Paracas textile

Contributed by British Museum

Fragments of a cloak used to wrap mummified bodies in Peru, over 2,000 years ago. © Trustees of the British Museum

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These textile fragments are made of alpaca or llama wool and would originally have been part of a cloak. They depict flying shamans grasping human heads in their talons. The bottom figure carries a knife used to behead his victim. They were found wrapped around mummified bodies in the great Paracas Necropolis in Peru. These 2000-year-old textiles were preserved in the dry, dark conditions of the tomb.

Who were the Paracas cultures?

The Paracas textiles come from a period in South American history when crops, llamas and guinea pigs were first domesticated and distinct social classes emerged for the first time. Textiles were valued by the Paracas above all other things and they were worn to indicate status and authority. Some textiles were over 34 metres long and would have required large numbers of people and complex organization to make. The Paracas and other contemporary communities laid the foundations for the later societies of the Andes, including the Inca.

Alpaca fibre is naturally fire resistant, and hypo-allergenic

Still bright after 2,000 years

These textiles have survived in such good condition due to the dark and very dry environment in which they were buried. The brilliant colours were all produced using natural dyes.

Natural dyes often lose their colour when exposed to light or water which makes the brightness of these 2,000 year old textiles so extraordinary.

The figures are embroidered using finely spun threads made from camelid wool (likely to be llama or alpaca). They completely cover the plain weave cotton base cloth. The fragments were once part of a larger cloth but were cut out some time before becoming part of the British Museum collection.

Conservators often secure such fragile textiles to a supporting backing fabric by stitching with very fine silk thread. But the structure of these textiles is so dense that passing a needle through them would be likely to damage the fibres.

These vulnerable textiles are instead held between two rigid supports so they can be displayed. The fragments were first laid on a padded fabric-covered board. Depressions were made in the padding beneath the fragments to ensure there is even contact with the Perspex glazing that gently holds the textiles in place. The backing fabric has been dyed with modern synthetic dyes that have good light and water fastness so the colours stay bright and there is no possibility of transfer to the ancient textile fragments.

While the textiles are on display low lighting levels will help to minimise any fading of the colours.

Pippa Cruickshank and Helen Wolfe, Conservation, British Museum

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