a fairly bloodthirsty bunch, based on pottery painted with images of warriors, beheadings, and bound captives--may have actually wooed local leaders with a potent mix of corn beer and hallucinogens. Mountaintop palaces might have functioned like embassies, and could have played a role in a soft-power effort to impress the neighbors with great parties.

Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.