How can I find the meaning for each figure on the Paracas textile?
They're not actually identified, so we don't know. We do know that you can tell if they are human or supernatural by the feet.
The one on the left in your photo is a severed trophy head, and the vines growing up from the head represent the cycle of death and rebirth.
I would like to know the meaning of all the little characters around the Paracas Mantle?
That's an excellent question and to be honest, our curators would like to know as well! Unfortunately, many of the characters remain unknown to us but we do know that you can tell if they are a human or supernatural figure by looking at the feet.
I found a llama!
Awesome! There are so many different and amazing figures. Some are definitely recognizable but some are a total mystery.
How it was made?
This object would have been hand sewn and was likely used as a funerary wrapping it is made of cotton and 'camelid fiber' which means fiber, or hair, from an animal such as an alpaca or vicuna. It is also mysterious because it was found in Paracas but the sewing technique is known to be from the Nasca peoples so it is a question of where exactly it originates.
Is this a unique piece or there are other pieces similar to this one?
This piece is unique but we do have other Paracas and Nazca textiles in the collection. We do have another funerary textile in the Life, Death and Transformation galleries in the front room where all of the skulls are! Feel free to check that one out too if you get a chance--the two look pretty different from each other. The one on view now is a Wari tapestry-weave textile.
Why the images of their foot are not the same? These are also different from Egypt.
Hi--thanks for using the ASK app today! That's an amazing observation and the reason their feet differ is because certain feet represent humans and others represent supernatural beings.The feet on the textile are actually the only reason the curators know how to differentiate the figures! The textile comes from Peru, and yes, it is very different from what we see in ancient Egypt, where the statues and paintings seem to have two left feet.
That illustration will help you to "read" the tiny figures along the dense border of the mantle!
The amount of detail is really remarkable. We can see the figures' garments and even their jewelry.
Also, some of them are double-sided, completely embroidered on both sides. Really labor-intensive!
What was this used for?
We think that it was a ceremonial object because of its complexity. It was likely found in a burial.
What are these pictures? I can't seem to find any information about them?
Oh fantastic, those are illustrations of the figures around the fringe of the Paracas Textile in this room, under the glass case.
Wow! They look so different in color!
These are hand-made, incredibly intricate figures, some human, some animal, some supernatural. You may see some of the figures in an illustration underneath, which shows how the back of the figure was also completed. It's mind-boggling to me how these pieces were made. We consider this piece to be one of the masterpieces of our collection. No other mantle of this type in the world is as large, intricate and preserved as well as this one.
What would it have been used for? Was it ceremonial?
Yes, most likely it was used as a ceremonial object. It was likely used as a funerary object. We don't know what its use was beforehand, but its small size (much smaller than mantles that were worn for everyday) and the complexity of the border figures suggest that it may have been used flat so the figures were more visible. It's so amazing to me that this is a 2000 year old object. I think we tend to understand history as an ever-evolving upward journey of innovation, but this handiwork, done thousands of years ago, proves how innovative, skilled and talented humans have been throughout time.
This may be a strange question, but if it was a ritual burial object, isn't it inappropriate for it to be separated from the body it was found with? I have this same feeling about the Egyptian mummies, it just feels sad.
Not at all a strange question. Excavations and archeological digs are handled much differently today than they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you can imagine, back in the early 1900s, mummy bodies from Egypt were unwrapped for entertainment at wealthy people's salon parties, and in earlier centuries (around 16th-17th) mummy remains were sold for medicinal purposes and for a paint pigment called "mummy brown". Humanity's ethical revolution is certainly a slow one.
Have there been attempts at any restoration or historically destroyed tombs?
No, archeologists do not try to restore tombs that have been destroyed. They try to preserve the historical context of the space and architecture as it is. It's an ethical issue, archeologists cannot be completely sure what the original tombs would look like, and their materials, tools and perceptions are different from what the original culture intended.
I can see why this is so complicated. Thanks so much for answering all my questions today. I had a great visit.
I'm so glad to hear that. Your inquiries were so thought provoking. Hope to hear from you again!
What are the main embroidery techniques used on Paracas textiles?
Hi and thanks for using the ASK app today! What a great question, while I look into a specific answer, in the meantime I can tell you than Andean textiles (those made by peoples in the Andes regions) are known for their extraordinary designs and colors. We do know that the ninety figures around the border were created by "needle knitting." The interior fabric was woven on a loom with the colored designs of faces of the Occulate Being made by wrapping the colored thread around the beige warp threads.
So sorry about that! I can tell you also that the fibers are made of camelid fibers (alpaca or vicuna) and were dyed about 7 different colors to make up the work.
What is the blue dye in the Paracas textile? Indigo?
We don't have the specific dyes listed but we do know they were all dyed with natural pigments from plants, minerals, and animals, so it's possible. I am truthfully not sure what was common for dye use in Peru at the time!
Are the figures deities? Do these deities have names?
This piece is somewhat of a mystery because not much is known about these figures. Around the border, there is a combination of human, supernatural, and animal forms. If you look at the feet of the figures, you will see the more flat-footed ones are human, and those with the sort of back-toe are supernatural beings (also referred to as monkey feet). The animals look like animals - llamas, pampas cat, frogs, snakes, etc.- and the plants and trees are also realistically rendered and depict real plants and trees found on the south coast of Peru today. All of these figures together have been interpreted as a microcosm of life on Peru's South Coast during this time. There is a focus on agriculture as well as the practice of ritual sacrifice, symbolizing the cycles of birth and death.
What do the germinating heads look like? I can't seem to spot them.
They are the face-like elements with sprouting coming out of the top. I am trying to figure out how to point you to an example. It actually may be easier to find them on the line drawing on the wall first, and then go back to the textile to look.
Here is how the curators explain the germinating heads: Other border figures hold or display disembodied heads and small doll-like objects that scholars call "trophy heads" and "effigy figures."...Trophy heads on the border often appear to germinate like seeds, sprouting plants and animals, suggesting interconnected cycles of birth and death.
Who is Lois Martin?
She was a research associate here at the Brooklyn Museum, working on the "Paracas textile" in the early 1990s.
She specialized in pre-Columbian art. She's not on the staff currently, but we're certainly still using her research, as you can see!
Is the map suggesting that these areas share a common cultural or spiritual thread?
Did the Inca and Aztec share a common pantheon of gods?
The map is there to contextualize different tribes and peoples with current geo-political boundaries.
As for your second question, no, the Inca and Aztec didn't share much in terms of spiritual beliefs. The Aztec, reside in current day Mexico and northern Central America, whereas the Inca were based in South America. The Inca controlled almost the entire western region of South America extending from southern Colombia to central Chile.
There are similarities in their appreciation and execution of large building projects, but outside of that their gods and origin beliefs are very different. Would you care to know more?
Okay! There is a fair amount of information, so let me start with the creation myths for both peoples.
The Aztecs believed that in the beginning was the void. It was at some ancient time in the Aztec creation story that the dual god, Ometecuhtli/Omecihuatl, created itself. This god was good and bad, chaos and order, male and female. Being male and female, it was able to have children. It had four, which came to represent the four directions of north, south, east and west.
The Inca believed that in the beginning, all was darkness and nothing existed (popular belief). Viracocha the Creator came forth from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the land and the sky before returning to the lake. He also created a race of people - in some versions of the story they were giants.
These people and their leaders displeased Viracocha, so he came out of the lake again and flooded the world to destroy them. He also turned some of the men into stones. Then Viracocha created the Sun, Moon and stars.
Sounds like Genesis.
It does, doesn't it? Floods, Giants, the beginning being entirely darkness. There are parallels to Christianity found in many other belief systems.
How is the Paracas textile preserved? How is it possible to retain color and texture from 300BC?
Like many very old yet well-preserved objects, the Paracas Textile came from a burial. In Nasca burial practices, the deceased was wrapped in many layers of textiles, both plain and elaborately decorated like the mantle here. The whole bundle was then buried underground. The dark controlled environment of a burial helps preserve organic materials like textiles and the pigments you see here. In addition, the South Coast of Peru, where this was found, is one of the driest regions of the world, which contributed to the preservation of textiles.
You may notice that some colors do survive better than others, that has to do with how well the pigment adheres to the fibers.
What did they use for the pigments?
The Nasca people used natural pigments derived from plants, insects, and minerals. They may have used certain sea shells, too.
Can you tell me about this?
The "Paracas Mantle" is one of the most important ancient Andean textiles in a museum collection! Along the edge of the mantle are 90 human and supernatural beings.
If you look really close at the Mantle, you can see that some figures have flat feet while others have a backward facing toe on their feet. This is how you tell them apart.
What kinds of dyes were used to get these colors?
Oh the Paracas textile--such an important work of art. They would have used plant based dyes to create these vivid colors you see here. They also used mineral pigments and possibly cochineal, a red pigment from the body of female cochineal insects The care the artists took to create the rich and varied colors in this piece lead scholars to believe that it had a ceremonial use.
The figures on the border represent human and supernatural beings. You can tell which figures are human and which are supernatural based on their feet. Humans have flat feet while supernatural beings have feet with a toe curving backwards, almost like a monkey's paw. There are also animals: llamas, pampas cats, frogs, and snakes.
Thank you for that extra information!! So cool about the feet. Do you happen to know which plant dyes? I'm just wandering through the museum but those objects caught my eye.
I love this textile too and it is preserved so perfectly! Andean textiles generally survive through burials due to funerary customs and the arid climate at certain sites along the Peruvian coast. Dyes used include for reds: madder lake, relbunium and cochineal; for black/dark blue and various shades of blue: indigo; for purple: mixture of indigo and red and sometimes shellfish purple.
That's ok! Just curious. I suppose we could find out by seeing what dye-giving plants and minerals are native to that area. They have used so many colors that many must have been utilized.
What more can you tell me about the Nasca Mantle?
Quite a lot! The Mantle is almost two thousand years old and features ninety embroidered figures along the outer edge. It was likely created for ceremonial use and was later included in a mummy bundle, which is how it was preserved.
The figures on the border represent human and supernatural beings. You can tell which figures are human and which are supernatural based on their feet. Humans have flat feet while supernatural beings have feet with a toe curving backwards, almost like a monkey's paw. Interesting enough, scholars were able to identify the Mantle as a work by Nasca artisans by the specific embroidery technique used to create the figures. It's called three-dimensional cross-knit looping.
It's really an incredible work! I love how detailed the figures are, I'd definitely recommend taking a close look at them.
Why does the curved toe signify supernatural beings?
In Nasca art, supernatural beings are often shown with hybrid or composite elements, so a mixture of human and animal features.
How is the trim of the Paracas textile made?
The border was created through a method called three-dimensional cross-knit looping. Interesting enough, scholars were able to identify the Mantle as a work by Nasca artisans by the specific embroidery technique used to create the figures (when the piece came into the museum, it was originally attributed to Paracas artisans).
The central panel, conversely, was created by a warp-wrapping technique which is also unique to pre-Columbian Peru. The border may have even been added later to the central panel. The cross-looping technique is done very much the way it sounds. Dyed camelid wool is attached to a cotton foundation in rows of interlocking loops.
Did Nacsa artists like those who made this Mantle ever interact with Incan people?
This mantle, from the Paracas peninsula of Peru, was made by a Nasca artist. The Nasca and Inca cultures existed at different times. The Nasca culture dates from about 100-600 CE, while the Inca Empire dates from 1400-1532.
The Southern Coast of Peru, where the Nasca lived, was part of the territory included in the Inca empire. While the Inca would have seen some evidence of Nasca culture, such as their geoglyphs which are still present today, about a thousand years separated them.
We see shared practices among the cultures of the Andes, from early to later, because as time progressed, different cultures grew from each other or interacted via empires and trade.
What sort of ceremony might this mantle have been used for?
The Paracas Textile, by an ancient Nasca artist or artists, is incredible! While it was likely to have been worn in some sort of ceremony prior to its inclusion in a burial, it's not clear where or how it would have been used.
Many textiles that come from ancient coastal Peru were included in burials. Bodies of the deceased were wrapped in many, many layers of textiles before being buried. Since this textile is so complex and would have required a lot of hours to create, scholars think it was unlikely to have been made to only be placed in a burial.
We don't have written records from coastal Peru two thousand years ago that would provide some insight. By exploring their material culture, however, we can determine an interest in fertility and agriculture, as well as a religious system based around shamanism, a tradition seen in many South American societies.
The Paracas Textile mantle is at once intricate and complex. Is this mantle very old? What of the pattern in the middle, has their significance been revealed?
It can be hard to believe but it's nearly two thousand years old! The South Coast of Peru, where it was found, is one of the driest climates on the planet, which allows for the preservation of textiles in burials.
And yes, the pattern in the middle has been identified as the face of the "Occulate Being," a fertility deity seen in ancient Nasca art.
Mind blowing! Surely this cannot be classified as primitive art?
A century ago, when these textiles were being discovered, some people did consider it as such since it was from the ancient Americas. However, the ascription of the term "primitive art" to objects produced by non-Western cultures is a relic of a time when Western cultures considered themselves to be "superior". It's pretty clear that works like this, and some later textiles from the region that realize abstraction in a way that wouldn't be seen again until the advent of modern art, that these artists were truly masters.
Remarkable! I am truly in awe.
What does the interior part represent and why is it so much less detailed than the border?
Well, for one thing, they were produced using very different techniques. The center panel was created by "warp-wrapping" in which the colored thread was wrapped around the gridded warp whereas the border was created using "three-dimensional cross-knit looping." Scholars believe that the central cloth may be from the Ica Valley of Peru and predate the border piece. The figure that appears is associated with the "Oculate Being," an early agricultural or fertility god. This deity often appears as only a face with large eyes, an elongated nose, smiling mouth, and protruding tongue.
As a knitter and fiber arts enthusiast myself, I am blown away by the level of detail. Is needle knitting the same as we know it to be today? Is the process a lost art?
It's not lost, people still do practice the cross-knit looping technique though we are not sure if it has been continually practiced over the centuries or if people today have revived it based on archaeological evidence.
Do any examples of needles survive from back then? Minuscule is probably just a start...
Yes! We do find needles in the archaeological record associated with both Nasca and Paracas cultures. The ones that have survived are usually fashioned from bone or thorns.
Oh how much delicacy would have been required of that material! Just carving down the bone to the size required to produce the level of delicacy here, I can't imagine it! Do any other textiles representing this technique exist elsewhere?
Numerous similar textiles are known from burials in Peru's South Coast region, though none as complete as this one.
What is camelid fiber, a type of plant thread?
Camelid fiber is actually the wool of an animal in the camelid family. In the case of the Andes, llama, alpaca, vicuña or guanaco.
What is needle knitting?
Needle knitting refers to the technique used to create parts of the mantle.
Interestingly, two techniques have been identified. It can be described as a cotton plain weave in which the warp threads are wrapped with dyed camelid
fibers to create the Occulate Being images in the center. The grid pattern is made by
interlocking of warp and weft threads.
The border was created using a technique known as three dimensional cross-knit looping. This technique was used exclusively by Nasca artists.
The use of the two techniques has led some scholars to believe that the border was actually added later.
The dyes and fibers of the mantle border seem to be richer and in better shape than the woven center. Is that because of a difference in fibers between the cotton center and camelid border?
That's definitely a contributing factor. Camelid fibers are stronger, more resilient, and hold dyes better than cotton fibers. It's also possible that the center textile predates the border. Finally, different techniques were used to create each part. The central panel was made with a loom, while the border was created through a Nazca embroidery technique.
Tell me how and when The Paracas Textile was found.
While we don't know exactly where and when this item was found, it closely resembles those excavated by Julio Tello, a Peruvian archaeologist, in 1925. He conducted excavations in Peru’s southern coastal region and unearthed numerous Paracas and Nasca Textiles. It is called the "Paracas Textile" because it was originally attributed to the Paracas culture. This designation changed when it was determined that the border was made using an exclusively Nasca weaving technique.
Hi, my name is Nicola. I am wondering how this wonderful and special collection came to be. Who went to the Americas, bringing the pieces home? How did they end up in this museum?
This piece actually entered our collection in 1938 through the John Thomas Underwood Memorial Fund. After its excavation, likely by a Peruvian archaeologist, we do not have a clear picture of its history. We do know that it was brought to France and then New York for different exhibitions.
Thank you. Are there disputes about whether this piece or others should rather be with the people that made them? Like with the Elgin Marbles in London?
There is definitely an ongoing conversation about the proper ways to care for and display objects, especially concerning those belonging to certain Native American groups. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) permits federally recognized Native American tribes to claim certain objects from any federally funded institution, for instance. In the case of this object, we have not received a request from the Peruvian government to return it.
The Brooklyn Museum complies and deaccessions objects in compliance with NAGPRA and appreciates open communication with Native American delegations which enhance our understanding of these objects. So much of their meaning is tied to oral histories.
This is very interesting. I am always wondering about this in ethnological museums whose collections were gathered at a time when we were less sensitive about colonialism.