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Special Exhibition Humans, Beasts, Gods. Textile Treasures from Ancient Peru 1 May – 13 November 2022

The Abegg-Stiftung is in possession of a small but revealing collection of textiles from Ancient Peru. The fabrics date from the period between the first century BCE and the sixteenth century. Their motifs reflect the world of the early civilizations of Peru prior to its conquest by the Europeans. They attest to the prominence given to textiles in life as in the death cult of those ancient peoples. Press Release

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Dressed for Eternity

Most of these valuable textiles were found in the desert regions of coastal Peru. They were deposited there as offerings to the gods or buried in graves along with the dead. Many are decorative items of clothing. The climate of the coastal region is so dry that textiles buried underground survived for centuries. │ Tunic, Peru, central coast, Chancay culture, 11th to 15th century, tapestry and embroidery, cotton and camelid hair, inv. no. 5733

Precious Materials

Wool and cotton are the fibres that were most commonly used to make textiles. The wool was supplied by the llamas and alpacas that roamed the Andean High Plateau. The cotton was cultivated in the coastal river valleys, where fertile oases permitted farming even in the middle of the desert. │ Border fragment, Peru, southern coast, early Nazca culture, 1st to 3rd century, embroidery, cotton and camelid hair, inv. no. 42

Bright Colours

Diverse natural dyestuffs were used to produce different colours of yarn. Dyeing with cochineal to turn yarn red was especially laborious. The cochineal insects first had to be dried and then ground into a powder. Blue was also difficult to obtain. Extracting the dyestuff from the leaves of the indigo bush was a complicated process. │ Tapestry fragment, Peru, central coast, Chancay culture, 11th to 15th century, cotton and camelid hair, inv. no. 5740

Simple Looms

Most of the weaving was done on a backstrap loom. One end of the warp was attached to a belt worn round the hips, while the other was suspended from a post. Weaving frames anchored to the ground were also used, as were wide, vertical looms operated by several people at once. │ Tapestry fragment, Peru, northern coast, Chimú culture, 11th to 15th century, cotton and camelid hair, inv. no. 5741

Complicated Techniques

Textiles from Peru were made by a variety of techniques. In the discontinous warp technique it is not only the weft, but also the warp threads that are doubled back. Another completely different method is a sort of tubular embroidery used to make three-dimensional figures. │ Border fragment, Peru, southern coast, early Nazca culture, 1st to 3rd century, three-dimensional embroidery, cotton and camelid hair, inv. no. 600

Fantastical Motifs

The fabrics’ imagery reflects the conceptual world of their makers. It is dominated by hybrids of man and beast – chimeras that appear to have been credited with special powers. Then there are the numerous animals: felines, monkeys, birds, fish, frogs, and snakes. They all paint a picture of fecund, powerful nature. │ Neck border of a tunic, Peru, southern coast, late Paracas to early Nazca culture, 2nd century BCE to 1st century AD, embroidery, cotton and camelid hair, inv. no. 460