Arte-Factual: Chimú Bird Carving

In the last edition of Arte-Factual, I looked at the Toltec Atlantes pillars that could be found in and around Qualopec’s tomb in the original Tomb Raider.

In this edition, I will re-visit Qualopec’s tomb and examine another Pre-Columbian motif that can be seen on the walls of the fictional Atlantean king’s tomb: that of a Chimú bird carving.

Lara Croft explores Qualopec's tomb and sees a wall decoration modelled after a Chimú bird carving.
Lara explores Qualopec’s tomb. Photo credit: Tombraidergirl.Com.

When the first Tomb Raider came out, I was studying Peruvian pottery and iconography as part of a GCSE art project, so I got some pleasure out of spotting real-life artefacts and imagery in the game. One of the motifs I recognized from my books was the bird motif seen in the screenshot above. This motif was most likely based on a series of friezes that adorn the walls of a citadel at the Chan Chan archaeological site near the city of Trujillo in northern Peru.

Constructed in the mid-ninth century AD and covering a total area of around 20 square kilometres, Chan Chan is the largest adobe settlement in the world. It was the capital of Chimor, the kingdom of the Chimú people. The Chimú are thought to be descendants of the Moche, who occupied north-western Peru from about 100 AD to 800 AD and were renowned for their ceramic art and complex irrigation systems.

Bird carvings on an adobe wall in Chan Chan (Photo credit: CRATerre)
Bird carvings on an adobe wall in Chan Chan. Photo credit: CRATerre.

Like their predecessors, the Chimú produced beautiful pottery, metalwork, and textiles and developed a vast network of canals to supply Chan Chan and the surrounding farmland with much-needed water. They worshipped the moon, believing that it controlled the weather and growth in crops. In sharp contrast to the Inca, they saw the sun as a powerful, but destructive force.

Due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Chan Chan had a thriving fishing industry, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the walls of the site’s ten ciudadelas (citadels) and other buildings are adorned with stylized carvings of sea birds, fish, crabs, turtles, fishing nets, and other marine imagery. I’ve been unable to determine the species featured in the motif – and the Chimú bird carving seen in the game – but it may be a pelican or possibly even a vulture or parrot. If anyone knows what it’s supposed to be, please let me know.

The bird motif that was probably the inspiration for the Chimú bird carving seen in Qualopec's tomb.
The same bird motif can be seen on several walls at the Chan Chan site. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, the Chan Chan ruins are slowly being eroded as a result of changing weather patterns in the region and earthquakes have damaged a number of centuries-old adobe structures. What’s more, much of the site has been plundered by grave robbers (huaqueros) in their search for marketable antiquities. The local government’s efforts to curb the trade in illicit antiquities has had limited success.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how much of Chan Chan’s history has been lost in the quest for gold and other treasures. And it remains to be seen whether or not the site will survive into the next century, given that the site is vulnerable to natural disasters and is a frequent target of pillagers trying to make ends meet.

If you’d like to learn more about Chan Chan and the Chimú, these books and websites are a great place to start:


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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a translator, editor, writer, and gamer with a passion for archaeology, foreign languages, cultural heritage, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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