Christiane Clados
Nasca Drawings Collection

Nasca Iconographic Design

Nasca imagery is one of the most spectacular of the Central Andes and has provided a great interpretative challenge. Not only do the representations come from a society without writing: they are based on unfamiliar conventions. In Nasca culture, images with complex content occur on ceramics, textiles, calabash gourds, and golden and wooden artifacts. The representations are governed by rules completely opaque to the modern observer. Many of these images/ symbols/ depictions are so different from our own that we often have real difficulty in "reading" them.

One major problem for the analysis of Nasca icons is the lack of written sources, a fact which is not only the case for the Nasca, but also for all the prehispanic iconographic traditions of the Andean region. Many scholars have taken for granted that certain artistic conventions apply, but given deeper study it has become apparent that this is often not the case, and this complicates the task of iconographic study. Today less and less attention is given to studies of artistic conventions involved in representations as many representational conventions have been declared as known, and are therefore not questioned at all.

In a way, this is the first step in the approach towards reading the norms of artistic expression. The most important conventions of Nasca representation and iconography are: 1) non-perspective method, 2) symmetry, 3) hierarchic measure, 4) gestures as indicators of ownership and conflict, and 5) colour.

Non-perspective Method

Technically seen, Nasca paintings are drawings that consist of black, red, white and yellow outlines. The open fields are filled without shading. The Nasca did not organize their paintings primarily by means of perspective. Rather, each object was shown as it was known to be. The Nasca were users of the "non-perspective method" showing things objectively as they appear. They created order and clarity in their picture by eliminating foreshortening, shadows, and other disturbing elements. For example, when depicting a warrior in a Nasca 7 painting artists show the head and legs in a pure side view. But other elements of the body, for instance the torso, appear in front view (CL 372, 376-378). Also, heads and arms of the anthropomorphic beings in CL 62-65, and of the monkey in CL 135-137 are shown in front view while torso and legs appear in profile. The figures are represented by a composite diagram constructed from what was seemingly regarded as the typical aspect of each part of the body.

Nasca artists treated space in a picture as if it were flat, meaning they expressed the third dimension of real space using only two dimensions, the vertical and horizontal direction. To express space without perspective they used a convention called ground line. A ground line is a horizontal register on which the figures stand in a row. The line itself is often invisible. In the case of the vase paintings seen in CL 377-378 we have four (invisible) ground lines on which mountains with cacti (populated by foxes and guanacos), and running warriors with feathered spears and clubs are organized. CL 260 shows pairs of men carrying cups and appearing below a tall deity. They are organized on two (invisible) ground lines. Consistent with this interpretation, the groups of men do not stand below the tall deity but in front of it. Also, the convention of layering was often used to create the illusion of space (CL 243, 246).


The convention of symmetry in Nasca iconography is not well known. It's common in Nasca 4 and 5 paintings and could be the result of an indirect influence of Tiwanaku culture. In paintings of Nasca periods 4 and 5 the symmetry of designs is generally bilateral with relation to a vertical axis (CL 248, 260, 325, 329, 331). An outstanding textile painting of the Goeteborgs Etnogrfiska Museet (currently in Stockholm) creates symmetry by placing four large supernatural beings at the corners of the painting (CL 246).

Hierarchic Measure

As the representation of spatial depth in a picture was not employed, the relative size of figures in a picture is not related to the distance in space with regard to the observer. The size of the depicted figure is connected with its level of importance within a scene, a representational convention generally called hierarchic measure (Schäfer 1963, Lieske 1989). According to Lieske (1989: 7) the largest figures in a scene are the beings having the highest status. The largest figures are often the ones with the most elaborated dress which is also an indication for being of higher status than the other actors in a scene (CL 54, 62, 248, 325, 329, 331, 379). Also, humans are always smaller in size when represented together with "gods", and are dressed with fewer symbols of power (CL 189).

Gestures as Indicators of Ownership and Conflict: Tongue Touching, Tongue Grasping, Hair Grasping and Grasping with Both Hands

Less evident, but just as important for understanding Nasca images, is another convention: gestures as indicators of ownership and conflict. As a rule, information was transmitted through the body language of different characters depicted in a scene. Thus, we find a number of gestures as indicators of ownership and conflict. Such gestures are grasping with (both) hands (CL 44, 95, 152, 335) (Wolfe 1981, trophy-head taster format), hair grasping (CL 189, 223, 379), touching by tongue (CL 60, 92, 335), and very rare, tongue grasping (CL 246). All of the above gestures indicate a taking over of ownership, and in combination with representations of trophy heads or warriors it clearly indicates conflict. Of special importance, widely distributed and frequently found in the Central Andes, is the gesture of grasping with hands. It refers to a direct taking over of ownership. Thus, head trophies are grabbed by hair (CL 55, 63, 77, 78, 83, 84, 88, 332, 336, 361), forehead ornaments are grasped by the "wings" on their sides (CL 31, 33, 45, 46, 47, 194), shell pectorals are grabbed by their cotton strings (CL 48), and cultivated plants by their roots (CL 251, 252, 254, 258, 259). As in Moche iconography, parts of the dress of humans and mythical beings (forehead ornaments and Spondylus shell pectorals) are seen as war trophies and are sometimes presented hanging on war clubs (CL 19). The protruding tongues of Rayed Faces are often horizontally drawn ("Chained Heads", Proulx 2006) and the tips of protruding tongues of Rayed Feline Face and Rayed Face with Upturned Mouth Mask touching each other can be interpreted as gesture of tongue-touching which indicates fighting or grasping (CL 314, 322).


Nasca iconography and its understanding is based on colours. Because colour is an important source of information in Nasca iconography most of the rollouts of the database are shown in colour.

In contrast to contemporary Moche artists Nasca painters used a variety of colours. Colours were used in two different ways, either to show beings/things with their natural colours or using unnatural, symbolic colours to show a supernatural quality.

The bodies of humans, hair, blood, dress, and the obsidian blades of knives and spears are naturally coloured (CL 130, 131, 134, 385, 386). Also animals (foxes, birds, monkeys, lizards, serpents, camelids) (CL 135-140, 166, 198, 377) are shown with their natural colours especially when they are drawn naturalistically, i.e. without using kennings – comparison by substitution (for example the condor without snake feathers in CL 134). Colours are used to separate beings and things that have the same shape (hills, fishes, several Rayed Faces in one scene, humans) (CL 263, 267, 296, 309, 377, 378). Typically, creatures are repeated two times in different colours.

Symbolic colours are used to indicate the mythical nature of things (for example red water). There is also an intentional use of non-colouring/leaving blank, for example, un-coloured transparent loincloths in a battle scene to indicate that they are in the background, or un-coloured Rayed Faces in contrast to a coloured Face Being with Snake Rays to indicate less status (CL 249, 299). Also, colours are used to emphasize the effect of layering (CL 274).

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