This bold strip of fabric was part of a decorative border for a garment from the ancient Peruvian culture of Paracas. The base layer is woven from camelid hair in a plain weave. The woven layer is completely concealed by careful embroidery of stem stitches that form blocks of red, green, blue, and yellow. Each block depicts a humanoid figure that sticks out its tongue, revealing two rows of straight teeth. The dazzling eyes, comprised of concentric circles, resemble those of the “Oculate Being,” a supernatural creature seen on early Paracas textiles. Each figure appears to wear a turban—a garment worn on the head with a long train that hangs over the back—and a skirt with a fringed or tabbed hem. (Turbans and skirts are two types of Paracas garments that feature embroidered borders.) Each figure carries a staff, or perhaps two separate items in each hand.
Ancient Paracas textiles, which date to between 700 B.C. and 200 A.D., are renowned for their beauty, diversity, and masterful execution of complex fabric structures. Most examples that survive today were found well-preserved in elite burial sites in the coastal desert of the Paracas Peninsula. Individual corpses were wrapped in voluminous layers of cloth called “mummy bundles.” In these bundles, tucked close to the body were often ritual paraphernalia, food, or other goods necessary for sustenance and success in the next life. Garments—mantles, turbans, tunics, ponchos, loincloths, and skirts—as well as fabric fragments were also wadded near the body.
Paracas textiles typically feature a repeated figural image, as is seen on this fragment. Scholar Ann Peters documents that many of these textiles employ a cycle of four colors in varied combinations for the repeated motifs. The high-contrast colors in the blocks of this border fragment, as well those in a related piece at the Brooklyn Museum (BMA 86.224.112), follow a four-color system.
Researchers of Andean textiles have observed that the designs and symmetries of the fabrics often reference the structures of fiber, weaving, and other elements of fabric-making. For example, embroidered patterns on some textiles resemble large twisted strands of yarn (such as MMA 33.149.15 and the end borders of MMA 1978.412.55). Such design choices were likely meaningful for ancient Andean societies because they speak to the cultural value of cloth itself, a common yet precious material. Weaving and cloth were pervasive in both everyday life and ceremonial practice for these cultures. Scholars argue that fabric was in fact the chief medium of expression, having critical social and religious functions that communicated ideas, such as aspects of identity and relations with the divine. Such meanings would have been important in a burial context.
The maker(s) of this border fragment may have integrated allusions to fiberwork into the piece. The well-defined rectangular color blocks take after the checkerboard patterns common on Paracas textiles (see, for instance MMA 33.149.94). Scholars note that such patterns may refer to the perpendicular warp and weft yarns of the simple woven fabric underneath the elaborate embroidery. The pattern could have been another way of reinforcing the paramount importance of weaving and cloth as an expressive medium, especially for an individual passing from an earthly life to the next.
Laura Allen, Bard Graduate Center, 2018
Works Cited and Further Reading
Frame, Mary, 1986. "The Visual Images of Fabric Structures in Ancient Peruvian Art," in The Junius B. Bird Conference on Andean Textiles, April 7th and 8th, 1984, ed. Ann Pollard Rowe, 47-80.
Lechtman, Heather. 1993. “Technologies of Power: The Andean Case,” in Configurations of Power: Holistic Anthropology in Theory and Practice, edited by John Henderson and Patricia Netherly, 244–280. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Paul, Anne. 1990. Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
Paul, Anne, ed. 1991. Paracas Art and Architecture: Object and Context in South Coastal Peru. Des Moines: University of Iowa Press.
Paul, Anne, 2000. “Protective Perimeters: the Symbolism of Borders on Paracas Textiles.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 38, no. 1 (Autumn 2000): 144-167.
Paul, Anne. 2004. "Symmetry schemes on Paracas Necrópolis textiles," in Embedded Symmetries: Natural and Cultural, edited by Dorothy K. Washburn, 59-80. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Peters, Ann H., 2016. “Emblematic and material color in the Paracas-Nasca Transition.” Nuevo Mundo/Mundos Nuevos. December 8, 2016. https://journals.openedition.org/nuevomundo/69877
Proulx, Donald A. 2008. “Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru,” in Handbook of South American Archaeology, eds. Helaine Silverman and William Isbell, New York: Springer, 563–584.