Every so often, a researcher proposes a novel way to approach a subject that has been plumbed for decades. Andrew Hamilton's book, Scale and the Incas, aspires to be such a contribution, and it largely succeeds in the effort. Writing from the perspective of art history, the author engages with the materiality, semiotics, and practices of Inca objects and architecture, providing intriguing insights and speculations throughout. The central argument of the book is that the Inca engagement with the world was relational and that the scale of the material entities involved was pivotal to those interactions. As an anthropological archaeologist specializing in the Inca Empire, I found much of interest throughout the text and agree with many of the points that Hamilton makes, even if my own disciplinary orientation left me seeing certain things differently.
The book contains five sections and a conclusion. The text is heavily weighted toward description and interpretation, much less to explicit consideration of theory. That is not to say that theoretical issues do not enter the picture but that they are woven into the text in a discursive fashion. In the first part, Hamilton discusses his understanding and application of scale as an element of artistic representation and analysis. He recognizes that many past societies, non-Inca Andeans among them, employed differences of scale to impart meaning, utility, and power to their material expressions. But the essence of his thesis is that the Incas were particularly committed to such an effort and that relationships among things—facilitated through scalar differences—constituted a pivotal aspect of their engagement with the world through materiality. As with any attempt to understand things Inca, the interpretive challenge that Hamilton faces is confounded by the lack of any documentation written by the Incas themselves and by the destruction of so much of the portable material culture of the time. Consequently, he relies on a modern conceptual vocabulary to explore the issues that arise.
Chapter 2 addresses objects of small and commensurate scale, from architectural models, to objects found or made in the shape of tools, flora, and fauna, to funerary and shrine offerings, and full-sized objects. Among the best–known objects, most often previously described by scholars such as Catherine Allen (e.g., “When Pebbles Move Mountains: Iconicity and Symbolism in Quechua Ritual,” in Creating Context in Andean Cultures, ed. R. Howard-Malverde, Oxford University Press, 1997, 73–84; “The Living Ones: Miniatures and Animation in the Andes,” Journal of Anthropological Research 72, no. 4 (2016): 416–41), are the small-scale objects that Hamilton collectively calls conopas. Other terms can also be used for subsets of those objects, such as inqaychu or enqa. The small human figurines, camelids, textiles, and ceramics included in high-elevation shrines have garnered considerable attention in the literature. Those objects were thought to facilitate interaction between humans and the nonhuman beings and powers of the cosmos. This part is among the most interesting sections of the volume, as it details the nature of the objects, their likely uses (most frequently enhancing fecundity), and their semiotics within the Inca framework of thinking.
Chapter 3 addresses the built environment and commensurate-scaled objects. Here Hamilton considers the full-size garden and flocks in the Qorikancha, the principal ceremonial complex in the heart of Cuzco, the imperial capital. In this context, he describes the few full-size maize cobs still extant, since most of the objects in the temple met their demise at Spanish hands. Most of the chapter, however, is dedicated to stonework. This is an extremely rich subject that has been at the heart of Inca studies over decades (e.g., Carolyn J. Dean, A Culture of Stone: Inka Perspectives on Rock, Duke University Press, 2010). Building on this prior work, Hamilton focuses his attention on a few particular walls, whose anomalous features provide insight into Inca thought. Among those features are scoring of stones, perhaps to imitate masonry, and design of masonry to imitate or blend in with natural formations. Also of special interest are the echo stones found at Machu Picchu and elsewhere, which seem to have been designed to mimic and probably to facilitate communication with prominent peaks in the distance. Hamilton treats those stones as “reduced-scale mountains” (144–50), much as he treats carved boulders, such as the Sayhuite Stone, as “reduced-scale landscapes.” His focus here is on the role of the carving and the stones' use as interactive devices between humans and the nonhuman entities or forces of the world. That approach is well-grounded in Inca studies, but Hamilton offers his own particular interpretations: e.g., the Sayhuite Stone mediating between sky and earth by channeling rainwater.
Chapter 4 examines how scale works in Inca worldviews. The author covers a wide range of topics here, including stellar formation, the layout of Cuzco and some of its ceremonies, and large and small humans or their material counterparts. He is especially interested in the person and appearance of the emperor. Here, he ventures into a discussion of royal tunics and potential meanings of the designs woven into them. He suggests, among other things, that the famous Dumbarton Oaks tunic may well contain an abstracted geographic representation of elements of the Inca Empire. Hamilton also discusses the scaling, appearance, and roles of the brother images of the ruler (Huauque, wawqi), which could be made of metal, stones, or exuviae from the emperor's person (e.g., nail clippings). That leads him into a treatment of miniature humans, both statuettes (of gold, silver, and Spondylus shell) and the unblemished children sacrificed in the capacocha ceremony. Following the prism of scale through which he examines all his subjects, the author suggests that the children “were chosen because they were small-scale embodiments of humanity.”
As barely sketched out here, Hamilton roams widely across the Inca landscape of humanity, and across found, made, built, and modeled materials. He examines questions of substance, mimesis, and action, providing an art-historical take on each subject. Thus, he tends to emphasize the visual—especially appearance and perspective—over the temporal, kinetic, or social/contextual. For example, with only a few exceptions, he treats mimesis as if it is best understood as a visual or graphical relationship. But if mimesis is predicated on the notion of replication of being, as the Incas often thought of things, then the relationship might well have been essential or substantive, rather than visual. Similarly, with the well-taken exception of the echo stones and stellar conferral of life force, he treats agentive relationships largely through a human-centered perspective. An anthropological view on the subject, on the other hand, would tend to see a more balanced relationship of agency in the Inca world between humanity and the non-human beings and powers of the cosmos. It would be unfair to hold the author to an anthropological analytical framework, although Hamilton does draw on such publications, but the reader might consider consulting alternative takes on the subjects discussed here.
There is only one place where I part company markedly from the author, and that is on the matter of graphics. The book's profuse imagery consists almost exclusively of illustrations rather than photographs, since, as the author explains, his intent is to emphasize those features of the objects that he wishes to make most clear (17–18). Even though many of the images are aesthetically pleasing and beautifully executed, they highlight what the artist considers to be the important visual elements of the subject. Thus, they are representations subject to the filters of the illustrator's intent and hand, and the reader's eye is drawn only to that which is presented, rather than to that which could potentially be seen. Among the conventions introduced in the process is the use of modern humans for body and hand scale; the human figures are about five foot eleven, rather than the five foot one or two that would more closely approximate the Incas themselves in the sixteenth century.
In sum, this is a bold, innovative work with much to say, and I gained a great deal from reading it, despite coming at the topic from a distinct viewpoint. I recommend that it be on the shelf of anyone interested in the material culture and artistic expression of the premodern or non-Western world.