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Working in Lila’s Shadow: Deconstructing the Textiles of the Early Americas

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This post is part of a series called Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

We use materials to satisfy our practical needs and our spiritual ones as well. We have useful things and beautiful things—equipment and works of art. In earlier civilizations there was no clear separation of this sort. –Anne Albers

Lila O’Neale. Courtesy of the University of California Archives and Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.

Lila Morris O’Neale (1886-1948) was by all standards one of the most original scholars of Pre-Columbian textiles working in the early part of the twentieth century. Hers was a time when cultural anthropology and archaeology were first becoming academic disciplines in the United States. She entered the University of California at Berkeley in the summer of 1926, where she met the linguist and archaeologist, Alfred L. Kroeber, who had just returned from fieldwork in Peru. Kroeber had collected a large number of textiles and needed someone to catalog and analyze the materials he had just excavated.

Kroeber suggested that O’Neale begin by looking at fifty-six Nazca textiles for her thesis topic,  found in the Max Uhle Collection and now part of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. In 1927, O’Neale received her master’s degree, entitled Structural and Decorative Design of Ancient Peruvian Fabrics, with Color Distribution Characteristics.

It was an educational experience that would change her life. Over the next few years she would publish a series of long and seminal papers and monographs in the University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, and in the Anthropology Memoirs of the Field Museum in Chicago, where she would analyze and deconstruct the methods of ancient weavers. Her volumes deal with the full range of Pre-Columbian textiles from South America, from the gauze weaves of the Chancay culture, to the tie-dye forms found in Nazca. All of her publications are part of the Jay I. Kislak Collection, and reading them today, almost a century later, one can feel the depth and exactness of her analysis on every page.

Title page and opening image from one of Lila O’Neale’s Anthropology Memoirs. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

O’Neale would painstakingly deconstruct the methods of weavers and make detailed drawings of the patterns she found. Because the cost of printing in the 1920s and 1930s made reproducing color images expensive, she developed a system for expressing the colors of textiles based on the Dictionary of Color by Maerz and Paul. The Dictionary of Color contains extremely fine plates of color blocks arranged in a matrix that made it simple to give an exact indication to the reader of a textile’s color.

Page from the Dictionary of Color by Maerz and Paul. Library of Congress.

Examples of many of the kinds of textiles that O’Neale studied can be found at the Library of Congress as part of the William and Inger Ginsberg Collection. Donated to the Library in 2017 by Bill Ginsberg, a long-time member of the Library’s support group, the James Madison Council, it is a small but important selection of Pre-Columbian textiles from the Nazca, Ica, Chancay, Wari, Tiwanaku, and Inca cultures of South America.

Close up images taken by the author of the weave patterns in four textiles from the William and Inger Ginsberg Collection at the Library of Congress. Photographs by author.

Two pieces in the collection, a gauze weave, and another a fragment of tie-dye textile, would have captured the attention of Lila O’Neale. The blue colored gauze weave is from the Chancay culture, which flourished from around 1000-1400 CE, in the central coastal regions of Peru. Known for their dolls, which are dressed with pieces of woven fabric and various kinds of threads made from alpaca or other camelid hair, cotton, and feathers, their textile production was extensive, at least based on the number of examples that survive. The second textile on the right dates from 500-1000 CE, is tie-dyed, and from the Nazca region of southern Peru.

Chancay and Nazca dyed fabrics. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection of Pre-Columbian Textiles, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Photographs by author.

Tie-dying textiles in this way was an intricate process that involved bunching the fabric very tightly, tying a yarn around the bunch, and dunking the fabric in dye. The part of the fabric trapped underneath the binding cords does not absorb the dye and the process resulted in a pattern of hollow diamonds or a circles.

Magnified region at the interface of the dyed and bound sections of the Nazca fragment, showing where the dye was absorbed and where it was not. William and Inger Ginsberg Collections of Pre-Columbian Textiles, Geography and Map Division. Photograph by author.
Bright Field (top) and Fluorescence (bottom) microscope images of fibers from two different regions in a Chuspas from the Ginsberg Collection. The images show the structure of the camelid fibers and the differences in the optical properties of the fibers in the two regions. Images taken by the author and Tana Villafana of the Preservation Research and Testing Division, Library of Congress. (click on image for high-resolution look at the camelid fibers)

Besides fragments like the two highlighted above, many of the textiles in the Ginsberg Collection and studied by Lila, are small woven bags, known as Chuspas, in the Quechua language. Used for carrying cocoa leaves, they are highly sophisticated works of art, with eye catching variations in their patterns and weave designs. Expertly woven bags are found widely in archaeological sites across the region, from the Nazca Valley in Peru, all the way to northern Chile, with the earliest examples showing spectacular workmanship and dating from around 200 CE. Because of this long tradition and the sacred and social nature of the patterns woven into these textiles, they are among the most important artifacts to survive in the archaeological record from South America and give us deep insight into the long weaving, design and fabric traditions, of the complex cultures of the Andes.

Three dimensional image of a small Chuspa dating from 1200-1475 CE. GIF from 3D model made using laser imaging and photogrammetry by author. William and Inger Ginsberg Collection of Pre-Columbian Textiles, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Lila O’ Neale knew that textiles were central to the lives of the weavers and the peoples of South America, both from the distant past, and to those designing and making them in her time. Her way of thinking about cloth was informed by both archaeology and contemporary artistry. It saw an ancient tradition of innovation, invention, and imagination that continued in the masterpieces of weaving being created now. It is a way of seeing these works of art as a holistic totality, which is perhaps best reflected, in the words of the Quechuan weaver, Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez,

I have learned that each and every piece of cloth embodies the spirit, skill, and personal history of an individual weaver. . . . It ties together with an endless thread the emotional life of my people.”

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