The Tello Obelisk, a Chavín
de Huantár Sculpture
©2000 by James Q. Jacobs
Tello Obelisk is a prismatic granite monolith from the archaeological
site of Chavín de Huantár in north-central Peru. The Obelisk
features one of the most complex stone carvings known in the Americas
for its time. Chavín is situated at 3,150 m in the upper Monsa
River drainage, between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Oriental,
two of the three ranges in the Central Andes. Chavín is located
on a pass to the Callejón de Huaylas, a high elevation valley between
the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra, the western range. Radiocarbon
measurements indicate that construction of the initial phase of monumental
architecture at Chavín, a U-shaped platform mound known as the
Old Temple, began around 850 B.C. The U-shaped platform frames a 40 m
plaza with, centered on the axis of the monument, a 21 m in diameter sunken
circular court lined with cut stone blocks featuring low relief carvings.
The Tello Obelisk was probably set in the center of this Old Temple sunken
court. In this setting the surrounding lofty, snow-covered peaks of the
Andes are visible towering above the monument.
The correlation of the Tello Obelisk to the Old
Temple is supported by stylistic comparison with the Lanzón,
another important monolith at Chavín. The Lanzón remains
embedded within the Old Temple, securing its temporal placement.
The Lanzón and the Obelisk are unique exceptions to the three
groups of Old Temple sculpture at Chavín; ashlars carved
in flat relief, three-dimensional tenoned heads set into the exterior
stone walls of the platform mound, and mortars. The Obelisk was
discovered by Julio C. Tello during excavation of the site and thereafter
moved to Lima, Peru, where it is currently housed in the Museo Nacional
de Antropológia é Historía. The photographs
in this paper are from a transparency I took at the Museum in 1988.
The Obelisk, a slightly tapered quadrangular solid, is
2.52 m tall with about 0.32 m and 0.12 m wide sides. A notched upper section
narrows the upper one-eighth of the two wide faces to about 0.26 m. Excepting
the notch, the four sides are planar. The full girth at the base is near
1 m, and the form uniformly tapers to about 0.87 m in girth at the notch.
All four sides or faces are sculpted in bas-relief carvings from top to
bottom (Figure 3). The sculpture includes figures in relief with a background
plane and subtractive sculpting of the foreground plane. The carvings
are described in greater detail below.
The Tello Obelisk is a white granite sculpture. At Chavín
the nearest source of granite is located at 18 km distance from the ruins.
Granite, one of the most common of the igneous rocks, is an entirely crystalline,
unstratified, dense, and immensely hard, chisel-resisting stone. Granite
is composed of quartz, mica, hornblende and feldspar. Feldspar is the
most abundant mineral in granite. The higher the quartz content, the harder
the granite. Granite is one of the most durable of stones, and is highly
resistant to the destructive forces of the elements. Granite is therefore
not only quite difficult to carve but also can take a very high polish.
An advantage of granite is its beautiful and consistent color. The color
of granite depends on the feldspar it contains, as well as the quartz
and hornblendes. In my Kodachrome transparency the Tello Obelisk is a
light fulvous sienna in color (perhaps shifted towards yellow by the indoor
During the Early Horizon (900 B.C to 200 B.C. in
the Rowe-Lanning chronology) the prehistoric cultures of Peru lacked metal
tools. If no appropriately shaped stone is found one must be quarried.
To quarry raw material, blocks of stone need to be split by wedging. First
a series of holes are drilled in a straight line at close intervals. Wedges
are then driven into the holes, applying equal pressure along the length
of the split. Wooden wedges can be soaked to split the stone, and this
is the probable method used in ancient Peru. Wedge holes have been found
in ancient Egyptian quarries. Quarrying is followed by moving, lifting
and transporting. Given the distance from the quarry to Chavín,
the mountainous terrain and the lack of draft animals or wheels, it is
likely that roughing out the shape of the stone preceded transport to
the site. After quarrying each step involves removing material from the
original mass, an entirely subtractive process.
Just as metal wedges are used today to quarry blocks,
so also are metal tools used to carve granite. Material available
for tools is an important factor in methods and process. In Neolithic
Peru the sculptures had to be carved with hard stones. Stone is
worked by a series of simple steps. The two basic categories of
stone sculpture tools are percussion and abrasion tools. Percussion
tools are either hammers and chisels in combination or axes. The
heaviest hammers used today, sledge hammers, weigh about 2 kilos.
Carving granite is typically accomplished using a chisel set perpendicular
to the surface. The harder the stone the more perpendicular to the
surface the chisel needs to be.
Abrasion tools work by rubbing away material. Abrasion
tools are used to cut, shape, smooth or polish. Polishing is accomplished
by fine abrasion and requires a considerable expenditure of time
and energy. The Chavín carvings have lustrous surfaces, evidencing
polishing with a series of abrasives. During abrasion the sculpture
is typically soaked with water and abrasive stones, such as silicon
carbide, are applied in descending degrees of grain and of hardness.
Very fine sand is used as an abrasive for the highest degree of
The properties of stone always have an influence
on the art. Granite sculptures rarely have undercuts because it
is a hard, brittle material, prone to breaking during percussion.
Once a piece breaks away from a sculpture it cannot be replaced.
The planar form of the Tello Obelisk is well suited to the material.
There are no truly sharp edges and all the lines, grooves, incisions
and corners are at least somewhat rounded. The relief difference
between the background plane and the face is shallow, perhaps 3
cm at most. The durability, internal consistency, strength and hardness
of the granite also makes possible the overall form, the narrow,
tall obelisk shape.
345 x 875 pixels
Neither the material, the form, nor the technology have
attracted the attention of the many writers who have focused on the Tello
Obelisk to the same degree as the iconography. The fame of the Obelisk
is attributable to the iconographic richness of Chavín art, and
the obelisk is the most iconographically complex of the Chavín
objects. It is also arguably the most unique in iconographic content.
Chavín art is basically naturalistic, and the major subjects are
humans, avians, snakes, felines, other animals, plants and shells. Idealized
forms of these elements are covered with abundant smaller elements, often
as metaphorical substitution of body parts. A typical and well known example
is the substitution of snakes for hair on the Lanzón.
Another unique feature of the Tello Obelisks iconography
is the geographic scope of its elements. The Chavín civilizations
interaction sphere included Perus three major ecological zones,
the desert coast, the highlands and the humid tropical forests. Chavín
is located at an important route from the Pacific Coast to the Amazon
Basin. Via the Santa and Monsa Valleys it is possible to cross the Andes
by crossing only one high pass. Chavín is located on this route
and the Obelisks iconography reflects the natural world in the tropical
lowlands, the coast and the highlands. Chavíns unique interregional
synthesis is also reflected in the monumental architecture. The Old Temple
combined the U-shaped pyramid and the sunken circular court, diverse coastal
traditions, with stone masonry unique to the highlands. The antecedent
for relief carvings also has many coastal antecedents, in both stone and
plaster. Chavíns iconography and architecture is seen as
an unprecedented unification of previously heterogeneous elements. This
is particularly the case with the Obelisk.
The Obelisk features, in two representations, a zoomorphic
figure dominated by cayman attributes. Caymans are found in the low tropical
forests. The carvings convey a single composition in several narrative
units. Lathrop referred to the figures as a primordial deity and the "overarching
cosmological symbol in the culture of Nuclear America." The cayman
is an important component in the "Tree of Life" figure in Middle
American iconography, where it is usually depicted in a descending, or
partition posture, as the base of the tree and with its tail replaced
by vegetation. Campana believes the Tello Obelisk narrates a cosmological
myth. Wheatley sees the Obelisk as a very complete and detailed model
of the cosmos. While the speculations about the meaning of the iconography
are intriguing, I think the meanings will always remain in the realm of
the unproven. Nonetheless, I find it significant that the symbolism evokes
meaning to those who view the iconography today.
These cosmogonic interpretations arise in part from the
diverse representations of life forms in the imagery, and in part from
ethnographic analogy and contemporary myths. The two great cayman representations
are nose upright and, in scale, are nearly the size of the Obelisk. A
harpy eagle rises above the snout of one of them, giving the impression
of a sky element at the top of the monolith. The water element is insinuated
by the cayman and also by Spondylus and Strombus shells,
elements from the Pacific Ocean. Cultivated plants of Amazon Basin origin
are associated with the heads, mouths and noses of faces with pronounced
canine teeth, possibly jaguar representations. The Obelisk features the
largest mouth emblem of all Chavín mouth depictions, and has 15
exaggerated large mouths among the 50 mouths featured. The many faces,
mouths, plants, animals, anthropomorphs, shells, snakes, and geometric
forms fill the space on the monolith and cover the body of the cayman.
Stone itself can impart meaning to an object. Granite,
as the hardest locally available stone, conveys a message of immutability.
It also points to the probable desire of the monuments creators to hewn
a long-lived object. The shape of the object, especially in relation to
possible function, may also impart some meaning. If the slender monolith
was used as a gnomon to tell diurnal and seasonal time the imagery may
be related to the seasonal renewal of life or have meaning within the
context of the passage of time. Within this context the very ancient life
form of the cayman, and the very recently evolved life forms of domesticated
plants combine to present a possible representation of the changes in
life in relation to time, a concept more in keeping with a "Tree
of Life" interpretation and an understanding of evolution and the
interrelationships of all life forms. The obelisk also has the form of
a sprouting plant shoot.
Meaning can also be sought in the objects location.
The Tello Obelisk was, in all probability, located on the same, central
east-west axis as the Lanzón, the only other prismatic granite
sculpture at the site. This axis aligns facing sunrise (103 degrees east
of north), reinforcing the interpretation of the monolith serving as a
solar gnomon. Lathrop regards the Tello Obelisks location as a material
representation of an axis mundi, a placemark representing the center place.
The configuration at Chavín is reminiscent of the configuration
at Tiwanaku, where a millennium later it is repeated by the Ponce monolith
inside the Kalasasaya monument, and a tall, slender monolith in the sunken
court, in front of and centered on the Kalasasaya axis and aligned to
the Equinox sunrise. This correlation reinforces the possible relationship
The Tello Obelisk is an intriguing artwork worthy of close
study. While its interpretations may never be fully supported, it definitely
evidences the complexity of the iconography of its makers. The Obelisk
forces us to ponder the thoughts of its makers. The intense overlays and
metaphorical substitutions of so many diverse aspects of nature make us
question what its makers thought about the relationships of these life
forms. Perhaps in so doing the Tello Obelisk is carrying out the intended
function of its creators, to serve as an immutable testimonial about the
relationships they observed in the diverse environments of desert, mountain
and jungle, and to stimulate those who view the imagery to contemplate
lifes relationships. If so, this is a more impressive accomplishment,
by my thinking, than the laborious technological feat of its creation.
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