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Shades of Meaning: The Nexus of Color, Knots, and Fiber in the Dumbarton Oaks Khipus

Founders Room
May 18, 2019
02:00 PM to 03:00 PM
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Jeffrey C. Splitstoser | Waiting list only

Long before the arrival of the Spaniards, the people of Andean South America had a system of communicating information that was portable, precise, and so complex that it remains undeciphered today. The long-lived Wari Empire and vast Inka Empire employed khipus—sophisticated devices made from strings and knots—to record information, such as census data and labor obligations. Written in Knots: Undeciphered Accounts of Andean Life is the first exhibition to bring together examples of Wari, Inka, and colonial khipus. Fewer than a dozen complete Wari khipus are known in museum collections, and three are on display at Dumbarton Oaks, including the largest and most complex Wari khipu discovered to date. In this talk, Jeffrey Splitstoser, a co-curator of the exhibition, surveys the khipus in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and what we know today about the systems of information they contain.

Jeffrey C. Splitstoser is the leading authority on Wari khipus, having studied all known examples in collections throughout the world. He is part of the Castillo de Huarmey archaeological project, directed by Milosz Giersz, which produced the largest number of scientifically excavated Wari khipus to date. Splitstoser is also the textile specialist for the Huaca Prieta Archaeological Project, directed by Tom Dillehay, where he discovered information encoded in warp patterning in 6,200-year-old cotton textiles that were dyed with the world’s earliest known use of indigo blue.

Detail of khipu with braided main cord and color seriation, Wari, 779–981 CE. Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, Conklin donation, PC.WBC.2016.068.