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 writer, translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, 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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4 Comments on “Arte-Factual: Chimú Bird Carving”

  1. I wonder if the bird could be a flamingo? That was my thirst thought based on the downwards curvature of the beak and the shape of the body. They’re native to Peru, and according to Wikipedia flamingos were often depicted in Moche art. If you’re interested, it referenced back to these two books. You might be able to find a more informed conclusion than mine in there!

    Benson, Elizabeth (1972) The Mochica: A Culture of Peru.
    Berrin, Katherine; Larco Museum (1997). The Spirit of Ancient Peru: Treasures from the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera.

    1. It’s certainly possible and that was my initial thought before I started researching for this article, though it’s not entirely clear. I’ve checked a few different resources and even the authors seem to be unsure. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art just names these as “sea birds” (they bear some resemblance to the one I wrote about) – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/63.163

      A number of Pre-Columbian cultures in Peru traded with cultures in the Amazon basin so even the more exotic birds, like toucans and parrots, can’t be entirely ruled out, I suppose. For all I know, these birds may be mythical or composites of several birds…or maybe even extinct. :-/

  2. Flamingo or Pelican, its really hard to say for sure. But either way its a beautiful carving. I love this post because I have always wanted to go to Peru. How fascinating you studied their pottery. Ancient pottery is a wonderful subject anyway. Thanks for sharing Kelly and thanks for your likes on my blog.

  3. I think they look like a Dodo bird personally. I honestly have no knowledge of the culture where the carvings originate or the trading relationships which, yes logically, could have caused an unknown influence to the carvings. I do not even know where the Dodos originate from. I simply saw the carving picture read your discussion and had a light bulb go off when I read the part about it possibly being an extinct species.