Arte-Factual: Killer Whale Bottle

In the last edition of Arte-Factual, we looked at the Golden Mask of Tornarsuk and learnt a little about Inuit culture and mythology. In this edition, we will be turning our attention to one of the collectable relics found in Tomb Raider: Anniversary: the Killer Whale Bottle.

The Killer Whale Bottle is one of the collectible items found in the Peru levels of Tomb Raider: Anniversary (Image credit: Comédia Raider)
The Killer Whale Bottle, one of the collectible items found in the Peru levels of Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Image credit: Comédia Raider.

Like many of the artefacts that have appeared in the last few Tomb Raider games, the Killer Whale Bottle is modelled after a real-life artefact. In this case, a Nasca polychrome ceramic effigy vessel which is housed at the Larco Museum (Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera) in Lima, Peru. The vessel is thought to date back to the early to mid-1st millennium AD and depicts an anthropomorphic mythical killer whale clutching a dagger, wearing a loincloth, and decorated with severed trophy heads. But before we go into any further detail, it seems prudent to first take a closer look at the people who created this vessel: the Nasca.**

The Nasca were a Pre-Columbian people who once lived in the valleys and arid deserts of the Nazca and Ica provinces of southern Peru, whose culture flourished between 100 BC and 800 AD. They are best know for creating the geoglyphs known as the “Nazca Lines” but they were also resourceful farmers. The Nazca constructed complex irrigation systems consisting of aqueducts and underground canals to supply their crops and settlements with water, and they had a ceramic tradition that spanned centuries.

Like the Inca, the Nasca left no written records, so most of what we know about their society and religious beliefs was learnt from studying their material culture and art. So what does this killer whale bottle tell us about Nasca society?

The original vessel is part of the Larco Museum's extensive collection of Nasca pottery (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The original vessel is part of the Larco Museum’s extensive collection of Nasca pottery. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The killer whale figure shown above is an example of a “mythical killer whale”, an anthropomorphic representation of the most powerful and feared sea creature in Nasca culture. With its prominent teeth, dorsal fins, bifurcated tail, and S-shaped body, the mythical killer whale was one of the most enduring motifs in Nasca ceramic iconography.

While there seems to be no consensus on the age of this artefact, it may date back to the Early Nasca period (circa. 1-450 AD), when mythical and naturalistic motifs were commonly used in Nasca art. Popular motifs included hummingbirds, sea birds, fish, monkeys, spiders, and felines. It’s generally believed that Nasca spiritual life revolved around the need to understand and control the forces of nature around them. After all, the Nasca lived in a region plagued by frequent earthquakes, drought, and flash flooding.

One of the more gruesome aspects of the vessel we’re studying is the presence of decapitated trophy heads painted on the body of the mythical killer whale. The decapitation of individuals (mostly warriors) was not only a symbol of power but also of death, regeneration, and agricultural fertility, another reminder of the harsh environmental conditions of southern Peru. This killer whale vessel is therefore testament to the Nasca people’s ability to not only survive, but thrive in one of the world’s most arid and inhospitable regions.

A Nasca plate depicting two mythical killer whales (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Nasca plate depicting two mythical killer whales. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.


Sources & further reading:

** The names “Nasca” and “Nazca” can be used almost interchangeably, though some prefer to use “Nasca” to refer to the people and “Nazca” to refer to the geographical region they occupied.

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If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the art and artefacts seen in the Tomb Raider games, feel free to check out the other articles listed in the “Arte-Factual” archive.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time 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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8 Comments on “Arte-Factual: Killer Whale Bottle”

  1. Love this! The named relics are one of my favorite part of TR: Anniversary. Thanks for digging a little deeper to bring us the true story.

    1. You’re welcome. I remember seeing a picture of this vessel a few years before I played TR: Anniversary, so when I saw it in the game, I couldn’t resist saying “A-ha”…which left my partner completely baffled. 😉

      I’m going to be taking a mini-break from blogging later this week but I’ll see if I can find out some more information about Crotoan and that lost colony of Roanoke that you mentioned on Facebook. It’ll be interesting to see if that is Lara’s next adventure…

  2. I like how the game actually researches these relics, rather than just putting down a fictional cup, which would be so much easier to do. It makes the game seem a little bit more three-dimensional.

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