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Marvels of Pre-Columbian America: Talking Textiles

This is a guest post by Rosemary Ryan, an Archaeological Research Fellow at the Library of Congress. Rosemary is a student at Towson University specializing in Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology. Her research at the Library is in support of the Exploring the Early Americas exhibit and the Jay I. Kislak Collection, which comprises of more than 3,000 items related to early American history, dating back to the Pre-Columbian era.

I love it when an archaeologist decides to lay down their tools, ascend out of the trench, and venture into the public domain to talk about their current work, why they are doing it, and the kinds of dilemmas they’ve encountered along the way. Ordinarily, researchers save this chattering for presentations at their local archaeological association. The reality is that very little of this found information makes it to print; but having the opportunity to work alongside curator John Hessler in the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress, has not only been a happy accident, but allowed my curious voice to be heard.

Right hand of Chancay Burial Doll, 900-1400 CE. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Photo by Rosemary Ryan.

There is quite an array of projects currently underway, but the most pertinent and challenging due to its sheer size is the most recently acquired collection, graciously donated by William and Inger Ginsberg, long time members of the Library of Congress’ Madison Council. As a whole, the collection is comprised of 28 individual Peruvian Pre-Columbian textiles which includes cocoa carrying bags called Chuspas to burial dolls. Not only are these artifacts rare due to their condition, but are exceptional examples that epitomize regional techniques and cultural importance of a bygone era. All of the items acquired have been remarkably preserved, a fact due to the accidental coincidence of two circumstances: dry, arid climate and worship of the dead. Universally practiced among ancient Peruvian cultures, the dead were buried with garments which reflected their social status, cultural identity, and/or religion. In cases where textiles are found in situ, particularly from civilizations that we know little about, garments and accessories can provide influential evidence for understanding different group identities and extensive social structure.

A few examples from the William Ginsberg Collection of Pre-Columbian Textiles. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

So here is the conundrum that we are faced with: we do not know the provenance of a single item, meaning we don’t know their specific region or culture, age, or context. My ongoing work at the Library of Congress has been to uncover as much as possible about these enigmatic items. In reality, we only possess two ambiguously broad pieces to this puzzle. Firstly, we know the items are Peruvian due to the exhibited designs, and secondly, we know that they are Pre-Columbian (from before 1492). Before the Library acquired the collection, each item had been designated with a speculative description in terms of age and relative culture. So, one must ask themselves, how do I proceed?

More often than not we are faced with the reality that there simply is not a lot of information to work with. Undertaking the daunting task of sifting through field notes, journals, and books is not exceptionally exciting, and one has to be prepared to discover nothing despite their vigilance. Finding a needle in a haystack couldn’t be more applicable, but postponed pleasures are always the sweetest. Not only does it satisfy and fuel all the work you’re putting forth, but it also gives a sense of accomplishment that you’re able to educate the public.

Close-up of the weaving technique from a Chuspa from the Southern Coastal region of Peru, 1000-1400 CE. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Photo by Rosemary Ryan.

As a self-declared modern day sleuth and forensic anthropologist, I knew zilch about textiles. I understood that the only method of understanding these items was to start with the basics, instituting my motto: learning by repetition in variation. I started obsessively studying weaving techniques, reading any material I could lay my hands on, and networking with anyone knowledgeable of the craft. The next step was to get to know the artifacts on an intimate level. This meant spending hours unraveling the nuances of each unique weave, making note of the technique, design, and coloration utilized. My thought process began to change the more time I spent with the collection. The longer I looked at the handmade textiles, the initial façade of a pretty object faded and I started to put myself in the environment of its designer. Slowly, you see yourself preparing the fibers for the yarn, spending hours at the loom, and influencing the alchemy at the dye basins. You begin to appreciate the evolution that went into creating that object, and understand all the decisions where one path was chosen over another.

Close-up of a miniature feather tunic, 500-800 CE. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Photo by Rosemary Ryan.

As an archaeologist, I am constantly trying to retrace those paths, to see and understand those moments when a decision had to be made and why. The whys, for an archaeologist, are how we learn about the culture in the obscure past. By looking at the past, we can see when and why spinning one kind of fiber was chosen over another, what changes occurred that lead to that judgement, and what the consequences of that decision were. Best of all, we can take what we learned from those ancient decisions and apply that knowledge to the same techniques that are utilized today. By understanding what has been accomplished in the past, we can apply our findings to the future.

Extremities of the Earth: The Northernmost Inhabited Point (Part 2)

In the previous post of this series, the military installation of Alert in Nunavut, Canada was named the northernmost permanently inhabited point. While this is indeed true, it is only accessible to assigned military personnel. For the adventurers out there, we will have to content ourselves with visiting or living on the island of Spitsbergen, […]