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Weaving the Structure of the Cosmos: Cloth and Agency at Cerrillos, a Paracas Site in the Ica Valley, Peru

Jeffrey C. Splitstoser, Junior Fellow 2005–2006

While at the Dumbarton Oaks, the majority of my time was spent writing an outline and a draft of my dissertation. In doing so, I made an interesting discovery regarding the unique role of fabric selvages—in particular the weft selvages—as potential harbingers of ancient world view. The find promises to have a positive impact on the field of textile studies.

I am studying a collection of more than one thousand textile fragments from the site of Cerrillos, a Paracas ceremonial complex in use ca. 850–200 BCE on the south coast of Peru. The textiles were found in stratified architectural fill that was excavated between 1999 and 2003 by Dwight Wallace and Mercedes Delgado. The remarkable preservation of the textiles (more than 2,200 years old) is due to the extreme aridity of the south coast of Peru, one of the driest places on earth.

My thesis is that textile structures, as the material products of human practice, are embedded with information, including worldview. This assertion is premised on the belief that all technology, including textile technology, is culturally informed. Thus, textile structures can help us understand aspects of ancient societies that were hitherto considered unknowable without writing.

One aspect of the project involved looking at patterns of symmetry in weave structures in order to learn about concepts of dualism. When looking at warp and weft selvage structures (i.e., the edges of textiles), I immediately noticed that weavers were almost always using either pairs of yarns or groups of four yarns that were interconnected at the selvages, creating unexpectedly complex structures—some so complicated as to defy practical explanations. The structures varied through time, indicating that they were not accidental.

I believe these structures might reflect principles of dualism, because weft selvages—as the edges of textiles—embody the moment when two opposite actions met during the weaving process (that is, the pivot point when the yarn changed direction and turned back). In essence, selvages are the material manifestation of opposite actions, and this fact most likely would not have gone unnoticed by ancient Andean weavers. We know, for example, that ancient Andean people were keenly interested in the meeting of opposites. They even had a term for it: tinquy. Hence, weft selvages, as the loci of tinquy, deserve special attention during textile analysis.

This finding could potentially revolutionize textile analysis by changing the focus from the study of design to the interpretation of structure, thereby expanding our knowledge of ancient Andean worldview in heretofore unexplored, but meaningful ways.