Paracas Necropolis: Salvaging Contextual relationships
A Dumbarton Oaks Project Grant in 2005–6 supported documentation and conservation measures that we coordinated in the archives and storage facilities of the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru, to rejoin the objects from Peru's most famous cemeteries with their original excavation data. While our initial work in archives and museum collections focused on the Paracas Necropolis cemetery groups, it also has had an impact on the data and conservation of materials from all sectors of the Paracas site, and can serve as a model for data recovery in other early 20th century archaeological collections.
Dr. Julio C. Tello led a team from the University of San Marcos and Peru's National Museum between 1925 and 1929 in research on a spectacular burial site on the south Pacific Coast of the Central Andes. They discovered a complex sequence of habitation, ceremonies and cemeteries, including the famous bottle-shaped tombs they called the "Paracas Cavernas" and a steep slope crowded with conical funerary bundles that they called the "Paracas Necropolis." Finely woven, brilliantly embroidered textiles spilled out into the light of day. From the beginning, Tello suspected their antiquity might be as much as 2,000 years – and radiocarbon dating later proved him right.
For their day, the excavations were carefully executed and quite well recorded. The inventoried materials were carefully packed in straw and wrapped in jute sacking for the bumpy truck ride back to Lima. Once located in a warehouse in the capitol city, Tello's team worked quickly to open some of the largest and best-preserved bundles to select materials that the Peruvian government intended to send to the 1929 International Exposition in Spain. All unwrapped materials were described and inventoried in "dissection protocols" according to Tello's methods and procedures. But the '29 stock market crash and Spanish Civil War led to many of these materials remaining in Spain, even to this day. Within the following year, Tello was replaced as director of the National Museum. Urgent salvage and research at other important sites claimed his attention. In the late 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation supported conservation and new research on the Paracas materials. Once again, the National Museum team was preparing the maps, diagrams and photos and color illustrations for a major report on the Paracas site, when unfortunately Tello died in 1947.
On Tello's death the original records documenting the site, its structures and cemeteries, and the contents of each room and tomb were sealed and inaccessible to later researchers. His faithful assistant, Toribio Mejía Xesspe, had only partial records available as he worked to complete the planned publications, and his designated successor at the Museum, Rebecca Carrion Cachot, had only limited access for exhibit preparation and collections management. As a result, for more than fifty years the properly excavated Paracas Collection, poster child of Peru and heart of what is today the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru, was nearly as bereft of the contextual data vital for its interpretation as the many Paracas and early Nasca artifacts looted from sites in the region and dispersed in museums and private collections around the world.
This current initiative to reconstruct the lost information on the context of each object and each tomb emerged from a dialogue between art historian Anne Paul and the archaeologists of Peru's National Institute of Culture, including Director Luis Lumbreras and Carlos del Águila, then head of research at the National Museum. In 2001, thanks to initiatives organized by Ruth Shady at the Archaeological Museum of the University of San Marcos and Ada Arrieta at the Mejia Xesspe Archive at the Riva-Agüero Institute of Peru's Catholic University, it became possible to locate most of the original excavation notes and inventories, as well as records from later research. A call went out to museums and researchers around the world to collaborate on reconnecting all existing Paracas collections with their best-documented provenience.
We answered this call, and developed a project that included both archival research and work with the collections housed at the National Museum. Anne Paul's work with the Museum's textile department had focused on documenting the embroideries and other extraordinarily preserved textiles, whose brilliant colors, complex design and fascinating images of humans and fantastic animals had made this site famous. We have focused on documenting and preserving the diverse artifacts of plant and animal fiber, wood, bone, shell, basketry, hide and feathers that completed the regalia of each funerary bundle. Conservation and documentation includes the human remains, whose identity is vital to interpretation of the associated mortuary offerings. Thanks to the recovery of the lost archival data, objects found outside and adjacent to the funerary bundle also now can be systematically integrated into analysis of each mortuary context.
The project was developed in dialogue with the National Museum staff under the leadership of Director Carlos del Águila, and collections manager Fernando Fujita. The expert conservation team of the Department of Textiles developed the conservation procedures, working closely with curators and staff of the Department of Human Remains and the Department of Organic Materials. The project provided equipment and supplies in accordance with the budgeted requirements of each department. A modest stipend was provided to students specializing in archaeology, art history and physical anthropology, who received training and supervision from museum staff in conservation methods and documentation procedures. Materials treated ranged from feathered regalia to weaponry, from intact headdresses to skeletal remains. Preventative conservation measures designed for each group of materials have been integrated with careful comparisons between excavation records, museum records, and the object as it is preserved today, to confirm or correct its identification and integrate data from its original description and associations. All objects located and processed are placed in chemically stable storage containers that curtail the spread of biological agents and incorporate display of contextual information.
Our initiative has had greater impact due to parallel initiatives undertaken by curators and staff of every department of the National Museum. The Museum's library, a vital resource developed and maintained by librarian Benjamin Guerrero, is now adjacent to the Archives of Archaeology and History, where the Tello Archive, inventoried and conserved, is accessible to both museum staff and outside researchers under the supervision of archivists Merli Costa and Elízabeth López.
While our project has focused on preventative conservation of fragile organic materials, Maritza Pérez of the department of Ceramics at the same time has undertaken a systematic process of stabilizing conservation of ceramics from the Paracas site. The vast integrated database developed by curator Dante Casareto has facilitated our efforts to reintegrate data on ceramic offerings from the Paracas cemeteries with their original burial associations. In turn, our archival research allows us to place the Museum's sample of well-preserved vessels currently available for research and exhibit preparation in the context of the much larger number of vessels registered on excavation in an extremely fragmentary state.
Likewise, curator Julissa Ugarte has improved inventory and storage of Lithic artifacts. The improved museum laboratory facilities managed by curator Maria Inés Velarde in Metals facilitate material analysis of artifacts and x-ray of human remains, while our archival data provide data on their original disposition and subsequent treatment in the museum, as well as lost associated elements such as cordage for attachment, fragmented shafts or handles, cloth bundles, etc.
Archival work to date has provided substantial new information. Mapping the excavation sequence facilitates linking inventory data to cemetery context, and descriptions of changes in the excavation strategy are important for spatial analysis and evaluations of data quality. Original field notes supplement the published reports and permit a re-evaluation of Tello's initial published interpretations of the site. Dissection protocols resolve a thousand doubts about object provenience and the nature of the burials, and provide a new basis for future research, in which outside researchers and MNAAHP staff can restudy some mortuary assemblages and prepare to reinitiate study of funerary bundles that had been only partially examined. Above all, the new data prove that the Paracas cemetery populations were far less homogeneous that has been generally believed based on the published sources – evidence for social diversity that should inspire new research directions in study of the relationships among the Paracas, Topará and early Nasca traditions.
Information generated by this Project is currently being integrated into the databases used to locate tomb associations (located in the department of Human Remains), and contents of each funerary bundle (located in the department of Textiles). Photographic documentation of the artifacts will serve to protect the museum's collections and facilitate future research, as well as international collaboration in object documentation and exhibit development.
Ann Peters is continuing to develop a database to facilitate future study of artifacts and formal and spatial relationships throughout the Necropolis cemetery groups. Already, we are able to contribute data to support research on specific Necropolis burials and Cavernas burial groups being conducted by the members of the National Museum staff, as well as independent researchers such as Mary Frame and Delia Aponte. The intention of this project is to create a new platform, a common base of information for future research on these complex cemeteries and this fascinating moment in the history of the Andes.
We also hope that the Dumbarton Oaks project will serve as a model for future collaborations among museums, working together to recover lost data and generate new knowledge – opening new doors to the complex history and cultural achievements of Pre-Columbian societies of the Americas.