Can embroidery survive for 2000 years?

Funerary wrap – dating from 100BC-AD200

The simple answer is yes – if something is stored in the right conditions. The British Museum’s Peru: A Journey in Time includes this funerary wrap which dates to about 2000 years ago and yet the colours are still bright and fresh. Though difficult to photograph and displayed in low light conditions – this image only hints at some the amazing textiles on display. Even if some of them depict some fairly gruesome practices.

Close up on funerary wrap with stitched figure – a Nasca design

Peru is home to over 100 species of hummingbird, so it is perhaps not surprising that they were of particular significance to the Nasca people. This textile is also about 2000 years old.

Nasca design with hummingbirds. Some carry objects – flowers or pollen perhaps?
The birds are embroidered with llama/alpaca wool on an indigo dyed cotton background

This hat is knotted and cut to create a velvet like texture. Four cornered hats were a sign of status for the Wari people who created these textiles. Their patterns are symbols of deities and mythical creatures, and the designs were created using strict guidelines created by Wari rulers.

Wari four cornered hat – AD600-900

Cats and cat like creatures were another common motif. Here used for a Moche ritual – possibly giving the wearer of the Moche deity it represents. It is made from cotton, copper, resin, shells, feathers and semi-precious stones.

Moche ceremonial cape – AD200-600

Even if the textiles do not survive, colourful ceramics indicate how they might have looked.

Nasca pot – woman wearing a cape BC100-650AD

At the end of the Nasca period (c.BC100) there was a greater scarcity of water and an increase in ceramics featuring female forms. It is thought that this relates to ideas of fertility. The Nasca are perhaps most famous for their intriguing designs that appear to be only truly visible from high up in the air.

Nasca-Wari cocoa bags – dating from AD600 to 1563

These cocoa bags are embroidered (left) and woven (centre and right). Scientific analysis shows that they once contained cocoa leaves. Chewing cocoa helps prevent altitude sickness but the leaves were also used as symbols of mutual exchange and left as offerings indicating their spiritual importance too.

Winaypaq Qayto (Threads of Time)

The exhibition ends with a modern artwork celebrating Peruvian creativity across time using traditional textile techniques and symbols. It was produced by weavers of the Pitumarca, Cusco in collaboration with Nilda Callanaupa, founder of the Cusco Centre for Traditional Textiles.

Peru: a journey in time continues at the British Museum until the 20 February 2022 – but if you are unable to visit then check out the website to learn more about Peru and its cultural legacy that survived despite harsh geographical conditions and the devastating impact of Europeans who arrived from the 1500s.

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