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Reading Between the Threads:
Interpreting Pre-Colombian Textiles from the Peruvian Andes

Irene Good
Curator, Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology
7 pm, Wednesday, April 9, 2003 in MIT Room E51-376

In Discover (April, 2001), Heather Pringle wrote: "The Inca were cloth makers, the likes of whom Europe had never known. Inca weavers made bridges from cords, wove roofs from fibers, and counted their wealth not in scribbles on a page but in patterns of knots on woolen strands. And they wove a woolen fabric from the fleece of the alpaca, a small, slender member of the camel family, that was so soft and alluring it was prized above almost all else in the highland empire centered in what is now Peru. Among the people of the Andes, cloth was currency. Inca emperors rewarded the loyalty of their nobles with gifts of soft fabric made by expert weavers. They gave away stacks of fine woolen textiles to assuage the pride of defeated lords. They paid their armies in silky smooth material. For an emperor intent on glory, as most Inca emperors were, cloth making was a major enterprise of state. The imperial textile warehouses were so precious that Inca armies deliberately set them afire when retreating from battle, depriving their enemies of that which made them strong."

What can we learn about ancient Andean societies by studying the textiles they produced? What can we deduce about the chronology of historical events? About the movement of people and ideas? About agriculture, technology, trade, gender roles? About war and peace? We will ask Dr. Irene Good, who works at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, where she is in charge of preserving and interpreting one of the world's largest collection of pre-Colombian textiles.

[Nasca sash]

For more information, see:

  • Heather Pringle's aforementioned article in Discover (April, 2001), in which she also raises and addresses the question: "Did the ancient Inca make the finest woolen cloth the world has ever known?"

  • In 1997, the University of Iowa Museum of Art put together an exhibit on ancient Andean textiles:

    The textiles of ancient Peru, where cloth has been woven in immensely varied styles for over four thousand years, represent the acme of their cultures' artistic achievement. Just as the painting and sculpture displayed in our museums are widely considered to be the most potent expression of modern Western aesthetic systems, and church architecture and ornamentation to be the culminating artistic expression of the European Middle Ages, so were textiles the pinnacle of aesthetic production in pre-Columbian Peru. The well-known Inca Empire and the earlier Wuari, Chimu and Nasca (or Nazca) cultures, all of which were centered in the Andean region of western Peru, were textile-oriented cultures. [...] The essence of ancient Peruvian social organization, technological systems, religious and philosophical practices is woven into these dramatic textiles.

  • Textiles can provide valuable clues about the nature of Incan society in the pre-Colombian Andes. In contrast, the written language of the Incas, if it ever existed, has proved very difficult to decipher. An article by Eli Lehrer in Science & Technology (Spring, 1997) details one scholar's attempt.

  • A presentation by Carol Snyder Halberstadt about the traditional Navajo on Black Mesa (Arizona) and their present-day attempt to preserve their own indigenous heritage of wool and weaving.