Under the Inca most silversmiths, goldsmiths, stonemasons, and potters lived and worked in the towns. Their products were used by the government and by the nobility. For their work they required food from the government warehouses and regular allotments of wool for clothes. In a way, they were favored above the farmers, because they did not have to pay taxes. The craftsman, like the farmers, was happy to be working at his job and to excel at it. He taught his children his skills.
The metals mined in the Inca Empire were gold, silver, and copper, as well as some tin, lead and platinum. These metals came from open pit mines or were washed out from mountain streak; Miners were drafted from neighboring village, and towns. They prayed to the mines, which they considered huaca, to give up their metals. The Inca permitted miners to work only four months of the year—the warm months. When the four. Months' period was over, the miners returned to their homes.
The important metals were copper and tin. Tin mixed with copper made bronze, and out of bronze craftsmen fashioned fine, durable tools, knives, and balls for the ends of bolas. The Indian herders used bolas as men in the North American West use lassos.
Inca craftsmen knew many of the methods for treating metals that are known to us today. They knew how to make the cutting edges of bronze knives, axes, and chisels hard, durable, and sharp. Metals that required smelting were worked in clay furnaces. Instead of forcing a strong draft into the furnace with a bellows, the craftsmen blew into the copper tubes that led to the furnace. In some locations, where strong winds prevailed, they constructed the furnaces facing the winds, so that they would help to fan the flames.
Pure gold was hammered into sheets. Working this soft metal with a bone tool, on an anvil lined with leather, the craftsmen embossed designs on the sheet and cut it to the desired shape. The design might be a man's face, a bird, or a serpent. Craftsmen also used the repousse method we use today—they placed a mold under the gold sheet and hammered the design from the mold onto the sheet. The edges of two gold sheets were folded and clinched together skillfully. Sometimes the cages were heated and welded together; sometimes solder was used. The solder was a copper powder mixed with gum.
Craftsmen also used molds for casting metal. Sometimes they made rough casts and finished the product, after it had cooled, by cutting and hammering. They also made fine castings filling a specially designed clay mold with wax. The mold was heated, and as the wax melted, it was replaced by the molten metal, which the craftsmen poured into the mold through an opening. Hundreds of craftsmen were busy turning out gold and silver dishes, cups, and goblets, arm inlaid with shells and precious stones, and spoon with straight handles that were highly decorated with hammered designs. They molded figurine, of women, alpacas, and llamas, which the nobility used as ornaments and as decorations for their sumptuous litters. The earplugs worn by the nobility and the specially designed gold ornaments which were woven into the royal headdresses were also produced by these craftsmen.
Even with the annual sacrifices of quantities of gold and silver ornaments to the Sun, the Empire still possessed an ample supply, and the craftsmen kept turning out more and more year after year. Pottery making was also a highly developed art under the Inca. For several thousands of years the people of the Andes had been making things of clay, and by the time the Inca conquered them, there were many skilled potters scattered through the land.
Among the Andeans both men and women worked as potters. Although the women were and turned out fine water jars and attractively decorated chicha jugs and storage pots, the men were the superior potters, because under the Inca they could devote all their time to their craft.
Clays for making pottery were everywhere in the Andes. There were some fine clay beds around Cuzco. Each group of potters knew the potentials their clay and worked out the best way to temper to make good pottery. Some potters added finely ground sand, shells, and even potsherds (fragments of broken earthen pots) to make the clay more plastic and durable.
Pottery ranged from the simple, rounded cooking pots, ladles, and spindle whorls that house-wives made to the highly decorated, enormous storage jars made by skilled craftsmen. There jars of all sizes and shapes. The potters also made bowls, plates, goblets, and pitchers. There were pitchers with legs, for balancing on flat surface, and pitchers without legs, which could be placed on the ground in scooped-out holes or on a stove.
The simplest way of making a small, round-bottomed pot, after the clay had been mixed and kneaded, was to take a lump of it and shape it with the hands, let it dry for a day or two, and then fire it. Sometimes a potter rolled the clay into long coils and built up a pot with the coils, round and round, until he had the size he wanted. Next he smoothed the sides of the pot with damped hands, let it dry, then polished it with a smooth pebble and let it dry some more. To achieve a thinner finish, he sometimes pressed the freshly made pot against a smooth stone held inside the pot. The Andeans did not have the potter's wheel, but they often placed a pot on a rounded, specially molded plate and twirled it.
Before the pot were fired they were decorated with red, white, and black geometric designs, Some of which were so well made that they looked like woodwork or metalwork. Some villages had favorite designs, which were used with slight variations, and a pot belonging to a certain region was easily recognized. The designs were simple, yet strikingly strong and pleasing. Before a pot was painted, it was covered with liquid potters clay, which was called a slip. The potter rubbed in the slip and let it dry. It filled whatever pores remained in the clay. When the paint was applied with a fine reed brush, it spread evenly over the smooth surface. Experienced potter knew just how long to fire a pot or bowl close to the flame it should be placed, and how hot the flame had to be for the desired effect. Another great Inca craft was their stonework.
We still do not know exactly how the stonemasons produced such fine articles with their simple tools. Craftsmen made axes, war-club heads, clod crushers, mortars, and pestles for everyday use. They made round and square ceremonial dishes of stone, with designs in relief, and they made bone and shell spoons, needles, picks, spindle whorls, flutes, and beads. The best of the Andean stonemasons were drafted to build temples and the emperor's palaces, Hundreds of men worked together on these buildings; and enormous boulders were moved up and down mountainsides, cut to the proper size, and, without plaster, fitted together so expertly that even today a knife blade cannot be pushed between the joints of some of the old walls still standing in Peru. The Inca, like some of our modern architects, liked their buildings to be entirely functional. Their magnificent stone constructions are still marveled at today. The walls of the building were so beautiful that the Inca left them undecorated. But inside the temples was some of the finest work of the Empire: gold and silver plates; images of Viracocha, the Sun, and other deities; figures of people; and hammered serpents, pumas, and llamas.
Despite the destruction of some of this work by the Spanish, some of it survived and has been preserved in museums the world over. We are very grateful to the Inca for this rich heritage. When we see a goblet, a gold figurine, a feathered cape or blanket, a war club, or even a simple cocking pot and bowl, the Inca craftsmen and women who created them come alive in our minds and hearts.