Paracas textile

Paracas Necropolis, Peru, about 300-200 BC

These textile fragments would originally have been part of a larger piece of finely woven, brightly-coloured cloth found wrapped around mummified bodies in the Great Paracas Necropolis in Peru.


They depict flying, supernatural winged figures perhaps representing shamanic flight. Each figure grasps a severed human head by the hair. Together they communicate native beliefs about journeys into the spirit world.

Paracas comes from the Quechua word para-ako meaning ‘sand falling like rain. The Paracas culture flourished on the south Pacific coast of the central Andes in what is now Peru in around 600-150 BC and is one of the earliest known complex societies in South America.

As well as depending on fish and other resources from the sea, the people of the Paracas culture were also farmers and cultivated beans, maize, red peppers, yuca and peanuts. They were also exceptional craftspeople and produced exquisitely worked stone clubs, obsidian knives, gourd bottles, rattles, pottery, shell and bone necklaces, hammered gold face and hair ornaments, feather fans and basketry.

Textiles were valued as a means for sharing religious lore and beliefs. They were worn to indicate status and authority. Some textiles were over 34 metres long and would have required large numbers of people and complex organisation to make.

They are made from camelid wool (probably llama or alpaca) and plant fibres (identified as cotton). The bright colours include indigo, green, browns, pink and white. These were all produced using by natural dyes and would have been particularly striking against the sandy beige colours of the surrounding landscape.

Natural dyes don’t always last when exposed to light or moisture so the survival of these in such vibrant conditions for over 2,000 years is extraordinary. This survival is likely to be due to the dry conditions of the unlit underground burial chambers in which they were found.

The Great Paracas Necropolis was discovered by archaeologists during the 1920s on the south Pacific Coast of the Central Andes. It is a vast communal burial site holding 420 bodies, which dates to around 300-200 BC.

The Paracas and other contemporary communities laid the foundations for the later societies of the Andes, including the Inca.

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Object details

Height: 8 cm
Width: 8 cm

 

Am1954,05.563

    References

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    K.O. Bruhns, Ancient South America. (Cambridge, 1994)

    M. Frame, ‘Blood, Fertility, and Transformation: Interwoven Themes in the Paracas Necropolis Embroideries’, in Elizabeth P. A. Benson and G. Cook (eds.), Ritual Sacrifice In Ancient Peru, (Austin, 2001) pp. 119–136.

    D.A. Proulx, ‘Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru’, in Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell (eds) The Handbook of South American Archaeology (New York, 2008) pp. 563–585

    M.E. Moseley, The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru (London, 2001)

    A. Paul, Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru. (Norman, OK, 1990)

    A. Paul (ed.), Paracas Art and Architecture: Object and Context in South Coastal Peru. (Iowa City, 1990)