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Paracas Necropolis: Salvaging Contextual relationships

Ann H. Peters, Visiting Scholar, Latin American Studies Program, Cornell University

Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú: Organic Materials

The Organic Materials department of the National Museum has received the least attention and external funding of any department over the past 50 years. The quantity of organic material lacking a thorough inventory and adequate conservation and storage conditions was so daunting that until recently the museum staff focused their efforts in improving conditions in other areas. Fortunately, the Dumbarton Oaks Project coincided with a massive project of inventory, registry, cleaning and improved storage of organic materials carried out by a dynamic team under curator Manuel Gorriti and area registrar Milano Trejo. Our first phase of work in this department focused on material that already had been located by their team in their processes of inventory and reorganization of registered artifacts. As the project continued, we returned to the department on several occasions to work with materials that had appeared in the process of cleaning and registering artifacts whose location had been hitherto unknown, or whose Paracas inventory data had been lost.

Rosa Martinez cleans a gourd from the Paracas site while her son observes, on a break from the Museum's summer youth education program.Rosa Martinez cleans a gourd from the Paracas site while her son observes, on a break from the Museum's summer youth education program.

The basic cleaning of artifacts of wood, bone and shell was carried out by the Organic Materials team. Artifacts with textile, feather and skin components were usually sent to Textile department for treatment and storage. Basketry and some gourd artifacts were treated by either the textile conservation team or by Rosa Martinez of the museum's department of Conservation and Restoration.

Of the polished staffs and tendon-bound staves originally inventoried at the Necropolis of Wari Kayan and the Arena Blanca/Cabezas Largas cemetery groups, we developed a detailed description and photographic record of a total of 51 examples located in the storage area. Subsequently, the department team has carried out the same process with the examples currently located in the exhibits area of the Museum.

Luz Segura measures a tendon-bound staff, among examples of the usual size and other shorter staffs.Luz Segura measures a tendon-bound staff, among examples of the usual size and other shorter staffs.

An important sample of spear throwers and carved handles from Paracas are currently on exhibit in the Museo de la Nación; those present in the department of Organic Materials have been cleaned and moved to stable storage boxes. Until now, it has not been possible to locate the bundles of cane lances, a recurrent offering in the Necrópolis burials composed of a material subject to deterioration in open storage areas.

Most of the gourds from the cemeteries of Paracas were found in a fragmentary state on their excavation, and it is likely that most of them are still found among the diverse materials still located as mortuary contexts in the storage areas of Human Remains. Nonetheless, a sample of gourds from Paracas are located in storage in Organic Materials and it was possible to largely reconstruct three from the Necropolis, in the form of semi-hemispheric bowls. These gourds were photographed together with ten gourds of diverse shapes, coming from different cemetery groups at the Paracas site.

The large baskets typical of principal burials in the Necropolis mortuary complex have been found stored within bundles from a single funerary assemblage; probably the majority are still located in those bundles within the storage areas of Human Remains. The smaller baskets, typically part of the offerings that accompanied burials in all the Paracas cemetery groups, were often found in a fragmentary state. The sample present in storage in Organic Materials primarily comes from the Cavernas tombs, and consists of examples selected to create the basket typology developed by the National Museum team in the 1940s. At that time they were already incomplete, and there are clear indications of later deterioration caused by the presence of salts in the fibers composing the baskets and the absence of a storage area with climate control.

This basket was one of those used to develop the Paracas site basket typologies. Despite efforts made to reinforce the basket in the 1940s, the fibers contain salts that make it liable to destruction in the humid air of Lima. A stitched cloth label from the 1940s endures in good condition, while lettering on a more recent tag has been eaten away.This basket was one of those used to develop the Paracas site basket typologies. Despite efforts made to reinforce the basket in the 1940s, the fibers contain salts that make it liable to destruction in the humid air of Lima. A stitched cloth label from the 1940s endures in good condition, while lettering on a more recent tag has been eaten away.

Eight of those small instruments called "sieves" by their excavators were located and recorded, a small sample, but which appears to represent most of this type of instrument registered in the excavation inventories. As several of them have lost the lettering with their original context or inventory, the research processes are still pending that will attempt to reunite each example with its original contextual information.

Another category of artifacts containing elements of plant fiber cordage that are located in Organic Materials are the shell body ornaments, generally necklaces and bracelets. Most have been found in a fragmentary state, and frequently they are present as collections of beads or worked shell. The most complete examples found in this department are mounted for exhibit. Although one of these should be transferred to a mount made of different materials, they are in stable condition and their future conservation is in the hands of the department staff and textile conservators. Artifacts of plant fiber that incorporate other textile elements and feather work have been transferred to the Textiles department.

Bone instruments, among them a collection of quena-type flutes from Paracas, have not received treatment in this project, as they are already in a process of study and conservation by Milano Trejo and the Waylla Kepa project. Nor have we worked in this project with the samples of offerings of vegetable foods and animal tissues located in glass jars in the department of Organic Materials, a process that should be carried out with the collaboration of specialists in the study of botanical remains and foodstuffs.

Ivan Ccachura demonstrates one of the storage boxes he designed to house staffs of different lengths from the Paracas site.Ivan Ccachura demonstrates one of the storage boxes he designed to house staffs of different lengths from the Paracas site.

Storage boxes produced in this facility were constructed from sheets of corrugated polyethylene in different sizes to accommodate groups of staffs of different lengths, and in more standard measurement for other artifacts. The use of these boxes will facilitate monitoring for possible termite infestation, as well as isolation from re-infestation after treatment. They were folded, subdivided and attached with metal brads, then labeled using formats developed in collaboration with the Organic Materials team.

The massive improvements made in 2005–2006 in information, conservation and storage conditions for organic materials at the National Museum are largely the result of well-directed human energy and expertise, focused on immediate solutions. Nonetheless, the department of organic materials still lacks the basic conditions for stable storage of these sensitive materials, and we hope that it will be possible to obtain funding for structural improvements, climate control and facilities for isolating and eliminating biological agents. While this department has recourse to the Textiles department facilities for emergency artifact treatment, due to the size and nature of both collections we advocate the development of a separate laboratory for the study and treatment of non-textile organic materials.

The archival data essential for identification and reestablishing context for most materials in this area are the inventories produced on site by Tello's excavation team. Once the basic database of those inventories was complete, a copy was provided to the Organic Materials department and has been incorporated into their ongoing work, both to improve the contextual information available for registered artifacts and to inform the registration of materials being newly incorporated into the department's database.

While the Dumbarton Oaks project as originally proposed has focused on contexts within the Paracas Necropolis cemetery groups, due to the nature of the work in Organic Materials, objects from both Necropolis and Cavernas contexts were processed at the same time. This has provided a set of comparative data useful for building information on patterns of similarity and difference in the artifact assemblages typical of these distinct mortuary complexes.

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