Paracas Burial Mantle
King, Judith, School Arts
About the Artwork
This burial mantle is only one portion of the vast amount of fabric that formed a "mummy bundle." Although the fabric is almost 2000 years old, it is very much intact, preserved by the dry desert sands of coastal Peru. Like the funeral arts of other ancient cultures explored in School Arts magazine this year (China, Egypt), the skilled artistry of the burial mantle is a testimony to the status of the deceased person.
About the Culture
The Paracas culture flourished from 200 BC to AD 200 along the river valleys in coastal Peru. Herders raised llamas and alpacas in the higher elevations, while farmers raised maize, cocoa, potatoes and quinoa (a barley-like grain) in the lower elevations. The Paracas left no monumental buildings. Their textiles were their chief cultural expression.
The tradition of ancestor veneration is shown by the funeral practices with offerings of food, and clothing. The corpse, buried in a sitting position, wrapped in layers of embroidered clothing, cloth, and leaves is called a "mummy bundle."
How significant was textile art? Consider how a weaver was sent into the afterlife: "Careful burial of the weaver's implements acknowledges the many people (from herders to weavers) and many skills (from dyeing to spinning) involved in accomplishing a masterpiece in fiber." (Stone-Miller, p. 68)
Block color embroidery such as that done in this burial mantle required a team of artisans. A master designer created the layout and color combinations, expert embroiderers stitched the outlines of the design, and less-skilled embroiderers filled in the outlines with colored thread. The embroidery "subjects" might include fish, fowl, mammals, people, or supernatural beings.
A Closer Look
This burial mantle is "The most celebrated of all the museum's Andean textiles" according to Stone-Miller (p. 79). The embroidered figure, replicated many times, is a ritual figure known as a "bird impersonator." This figure wears an elaborate headdress with a gold band, a mask, a loincloth, and a feathered cape. It is worth noting that because exotic bird feathers were less common than gold, feather capes were far more valuable than gold!
In his hands, the bird impersonator holds a snake-headed baton and a trophy head. "Sacrifice by decapitation was practiced by many Andean cultures. The deified forces of nature were nourished and assuaged by the offering of human life, and heads were likened to seeds or fruit." (Young-Sanchez, p. …