Studying colourants: fieldwork in Peru and Bolivia

In late 2011, project scientist Thibaut Devièse spent five weeks in Peru and Bolivia visiting research institutions and archaeological sites; accessing museum collections, and acquiring reference materials in collaboration with local dyeing experts.

This fieldwork was timed to coincide with the third Latin-American Symposium on Physical and Chemical Methods in Archaeology, Art and Cultural Heritage Conservation organised by San Marcos University, Lima. In relation to this project, Dr Devièse presented a paper: Analytical study of Andean textiles from the British Museum collection - a focus on weavers work-baskets. The symposium also enabled him to establish contact with colleagues working on similar or complementary subjects in South America.

While in Lima, Dr Devièse visited the Yachay Wasi Institute, a conservation training centre recognised by the Ministry of Education. Director, Jenny Figari invited traditional dyers to work with Dr Devièse in order to exchange information about dyeing techniques and produce dyed fibres. He also visited the Institut Francais d’Etudes Andines (IFEA) whose library holds essential reference material not found elsewhere.

Traditional dyeing

Traditional dyeing.


Raw materials and reference samples

Example of plant material used for dyeing, Chinchero, Peru
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    Example of plant material used for dyeing, Chinchero, Peru

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    Cochineal crushed in a mortar with lemon to be used as mordant

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    Camelid wool dyed with natural organic colourants, Chinchero, Peru

The Andean textiles in the British Museum collection include examples from both the coastal and highland regions of Peru. Plants growing in these regions used to produce dyes and pigments differ and during his field trip, Dr Devièse was able to collect plants from coastal regions around Ica and Nazca with a team of local botanists running the Huarango (habitat restoration, conservation and sustainable plant use in southern Peru) project in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Each example of a coastal dye plant found during the field trip was documented: photographs were taken and GPS coordinates noted. Samples of each were collected to allow small scale dyeing while ensuring minimal damage to the plant. In Nazca, Dr Devièse also visited a farm where tuna cactus is cultivated to produce cochineal.

Cochineal is a parasitic insect that colonises this cactus and yields a red colourant used for many applications such as cosmetics. Cochineal is a valuable resource and farming it plays an important role in the local economy.

All the plants and cochineal samples collected were used to dye alpaca wool with traditional dyers at the Yachay Wasi Institute in Lima, and all steps of the dyeing process for the different plants and cochineal were documented. The variation of some of the parameters during the dyeing process can significantly alter the colour obtained but also the composition of the resulting dye.

Reference samples were collected from highland regions through dyers and weavers around Cuzco, Peru. Again, working and talking with the dyers and weavers provided insights into dyeing techniques that cannot be found in books or scientific studies.

All of the dyed samples produced or collected during the field trip were brought back to the British Museum and will be analysed to study the composition of the colourant and expand the analytical database. These samples will also be used for accelerated ageing experiments in order to study degradation of the colourants. These steps are important to fully understand the results obtained from samples from archaeological textiles in the Museum collection.


Museums and archaeological sites

View of the archaeological site Caiarmaquillla, Peru (Lima culture)
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    View of the archaeological site Cajarmaquillla, Peru (Lima culture)

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    A view of the landscape on the south coast where plant materials were collected

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    Traditional textile produced by local weavers living near the Cajarmaquillla archaeological site

During the field trip, the project scientist had the opportunity to visit museums in Lima, Ica and Nazca. Many of the museums do not have printed or online catalogues available so visits are important for comparison with the British Museum collection. They also provided an opportunity to meet and exchange information with specialists working in these institutions.

Dr Devièse also visited archaeological sites including Cajarmaquillla and Huaca Pucllana in Lima and Chauchilla and Cahuachi in Nazca.

Museums visited:

  • Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú (Lima)
  • Fundación Museo Amano (Lima)
  • Museo Larco (Lima)
  • Museo de Oro (Lima)
  • Museo Antonini (Nazca)
  • Museo Regional de Ica (Ica)