Rosa Varillas Palacios examines an Andean textile from the Krannert Art Museum collection, 2019. Photo by Allyson Purpura
Detail of mantle with hummingbird design, ca. 100 BCE. Peru, Nasca. Cotton, alpaca wool. Gift of Fred Olsen and the Art Acquisition Fund 1967-29-56

In fall 2019, I participated in Krannert Art Museum’s Andean collection reinstallation project as a Research Assistant, thanks to the U of I Presidential Initiative grant. My work included researching individual objects, proposing exhibition ideas and providing an overview of Peruvian heritage laws.

Being an Andean archeologist currently working on my PhD in anthropology at UIC, this was a unique opportunity for me to get hands on experience with archeological objects, many of which have never been exhibited to the public. The liberty that was given to me to explore the collection and find objects that inspired and orient my research, truly made this experience one of a kind.

One of my favorite groups of objects to work on was KAM´s Chancay Dolls collection. Chancay dolls are a bit of a mystery. One thing though is clearthey were not children’s toys. We know this because they were found on adults’ graves and would have been too fragile to play with. One of the collection’s stellar pieces is a Chancay tree with a doll sitting on top of it, collecting its fruit.

But some of my favorite Chancay dolls were actually the ones that turned out to be “fake.” These objects are fascinating, because all of their individual components are fabricated from genuine archeological textiles. A mishmash of textiles from different areas and periods were put together to create a “doll” that was probably more appealing to the collector than the individual objects would have been. As an archeologist, part of my job is understating the “life history” of objects and seeing how an object´s life can continue beyond its original use, and even beyond its archeological context. It is a fascinating and even eye opening experience.

As I intend to specialize in Andean textiles, one of the highlights of my stay at KAM was working with Andean textile scholar Ann Rowe on the museum’s textile collection, which has proven to have some truly unique pieces. Perhaps one of my favorite KAM textiles is a blue Nasca mantle. This more than a thousand-year-old textile is almost perfectly preserved and still has its fringe, made of knitted tridimensional multicolor hummingbirds, all still intact.

To complement this research, I looked at other objects in the collection that would have, in a way, “accompanied” textiles throughout their lives. For instance, I studied textile manufacturing tools, including spindles, spindles whorls, and beaters, as well as a variety of personal ornaments. KAM´s collection is not short on necklaces and bracelets, and has some phenomenal headpieces and earspools. All of these adornments--when worn by their past ownerswould have worked together with woven garments to form ensembles that manifested their wearer’s identity and power.


Author: Rosa Varillas Palacios, MA in Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2020.