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Written in Knots: Undeciphered Accounts of Andean Life

April 2–August 18, 2019 | Long before the arrival of the Spaniards, the people of South America had a system of recorded information that was portable, precise, and so complex that it remains undeciphered today.

The long-lived Wari Empire and vast Inka Empire employed sophisticated devices called khipu to record information, such as census data and labor obligations. Made of cords, both Inka and Wari khipu seem to have recorded not only quantitative or statistical content, but narrative information as well. The variation in cord structures, colors, wrapping patterns, and knots encoded and conveyed information, while the basic khipu elements—flexible knotted cords—offered a lightweight and compact means of transporting information across distances.

This exhibition is the first to bring together examples of Wari, Inka, and Colonial khipu. Less than a dozen complete Wari khipu are known to exist in museum collections, and three will be on display at Dumbarton Oaks, along with interactive displays that will help visitors understand the way khipu worked, how they were made, and how information was encoded.

Juan Antonio Murro, Assistant Curator of the Pre-Columbian Collection, is curating this exhibition with Jeffrey Splitstoser, PhD, an expert on Wari khipu and ancient textiles and Assistant Research Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University.

Exhibition catalogue cover

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Curator Tours

Discover the stories behind khipus, sophisticated devices that people in the Andes have used to communicate information over vast distances for more than 1,000 years. Every other Friday at 3 p.m. starting April 12, the co-curators lead public tours of the special exhibition. Get a behind-the-scenes look at exhibition highlights, such as the largest and most complex Wari khipu known to exist in museum collections. Our experts offer an in-depth perspective into South American history, life in the Andes, archaeology, and khipu construction. Learn about new research working to decipher the many mysteries of the khipu.

The tours will last 45 to 60 minutes and take place on the following Fridays: April 12, April 26, May 10, May 24, June 7, June 21, July 5, July 19, August 2, and August 16.

Guided School Visits

Request a guided school visit, of up to 35 students. Visits must be requested at least one week in advance of the prospective date and are free of cost.