Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


The most extensive Peruvian fabric remains come from the archeological site of Paracas Necropolis on the South Coast of Peru. Preserved by the dry desert conditions, this cache of 429 mummy bundles, excavated in 1926-27, provides an unparalleled opportunity for comparing the range and nature of variations in similar fabrics which are securely related in time and space. The bundles are thought to span the time period from 500-200 B.C.

The most numerous and notable fabrics are embroideries: garments that have been classified as mantles, tunics, wraparound skirts, loincloths, turbans and ponchos. In general, a single figure is repeated in the borders and sometimes in the gridded field of any one garment. Approximately ninety mantles with figures repeated in gridded fields have been included in the study up to this point. The figures repeat in different orientations: up-down and left-right facing. By reducing the figure to an arrow, a chart of the orientation variations emerges. A second chart, derived from the orientation arrows, makes the symmetrical relationships between the figures more visible to untutored eyes. The variations are categorized by a) the symmetry or assymmetry of the figure itself and B) the number of different orientations of the figure in a mantle. There are seven types or categories with from two to eight sub-types each. Only two in the sample of over ninety do not scan in a regular fashion. These two may be attributable to purposeful scrambling, ancient error or some aspect of the system that is not yet understood.

From the charting of the ninety mantles, two important points emerge. Firstly, there is a system behind the orientation variations: they can be regularly classified and they comprise an almost complete set of ways in which planar patterns can fit together through repetition. The mantles contain the evidence for a consistent and highly developed system that is concerned with describing space, similar in scope and content to the branch of mathematics that was developed for describing the variations in crystalline structures. Secondly, the charting itself reveals the method they used to encode this information. Differences in figural orientation and the resulting symmetry between contiguous figures define the distinctions between the types.