In ancient Peru, it was believed that the sound of flutes, songs, and drums drew the attention of the gods. Special ceremonial drums played a key role in the success of religious events among the Nasca people of the South Coast. This drum would originally have had a membrane stretched across its open end and, it seems, would have been played while being carried under the arm. Such easy portability would make the drum an ideal instrument for use during active ceremonial processions at sites like Cahuachi, the major site and capital of early Nasca culture, or out on the flat pampas, or lowlands, where the famous Nasca geoglyphs are located.
This ceremonial drum is decorated with a heavy layer of polychrome slip, or watered-down clay, and was originally burnished to a high sheen. The design is a pattern of white-collared swifts, migratory birds associated with the annual growing cycle. Agriculture in the arid Nasca region was crucially dependent on water flowing from the highlands during the rainy season. The appearance of the swifts heralded the coming of the growing season. Thus, their image on a ceremonial drum of this type is undoubtedly significant, suggesting the natural associations the drum may have had and the kind of ceremonies for which it may have been used.
Apart from its intrinsic value as a work of art, this drum is interesting for its unusual conservation history. At some point prior to its acquisition by Krannert Art Museum, the drum was broken and heavily restored. When layers of color began to separate from its surface, University of Illinois scholars, scientists, and conservators conducted extensive analyses to discover the extent of the reconstruction and to reverse its unnatural effects. The results of their work yield a more accurate view of how the artwork originally looked.
Text by Margaret A. Jackson, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008