Paracas and Other Andean Textiles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

posted on 26 Sep 2017 09:14 by swang
Comments - 0

BGC students enrolled in the Spring 2017 course “Inca and Their Ancestors” class met with Christine Giuntini, textile conservator with the Metropolitan who led a discussion about Andean textiles that included an in-depth study of several significant Paracas and Nasca textiles in the MMA’s collection. The examination of these textiles affords researchers a unique opportunity to study complex techniques and materials used in ritual objects produced by an enigmatic culture.

In the early twentieth century, it was the appearance of vivid, accomplished textile pieces that initially alerted the public to the existence of a previously unknown Andean culture now defined as Paracas from the south coast of Peru. Bright, intricately woven and uniquely embroidered textiles began showing up in international art markets. A Peruvian archaeologist, Julio Tello, eventually discovered three necropolis sites situated on the arid Paracas Peninsula. As noted in the previous posts, South Coast mummy bundles consist of human remains interred in large baskets with ceramics and metalwork. The entire basket and body were then wrapped in multiple layers of varying types of plain and decorated textiles, including mantles, loincloths, turbans and belts. Tello’s excavations uncovered over 400 mummy bundles that had been buried over the course of 300 years in shallow or shaft graves. The intensely dry climate and remoteness of the region protected the bundles for nearly 3,000 years.

Peru’s long desert coastline runs north to south along the Pacific Ocean. The region is interrupted at regular intervals by rivers running westward from the Andes, thus creating microclimates of fertility where cotton has been domesticated and grown for thousands of years. Along with alpaca, it was this crop that provided the foundation material for Paracas woven textiles. Alpaca was the preferred fiber for the highly decorated cloths. Not content to solely produce cotton fabrics, significant long-distance trade took place with highland Andean populations to procure camelid fibers (alpaca, llama, and vicuna) and rare insect and plant dyestuffs. The level of sophisticated, labor-intensive techniques and complex design plans suggests that the Paracas culture may have had artisans who focused primarily on textile production.

Fragments of borders are one of the most well-represented works in MMA collection. Cotton fiber was preferred as the ground fabric for many of the embellished garments in collection’s borders. Unlike the camelid wool fibers used for embroidery, the woven cotton foundation is often poorly preserved. Giuntini suspects that cotton prefers to be held in a neutral pH environment. On the other hand, archaeological camelid wools can have a naturally low 3.5 acid pH. As a result, many of the textiles in the collection require stabilization either with passive mounting or with the addition of modern thread supports. As can be seen, the underlying brown cotton weave at the bottom right corner of Figure 1 is particularly fragile, while the red, wool embroidery remains bright and sturdy (Fig. 1). The darker the cotton, the more likely it is to be degraded.


Fig. 1. Border fragment: brown cotton ground textile with red camelid embroidery over. MMA 33.149.93.

Prior to Tello’s work, Paracas burials were not scientifically excavated. In the early 20th century, in order to support subsequent excavations, some objects and artifacts went directly to the art market and into collector’s hands with little thought as to caring for delicate materials. Even during the earliest excavations, textiles may have been cleaned with strong soaps and then stored for long periods in inconsistent storage conditions. In addition, the organic materials and dyes that comprise ancient textiles are especially vulnerable to light exposure, which has a cumulative impact. Temperature and humidity levels must be consistent and appropriate for conservation. As previously noted, different fiber types react differently to environments. Because most of the Paracas textiles are a composite of cotton and camelid wool, there is no single ideal setting for public display. As a result, only a fraction of the textiles in the MMA’s collection (indeed in most museum collections) can be put on display.

Even in controlled conditions, the act of hanging textile pieces stretches and weakens them. Therefore, all of the objects we observed were stored flat, often with custom shaped supports and some were pressure mounted under plexiglass (PMMA). Simply put, Christine Giuntini recommends that these textiles be handled and moved as little as possible.

Some of the excavated Paracas bundles were unwrapped revealing fine textiles in the form of garments interspersed with layers of coarser undecorated cotton cloth, with some elite burials containing dozens of layers. Textile researchers have discovered that while some garments may have been woven expressly for burial, others appear to have been worn in life. The best-preserved fabrics tended to come from middle layers rather than exterior layers or those closer to the body.

The woven base textiles were likely woven on a back-strap loom, with the tension provided by the body of the weaver (Fig. 2). Cloth was not cut, although it could be folded or gathered when worn; rather a textile was made to conform to the size of the garment. The resulting cloth has four selvedge edges; and embellished with needle looped or tasseled edges, or both. Some shirts were constructed by joining two loom widths of cloth, leaving the center seam partially open for a neckline.


Fig. 2. Peruvian (Inca) weaving and spinning illustration by Felip Guaman Poma de Ayala (ca. 1535).

Beginning with a woven cotton, or camelid, foundation, a textile would be embellished with a variety of treatments, such as wool embroidery. For one particular kind of shirt, design borders were not contiguous and were applied in reversed L shapes around the rectangular or square textile. The textile literature often describes these unembellished areas as design “breathing space.” These unembellished areas are often described as design “breathing space” (Fig. 3). Its frequency in Paracas garment decoration suggests that it had some significance in Paracas society.


Fig. 3. Bordered “breathing space” garment. Illustration from Anne Paul, Paracas Ritual Attire (1990). Notes by Sarah Reetz.

Decorative elements, such as fringing at the shoulders, embroidered or complex woven borders or tabbed edging were added (Fig. 4). When the artisan planned the overall design, a single type of iconographic representational embellishment would be used for every image on that particular textile. Modern textile researchers (Menzel, Dwyer) have categorized these styles of embroidery as Block-color, Linear, and Broad-line Modes. A particular type of iconographic program was selected and dogmatically followed throughout.


Fig. 4. Garment elements. Illustration from Anne Paul, Paracas Ritual Attire (1990).

Scholarly study of these complex iconographies has revealed that Block-Color images are usually outlined first and in-filled to create solid color embroidered areas. A single embroidery stitch, known as a back-stitch is used throughout. This technique begins with the outlining of a figure in the background color, after which interior details, such as facial features are added. When necessary, the background is filled in with stitches running parallel to the woven shape of the textile. The interiors of the figure (often an animal or anthropomorphic creature) are filled in with many other colors, creating blocks of color. Shapes can be linear or curved (Fig. 5). In this particular band, which features alternating panels of flying beings, the artist used the flexibility of the block-color style to imply movement; the figure’s necklace seems to swing in space. Throughout, a motif of disconnected—or severed—heads can be realistically depicted due to the ability to use rounded forms. For modern researchers, block-color images can provide information about how clothing, headdresses, and jewelry might have been worn.


Fig. 5. Block-color mode border fragment detail, camelid and cotton fiber, 3rd – 2nd century BCE. MMA 33.43.

As its name suggests, the Linear mode of design tends toward more abstraction and geometric shaping of images. Straight, narrow lines of embroidery define and outline the figures. Forms do not overlap or connect and there is no solid in-fill coloration; rather forms often contain other forms (Fig. 6). In this linear design, a leering feline encompasses another animal, perhaps a lizard. At first glance, the embroidery work seems confined to the geometric images. A closer look, however, reveals that the entire red background is comprised of individually applied stitches. The only area in which the woven ground fabric shows, are in the brown details and the edges where the cotton has decayed (Fig. 1).


Fig. 6. Linear mode, detail of border fragment, camelid and cotton, 5th-2nd century BCE. MMA 63.30.21.

The rarer Broad line mode corresponds more closely to the linear style. Straight lines predominate, though broad line is made up of several rows of adjacent stitches instead of single stitches—hence the name Broad line. Limbs sometimes feature a single row of color down the middle. Some portions of the figure are embroidered with the background color, giving a more ephemeral, less densely organized appearance (Fig. 7).


Fig. 7. Broad line mode. Border fragment, camelid and cotton, 4th century BCE. MMA 33.149.24.

The embroidered Paracas textiles primarily communicated their decorative message from only one side of the textile and through the use of surface embroidery. However, as the Paracas cultural styles began to transition to the later Nasca period, an emphasis shifted to producing complex woven structures. Scholarly research indicates that during the “Nasca” period it may have become that it may have become important for all faces of a textile to be congruent. Perhaps as a result, double-woven fabric structures developed. Essentially, a single textile is woven simultaneously with two faces, producing a double-layered compound fabric. Each layer has its own warp and weft construction, which intersect each other during the weaving process. Colors are typically light and dark or strongly contrasted, the better to show color reversal—a pattern that is nearly ubiquitous in Ocacaje textiles and ceramics. When executed as a dark shape on a light background, the reverse of the textile shows a light shape on a dark background. In addition to requiring significantly more materials, the design must be strategically planned from the beginning and cannot be modified once weaving has begun. Giuntini suggests that imagery that couldn’t be seen may have been just important as imagery that could.

Another cloth selected for viewing was a double cloth with embroidered borders in the Nasca style that may have served as an offering cloth or head covering (Fig. 8). Although now too delicate to be lifted, the pattern of dark marine-animals is reversed to light renditions on the opposite side. A tabbed border of embroidered, uniquely rendered hummingbirds encircles the textile. Giuntini noted the varying skill levels of execution of the crayfish and speculated that two different weavers with different levels of skill might have worked on the piece.


Fig. 8. Nasca Double-weave textile, detail, camelid, 1st-2nd century CE. MMA 2005.353.

A final piece was a complex tasseled and fringed sash or headband, possibly from a later Nasca period (sixth-seventh century CE), which demonstrated multiple techniques (Fig. 9a, b, c). The blue pattern reverses to a plain yellow field on the opposite side. In addition to the double-woven construction with its applied double squares, the extensive tassels of tubular patterning and plaited fringe attest to the skill level and design sensibility of the artisan(s).


Fig. 9a. Nasca Double-weave “headband” or sash, 6th-7th century CE. MMA 1979.206.746.


Fig. 9b. Detail, Nasca double-weave “headband” camelid, 6th-7th century CE. MMA 1979.206.746.


Fig. 9c. Nasca double-weave, tubular detail and plaited fringe, camelid, 6th-7th century CE. MMA 1979.206.746.

It was an astonishing experience to be in the presence of these works and one feels compelled to share them. Unfortunately, staffing limitations reduces rotations of these engaging works. Yet the powerful imagery and the sophisticated techniques deserve a wider audience. In the short-term, perhaps a form of digital exhibition or more published research could bring them out into the light.

Sarah Reetz

Sarah Reetz is an MA student at Bard Graduate Center.


Cahlander, Adele, and Suzanne Baizerman. Double Woven Treasures from Old Peru. Saint Paul: Dos Tejedoras, 1985.

Paul, Anne. Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Stone, Rebecca. Art of the Andes: Chavin to Inca. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012.