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Interpreting Pre-Hispanic Peru through Its Textiles

The Oak Room, Fellowship House
December 1, 2016
05:30 PM to 07:30 PM
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Pre-Columbian Studies Public Lecture | Ann Pollard Rowe, The Textile Museum

The dry desert coast of Peru has preserved many textiles, which attest to a rich and varied tradition. In modern times, the abstracted designs have been appreciated as art, and the ingenious and varied techniques used to make them have also inspired contemporary fiber artists. But these textiles can tell us much more, and they provide a useful comparison with ceramic evidence. Textile production often required the most intensive technological development, and the objects themselves carried the most elaborate religious iconography and had the most political and social prestige of any medium in use at a given time. They are therefore very useful in helping to reconstruct the context in which they were originally made.

Several specific examples, for which we have especially good evidence, illustrate this point. Elaborately embroidered Late Paracas textiles from the south coast and dating from around 300–100 BC tell us about the religion of the people who also made the relatively plain Topara ceramics. Extraordinarily fine tapestry-woven Huari textiles depict several otherwise unknown ritual activities in this empire, which included both highland and coastal regions, between about 750 and 950 AD. The varied tunics and other garments found in Chancay, on the central coast, in contrast to the relatively homogeneous ceramics, tell us about their interaction with both the Chimú and Inca Empires between about 1440 and 1540, as well as local traditions.

Ann Pollard Rowe was for many years curator and now is research associate of Western Hemisphere Textiles at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She curated many exhibitions at the museum and is the author of the exhibition catalogues Warp-Patterned Weaves of the Andes (1977) and Costumes and Featherwork of the Lords of Chimor (1984). She has also edited and contributed to volumes on Andean and Ecuadorian textiles, as well as to Andean Art at Dumbarton Oaks (1996). 

Image: Detail of mantle border fragment from the south coast of Peru, Paracas Necropolis style, ca. 200–100 BC. The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., 91.102, acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1940.