paracas_om

About the objects

The Museum of World Culture in Göteborg has custody of a collection of textiles known as the Paracas Collection. These textiles were discovered on the Paracas peninsula in Peru at the beginning of the 20th century. They are about 2,000 years old and come from graves. The dead had been placed in a seated posture and then shrouded in several layers of beautiful textiles to make up a funerary bundle. Most of the textiles in these funerary bundles were woven and embroidered garments.

THE PARACAS TEXTILES ARE PART OF AN INTERNATIONAL KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE PROCESS

Radiocarbon, or C14, dating indicates that the oldest textiles in the collection are around 2,500 years old. These textiles were used as shrouds for wrapping the dead who, while seated in a basket, were then wrapped in further layers of textiles and buried in tombs. A funerary bundle of this kind could contain up to 40 embroidered textiles packed in alternating layers of plain cloth. Since the Paracas funerary bundles had been interred in dry, cold and salty desert sand, naturally protected from oxygen and light, the textiles were in very good condition when excavated around 100 years ago. Although many years have passed since scholars began mapping out the Paracas civilization on the basis of the finds, very little is still known about the lives and society of the Paracas people. However, it has been possible to ascertain that the Paracas civilization extended beyond the peninsula where the tombs were found and that it was part of the ancient Andean civilization that once spread right along the Pacific coast. In 2001, the National Museums of World Culture took the initiative of organizing the first international conference on Paracas related matters, with the aim of establishing long-term collaboration and knowledge exchange with leading experts from round the world. Several such initiatives are needed in order to pool knowledge and expertise and secure the physical survival of the collection. Systematic collaboration between experts and cultural heritage institutions would facilitate the restoration of lost as well as the acquisition of new insights and information, so the Paracas textiles continue to be appreciated with all their stunning imagery.

HOW WERE THE TEXTILES MADE AND BY WHOM?

The people who made the textiles of the Paracas civilization developed their craft into a highly sophisticated art. The textile practitioners were versed in most of the weaving techniques known today and were master spinners of fine thread. We do not know how textile production was divided up amongst the people of Paracas, but clearly they had specialized in their areas of practice. The textiles were made using cotton and the hair of the alpaca and vicuña. The ground weave was usually in cotton, which was then embroidered with a fine camelid yarn. The textiles for a large funerary bundle took a long time to produce. The biggest bundles unearthed have dimensions of 1.5  x 1.5 metres and comprise around 40 textiles, which, at an estimate, took some 10,000 hours to make. Textile production therefore required extensive co-operation, from the people growing the cotton and looking after the alpacas to those who did the dyeing, spinning, weaving and embroidering. The fantastic colours of the Paracas textiles are still today, 2,000 years later, well preserved. Alpaca and vicuña hair grow naturally in colours ranging from grey, white, fawn to brown and black. Cotton grows naturally in several different shades of colour. The natural hues of both cotton and camelid hair give rise to yet more shades when dyed and dyeing skills were very advanced.

COSTUME PARTS

Common to Andean civilizations was the strongly held tradition of burying the deceased shrouded in several layers of textiles. Most of the textiles in the funerary bundles were woven and embroidered garments, such as ponchos, mantles, tunics, loincloths and various items of headgear. We do not know for sure whether all the buried garments had been worn previously. The original significance of the textiles is for us now a mystery. One question concerns the borders round the garments. Borders usually run all the way round the edge of a textile, forming a beautiful finish. In the Paracas textiles, the borders never go all the way round:  larger or smaller openings were for some reason always retained.