Archaeological textiles were illegaly exported from Peru following their discovery at the beginning of the 20th century. Collecting them used to be a prestigious task, and therefore apart from Peru itself, there are Paracas textiles in art museums and private collections all over the world and in many western museums of ethnography. Today textiles from Paracas are among the most sought-after heritage objects in the illegal market.
HOW DID THE TEXTILES COME TO BE IN GÖTEBORG?
Large quantities of Paracas textiles were illegally exported to museums and private collections all over the world between 1931 and 1933. About a hundred of these were taken to Sweden and donated to the Ethnographic Department of Gothenburg Museum. Today, problems associated with looted artefacts and illicit trade in antiques are better acknowledged and being addressed.
HOW WERE THE TEXTILES FOUND?
In the early 20th century, embroidered textiles from an unknown Peruvian civilization began turning up in private collections, unlike anything previously known from ancient Andean civilizations. They had been found by tomb raiders. Described as fantastic because of the advanced techniques employed and the colourful, intriguing world which the embroideries seemingly depicted, these remarkable finds caused a sensation and archaeologists then began looking for the place they had came from. In 1925, the Peruvian archaeologist, Julio C. Tello, prevailed on the tomb raider Juan Quintana to guide him and his colleagues to the place. The site he took them to was on the Paracas peninsula in Peru. Excavations on the Paracas peninsula during the 1920s unearthed housing complexes and more than 100 burial sites of various sizes. There, the deceased had lain for 2000 years, swathed in woven, embroidered textiles of cotton and camelid hair. The most sensational burial area discovered was named Necrópolis de Wari Kayan, which roughly translates as “the burial place of the ancestral temple”. A burial site was found there containing 429 interred bundles. The biggest of these bundles was 1.5 metres in height and contained 400 textiles. These bundles belonged to a civilization which was named Paracas after the site: they rank among the most spectacular archaeological discoveries ever made. This is presumed to be where the Paracas textiles in the World Culture Museum originated. Although it is more than 80 years since scholars began mapping out the Paracas civilization on the basis of finds from the Paracas peninsula, very little is still known about the way people lived and how their society was organised. Modern research has shown that the region throughout which the Paracas civilization extended went way beyond the actual peninsula where the tombs were found. At its furthest extent, the Paracas civilization was spread over six valleys along the Pacific coast.
THE CHRONOLOGY OF THE PARACAS CIVILISATION
Paracas was the first complex society to inhabit the southern coast of Peru. The civilization evolved over a period of some 900 years. This period is divided into an early phase, called Cavernas (ca 400-100 BC), followed by the Necrópolis phase (ca 100 BC-300 AD), during which the Paracas civilization developed into a more independent culture with ideological and stylistic manifestations of its own. The Paracas textiles in the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg are believed to have been made between 100 BC and 300 AD.
THE TEXTILES IN A MUSEUM ENVIRONMENT
Despite being more than 2,000 years old, the colours of the Paracas textiles are still superb and well preserved. The natural colours of pure alpaca range from grey, white and beige to brown and black. The yarn was also dyed and since alpaca fibre absorbs dye better than cotton fibre, nearly all the coloured threads found in the textiles are made of animal (camelid) fibre. However, the many years of exposure in a museum environment to light, oxygen and fluctuations in humidity and temperature have rendered the Paracas textiles brittle and fragile. Since the beginning of the 1930s, when the collection arrived at the Ethnographic Department of the Gothenburg Museum, it has been handled and exhibited in several different contexts. The first exhibition showing parts of the collection opened at the Swedish East India Company building in 1932. According to notes dating from the very next year, new shelving was required to house all of the collection. Museum renovations in 1939 resulted in the collection being allocated a separate exhibition area. Prior to exhibition presentation, many of the textiles were sewn onto unbleached linen or dyed cotton muslin and framed behind glass. Years passed and in 1963, a new way of exhibiting the collection was introduced, for which the framed textiles were mounted behind glass onto vertical pull-out panels. However, the vibrations from the panels caused damage to the textiles and the exhibition was then closed to the general public in 1970. To replace the pull-out panels, display stands with glass cases mounted on wooden boxes were built and installed in 1978. In 1992, the entire museum moved to new premises in the Gothenburg’s Gårda district. The Paracas textiles were now exhibited in custom-built display stands, with dimensions appropriate for the size of the objects. In 2001, the entire collection had to move once again, this time to the new premises of the Museum of World Culture. As much of the cotton fibre was found to have badly disintegrated and in poor condition, a lorry with air suspension was used for transportation. The Paracas textiles were in desperate need of a rest from everyday handling and light exposure. Following a rest period of seven years, the Paracas textiles were finally brought out for an exhibition in 2008. This time, a risk analysis was carried out beforehand to identify which textiles could go out on display and which were too fragile to be moved and therefore had to remain in the museum archives. It was clear that a certain loss of textile fibre was inevitable while being transported and this had to be weighed up against the importance of making the collection available to a wider public. The large Paracas textiles selected for the exhibition were then packed horizontally and transported in vibration-free conditions to the Museum of World Culture, where a crane was used to hoist them into the museum through a window. The Paracas textiles exhibition ran for a period of three years. However, once the textiles were returned to the museum archives, evidence of further fibre loss and damage was found including areas where the ground fabric was torn, embroidery threads were hanging loose or the textile had come apart. Despite the extremely careful and horizontal transportation and handling of the textiles between the museum archives and the Museum of World Culture, a short distance of only a few kilometres, the textiles had nonetheless suffered further deterioration and damage.