Early Medieval (mostly)Textiles #26

In this edition of Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles I am very pleased to introduce Elizabeth Palacios. Elizabeth studied art in the Fine Arts School of Peru. After graduating, she continued her studies at the Textile Conservation Centre (UK) specializing in textile conservation and was awarded her master’s degree from the University of Southampton in 2010. Elizabeth then went on to gain experience in art and conservation in both the UK and Peru. After some years of professional practice, she joined a doctorate programme at the University of Amsterdam where she is currently researching and drafting her thesis. Here she discusses ancient Peruvian textile tools and their wider meaning.

Ancient Peruvian textile production tools interpretation

In the Ancient Andes, the textile objects’ status transcended all spheres of society. They were utilitarian and symbolic. They were present in various levels of social relations, as communication media, ritual agents, or hierarchical symbols for economic and political relations. Their relevance in Andean society is seen in the symbolism shown in their manufacturing process and their presence in burials, as gifts or offerings, in the production chain and network, and social identification. The favourable environmental conditions of the Peruvian coast have allowed burials to be preserved, and Andean material culture has been studied and collected over time. The burial tradition adopted in the Middle Horizon period (500-900AC) continued in practice until the early Colonial Period. The bodies were prepared and mourned along various ways, they were bent and wrapped with various textile layers, from finely woven and decorated inner textiles to rough protective outer fabrics, sat in baskets, and then placed in specially made graves. The deceased were arranged and set to be an active entity in the communities’ social life and as symbol of hierarchical status. They passed to the afterlife accompanied by offerings which were placed in between the layers of textiles and / or around the body. Such gifts could include mummified animal bodies, organic material, vegetables, and metal and symbolic objects; as well as textile production tools. In this manner, they surpass their utilitarian purpose while enhancing the production process, including the embodiment of the producers in the objects, as representation of their expertise and societal status.

Textile production from harvesting cotton and shearing camelids to producing fibers for weaving, implied good management of land and population. The system was organized in units, Ayllus, and workshops; the structured system allowed mass production of textiles. There was a systematized trade in the transversal Andean economy, some communities were focused on textiles production and the standardized production of symbolism and icons. Like textiles, the standardized features and symbolism attached to textile production tools are representative of the social, economic, cultural, and hierarchical group of people or individual’s role in the society, which transcends to the afterlife. Textile production was not limited to women; however, the production on elite textiles was limited to a specific female production unit, Acllas, enclosed in specific locations for the purpose. The textile production units had been organized since the Early Horizon [period] (around 900-200 BC), extending the systematized production and interchange structure through the Middle Horizon to the Late Intermediate Period and the Inca Empire (1440-1539). They were then deficiently incorporated in the Spanish Colonial system in 16th century. The collecting of Ancient Peruvian artefacts, including textiles and tools has been continuous since 15th Century, from burial looting, antiquarianism to scholarly excavations, being incorporated to curiosities cabinets and museums subsequently.

Ancient Peruvian artifact collections in museums include in many cases of textile production tools. Mostly, they have been collected in non-methodological excavations, with no or limited recorded information. At most, the location was given at the time of access. Over time a Period scheme, according to their features, had been assigned to these tools, according to the chronological classification scheme of the Andean. In some cases the interchange and mobility of collections could result in the loss of original information or originally recorded objects are no longer found in museums’ stores. In the museum collection cases studied from late 19th century and early 20th century, the textile production tools have been collected alongside textiles with provenances to early scholarly collecting, methodological and non-methodological excavations, and from private and antiquarians’ collections grouped by dealers in non-methodological excavations. The looting and collecting of Andean objects continued like this until this century despite the legal restrictions.

Peruvian weaver’s basket and tools (02.680). Late Intermediate Period
A.D. 1000–1476. Find Location: Central Coast. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Although tools from many periods can be found in collections, they mostly originate from the Central coast and from Middle Horizon and Late Intermediate period burials. The tools collected include spindles, spindle whorls, tops, needles, combs, sword or beater, pigment containers of bamboo or gourds, and ‘tools’ baskets. They contain alongside tools, raw cotton balls or wool, thread balls and yarns, wool and cotton hanks, dyed or undyed, they may include a pigment container, seeds, as well as other symbolic objects such as clay figurines, coca leaves, or seed bracelets, textile fragments and textile objects as bands. Somehow, they convey the various stages of the production chain (spinning, dyeing, weaving, excluding harvesting, carding and transportation, which could be symbolized by other elements inserted, although this is unknown). The baskets have square shape with a continuous lid, are woven in reed with a fix rigid structure to support it, in many cases they are lined with textiles, their measure varies, measures are set accordingly to fit the spindles, for instance 30x 13x7cm and 35x16x10cm length, height and depth; although bigger and smaller sizes are also found. In other cases, such ‘tool box’ can be made of rigid structure, having four legs to support them above ground, the Carrizo sticks panels are made and joined by threads, measures vary, for instance 21 x 25 x 18cm including the legs, being the height of the box itself 11 cm It is interesting to notice that small looms with ‘in process’ weaving are also found in burials.

Variety of surviving spindles with their whorls

The spindles are made of soft wood, the sizes in length and thickness vary according to their function for first or fine spinning, measurements in the items examined range between 31cm and 12 cm length, mostly in between measures varies every two centimeters, and 1 to 0.4 cm diameter in the thickest part. They can be decorated with painted bands, in many cases they can be wrapped with cotton threads or yarn, however, wool is also found they mostly show marks of use, such slight indentation or worn tip. Spindle tops can be inserted in spindles or loose, they are decorated, painted and / or incised, like the spindle’s whorls, icons represented are geometrical patterns, seaside and sea fauna stylized; their measure varies, for instance 9.4cm x 1.3, 7.4x 1.2 diameter. The spindle whorls were collected individually or found inserted in spindles. They can be made from ceramic, clay, stone, or metal. The marks of use are seen in the interior borders; their measures vary in height and wide for instance between 2,5 x 3.9 cm, 0,8 x 1 cm, they have cylindrical, round, and diamond-like shape, being the metal ones, the smallest seen. Many of the icons depicted are identified in textiles and ceramic, which, and alongside other associated items, can set the origin for those with non-contextual information.

Detail showing a spindle whorl

The rank of the ‘weaver’ could be taken from the quality of the content in the ‘tool’ baskets and the quality of the box itself, alongside the selection of items and variety, which somehow narrate the labour of textile production. Likewise, the production unity could be represented in the icons and patterns. The lack of information from context in early collection may contribute to the limited, deficient information retrieved from items. Swords or beaters are also part of collections, together with other stick which specific use cannot be identified. Interestingly, small looms with half woven textiles are also found.

As a unity the toolboxes or baskets bring to the present the personality and criteria of the weaver, their contents has been selected from tools in use which are placed alongside symbolic items. They become a representation of an appraisal scheme and a lifetime. For instance, the quality and variety of spindles, spindle whorls and materials included may demonstrate the k of the deceased. Iconographic patterns seen in textiles and ceramics are identified in tools production, which have contributed to identifying their origin in the Cultures periods scheme. Thus, making detaching objects relatable in the academia studies. The standardization of the containers might also result from the standardized textile production, which conveys the adaptability of materials and implementation of patterns from network communities. They are a deliberate assemblage included in burials that, in a sense, continue to represent the Andean economic, political, and social system; likewise, the community relevance as part of the production chain and the relevance of textile and their production in the Andes, which demonstrates the interchange network which formed the Andean civilization. Their presence in burials might indicate they meant something in the future of the deceased and at that moment of mourning, as they were prepared, meaning possession of knowledge and materiality.

On the other hand, Andean textile production tools in collections speak about the collection system and attributions or valuation given to practices with similarities to Western goods production. What we had received from the past becomes the representation of an activity which is explained through ‘contemporary’ knowledge at the time of assessment, while retrieved from their context and whenever they are explained and exposed. There is a collecting pattern and consistency of these items across textile collections and archaeological and ethnological collections of the ancient Andes. European museums were part of an interchange network, sharing collections provenances and methods resulting in similarities in collections assembled by scholars and antiquarians in the late 19th Century. It is valid to presume as well that due to the type of pre-assemblages –private collectors and traders- they could have been re-arranged and split, as it is reported for textiles collections. In the case of the baskets, although the contents seen are kept together in other cases, they had been disaggregated either for research, storage necessities and conservation issues, likewise, in the interchange process they could become a source of individual items and knowledge about the production processes.

It is important to notice that the mobility of early collections makes it difficult to identify their origin and the originality of the assemblages, meaning their common origin or alterations. In such cases early collected tools have been evaluated based on appearance, shape, materials in order to create relational patterns. Over time they have been classified and mostly grouped according to their similitudes, these mobilizations and classifications break further their connections with their original meaning. Their value as ‘diagnostic’ items, an important feature for classification to study the periods scheme and processes of production and social interaction in scholarly pursue, might be diminished.

Human sciences have formed in connection with collection, universalism pursuit and possession of the world through resources and knowledge. Thus, the exotic objects which were acknowledged in western culture over three centuries, were subsequently re- interpreted and new collections formed and acquired under scholarly goals.

Museums early collected tools are ‘agents’ that activate the ‘known’ and ‘accepted’ system of classification. While they stand as unities disaggregated from their context and without contextual original information to rely on, they are most likely to relate to western production knowledge and the symbolism may be hidden. The multiple interpretations in museum contexts is based on their materiality so their aesthetic features lead to an understanding of technological uses and similarities with related items for categorization, while the stylistics of iconography leads to the conceptualization of Andean art. Similarly, the consistency of typology forms from the discussion of detached objects and interpretation hierarchy according to the collections’ roles and their original precedence they represent. They have significance within the cycle of life; placing them alongside for eternity, transferring the significance of the activity, so transcending the value of the production process in acknowledging the performance, and the performer along the product itself. These tools capture various extents, expanding from their original purpose, the utilitarian becomes symbolic, the tool becomes a representation product. In the museum’s context they represent Andean societies, the image built around them, and knowledge construction in the history of collecting. The museums contain objects from similar collectors; at the same time the collections are formed according to the available content in the archeological contexts (disturbed or methodologically excavated), in some cases, only tools boxes were collected or assembled as a collection.

Their presence confronts us with our relationship with the past, since the ‘transcending’ characteristic is framed by the collection they belong to, how they are identified and what we want to say about them. In practical terms, the Andean ancient textile production tools collections significance in a museums context is seen through their categorization as representation, which include burial traditions, ritual and symbolism, and technology. Textile analyses focus on garment types, imagery and design layout, textile structure/technique, and fibre processing. Similarly, textile production tools might include construction technique, materials, iconography patterns (community representation and individual hierarchy) and utilitarian signs (marks painted, marks of use). The typological terms used to classify them show similarities with other parts of world textile production. This places them as a universal knowledge arranged in similar terms. Textile production shares similarities regardless of geography. Thus, what differentiates them is the meaning of each stage of the process and the symbolism attached to it and the resulting product.

As a ‘collectible’ material culture they assume roles in the collection function, research, exposition, and education. In the case studies seen, they are representative according to the collection they are part of, such as Industrial heritage (–tool, know how, culture), Technology (–tool, know how), Ethnography (-culture group), Lifecycle, death (burial tradition, culture, social relation). These classification fields show our understanding of the past, how we do organize the past in a way that we can relate to it; as well as some hierarchy of interpretation, since they may represent all, yet a specific category is highlighted. While the presence of tools in burials emphasize the power of such activity in the societal construction, here it is dismembered into the collection’s organization, which embody classification by physical similarities and an specific activity or role we want to understand of the other. After all, classification follows a path of exclusion.

Part of this text was presented at the Centre of Textile Research Conference in June 2021. The study cases include museums Museon, Wereldmuseum, and Pitt Rivers Museum. Part of this research has been possible with the support of the Slicher van Bath de Jong Fund.

I would like to thank Elizabeth for this really interesting and insightful post. It has opened up a number of avenues for my own work and I hope it proved as stimulating for you too.


If you would like to read more about Elizabeth’s work or contact her, she can be found here:


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