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A Wari four-cornered hat

A Four-Cornered Hat, Wari (Huari) culture, c. 500–900 C.E., camelid fiber, 17.8 x 18.4 cm, 57.8 cm circumference, Bolivia or Peru (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) A conversation between Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(mellow piano music) - [Presenter] We're looking at a hat that is in pristine condition and it may be 1400 years old. - [Presenter] Well, if you took the best piece of clothing that you have and had it buried with you in very dry conditions, it might survive too. - [Presenter] We're looking at a typical four-cornered hat from what is known as the Wari culture that existed well before the Inca in the area that is now the nation of Peru. - [Presenter] They're a Highland culture, which means that they were located up in the area of the Andes Mountains. They were breeders of llamas and alpacas, and users of their wool for a lot of their textiles, especially for high-end elite status textiles like this hat. - [Presenter] It's pretty clear this was made for somebody who had tremendous power. Look at the tightness of the weave, the exacting quality of the representations here, and just the sense of abstraction that we're looking at formalized visual language. - [Presenter] There's two things at play here. First of all, we have the idea of commanding very skilled technology at the hands of the artists who made these pieces. Then on top of that, you also have the imagery itself which is deliberately difficult. It is meant to distinguish those who can see what is going on from those who can't see what is going on. And the person wearing the hat, as the master of culture, is someone who gets it. - [Presenter] So going back to the craftsmanship, look at the evenness of the knotting that goes into creating this very dense textile. - [Presenter] These hats were made in a variety of ways. Most of them were based on needle knitting. So they're made up basically of knots. Many of them then also had other pieces of textile tied into them and cut to create tufts, so they almost look like crushed velvet. But no matter what, they were made with exacting care and precision from camelid wool, that is wool from either a llama or an alpaca, probably an alpaca, that has been spun very thin and knotted in very small knots to very exacting standards. There's an incredible amount of labor that goes into this. You have to collect all of the materials to make the dyes with. Including that spectacular, brilliant red which is probably cochineal, made from the bodies of insects that are parasites in a particular kind of cactus. And you needed many insects in order to make a decent amount of dye. Most of the other dyes are vegetable-based. You can see there's that beautiful red. You have this beautiful teal-green. You have yellow, you have orange, you have this rainbow of colors that are at the disposal of the wealthy. - [Presenter] And look what they've done with those colors. They've defined these particular animal forms that are so abstracted that they almost read as signs rather than as pictures. - [Presenter] They stand for the ideas of the objects they're based on rather than the objects themselves. In this case, they're based on bird figures. - [Presenter] So let's focus on one side of the hat. In the lower left quadrant, we see a yellow background and against that is clearly an animal of some sort. If you look really closely, you can make out in the upper-right segment, three red forms that are probably tail feathers. - [Presenter] And then sweeping down from that and across, you have what is probably the body of a bird. And then coming back up at a sharp angle is the head of that bird, sort of thrown back with the beak up in the air. - [Presenter] So the red is the space between the two hard parts of the beak, and the green is the beak itself. - [Presenter] Yes, it's very much been turned into just a series of shapes where the positive and negative really aren't that distinct, and you have to stop and think about what might be the object we're supposed to be looking at. - [Presenter] And then below it, we're seeing the legs, perhaps the talons of the bird. Although it's so abstracted, that we're not quite sure what we're looking at. In the upper-right corner against the red background, we see almost a perfect mirror of the form against the yellow background. In this case, the beak is to the upper-right, and the tail is to the upper-left. - [Presenter] The weaver, or in this case, the knitter has played with the different colors. So it's a mirror image in its forms, but the way in which those forms are colored and the way in which those colors interplay with each other is distinct from the lower left-hand quadrant. - [Presenter] The two remaining opposing quadrants also have mirrors of each other. And these are also birds, but they're rendered in a different style. You can see what basically look like two Es facing in different directions that are the wings. And then you can see the head, the beak, the eye of the birds in the other mini quadrants within this quadrant. - [Presenter] Yes, they've been essentially reduced to their very basic geometric forms. And again, it's something that would have been readily recognizable to people who understood the iconography of their culture and would have been utterly difficult for anybody outside of it. - [Presenter] What I find interesting is that both of the birds' heads are facing upward. - [Presenter] It is something that is reminiscent of a very famous work of art from another culture called the Tiwanaku, the Gateway of the Sun, in which there are bird headed warriors with wings running with staffs, and they have their heads tilted in the same position. So they seem to be looking up to heaven or to the gods. - [Presenter] Now, if we just take a peek at the top of the cap, we can see that there are more birds. But here, they come together and almost become a kind of stepped pyramid-like form. - [Presenter] Absolutely. You have them reduced into these stepped forms that more or less have the idea of a wing or a tail at the bottom that then come up to a bigger step that is the head. And then the very top step is the beak that is defined as those two pieces with a single line inside. The wings are probably these cutout triangular shapes on the interior. They end up looking much more sort of blocky than the ones that are down below. - [Presenter] Well, they feel more architectural to me, more solid. Whereas the forms on the side seem as if they are figures in space that could be mobile, that could be moving. - [Presenter] They feel more flat. Whereas the ones on top do feel more solid, more like they're representations of something that is three-dimensional, even though they're very still reductive in their abstraction. It is really important to look at this as a kind of luxury object, maybe not in the sense where anyone with the money can it purchase it, but where somebody who is very much an important person within their community has the right to command something like this. But on the other end, that you also have people who have been for generations perfecting the textile technology to bring something like this to fruition. And so it becomes a very special object that is about not just status, but about lines of cultural inheritance and cultural identity. - [Presenter] And that's such an important reminder, that high-quality textiles like this might've been more precious than the things that we generally assume are precious such as gold. - [Presenter] We know from slightly later with the Inca that one of the things that was done every day in the heart of the Inca empire was to sacrifice textiles by burning them to the sun god Inti. And you sacrifice what is most precious to you. And so it was textiles, not the gold that the Spanish came looking for. (mellow piano music)