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From Ethnography to Feathers: Investigating Collections at the Library

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This is the first in series of guests posts by Giselle Aviles, the 2019 Archaeological Research Associate in the Geography and Map Division, where she is delving into the treasures of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the History and Archaeology of the Early Americas. Captivated by the nuances in sociocultural texts, she is undertaking an ethnographic analysis of Andean textiles and Mesoamerican ceramics, tracing and unfolding their stories. She is a former Research Fellow of the Quai Branly Museum-Martine Aublet Foundation in Paris, and has conducted fieldwork in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Algeria, France, and Spain. She has come to the Library through the Hispanic National Internship Program sponsored by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU).


How can I tell stories about ancient artifacts when its parts are scattered in different places in a library? I take the example of ethnographers: When they are doing fieldwork, not only do they have the culture to study, but also photographs, personal letters, and official documents, namely historical archives, which serve as guides to decipher a given society. The Aha! moments are treasured when navigating the unknown.

Giselle Aviles examining a miniature feather tunic from the Ica Valley of Peru, 12-13th century CE in the Preservation Research and Testing Division of the Library. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection, Library of Congress.

When I received the message that I was going to collaborate with John Hessler, the curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress, which includes Pre-Colombian Peruvian textiles and Maya ceramics, I couldn’t believe it; the emotion was beyond words. I would no longer be only appreciating early Americans artifacts through the exhibit cases of a museum, but I was going to be close to them, studying them, feeling them.

Photograph in UV light of the Ica Feather Tunic. Analysis by Tana Villafana, Senior Scientist in the Preservation Research Division, and Giselle Aviles, Archaeological Research Associate.

Besides thousands of different objects, the Kislak collection encompasses a diversity of chuspas, a Quechua word for a hand-woven pouch used to carry coca leaves. When looking for the first time at the Peruvian textiles, donated by William and Inger Ginsberg, I was led to imagine the stories behind them. What conversations could have taken place? What social relationships would have developed? Did many families weave? Why did they chose those specific colors and patterns? Did a preferred location to weave exist, such as at home or a workshop? What would the weaver’s space be like while the textile was being thought through and produced?

Regarding Peruvian textiles, Bauhaus artist Anni Albers, an admirer of ancient Andean dexterity, gives particular importance to tactile signs, to create sensibility of the woven pieces in order to understand them better. My methodology for the next few months as a research fellow will be to follow this method: to grasp the symbols, colors, and feelings of the collection and relate them to other objects in the Kislak Collection—rare books, manuscripts, maps—to decipher an ethnography of my experience through them. How can an ancient life be thought about through a specific artifact? These are questions that I hope to ponder during my research time at the Library and discuss in my Gallery Talks in the Exploring the Early Americas Exhibit over the next few months.

 Maya Ceramic Vase with Animal Way Dancers. One of the many ceramic pieces being investigated by Giselle Aviles. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

I’m an anthropologist, so my formation in the ancient matière is basic. However, working with archaeological artifacts in an ethnographic way is an exciting challenge that I’m more than excited to take part in; there is not a single day when I don’t learn something new which leads me to want to know more about a specific ceramic, jewelry piece, bag, or rare book in the Kislak Collection. I have the objects in front of me. There is no precise time to finish an interview. I sit in the cold vault where the artifacts are temperature protected, and alone, I talk with them.


  1. I was wondering if in this collection of both artifacts and documents if you are able to get a sense of who in the ancient world were the craftspeople? Men? Women? Whole families? And so on.

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