When we think of ancient South America, we may think primarily of the Incas. However, this empire, known to its subjects as Tawantisuyu, existed for only 150 years before the arrival of the Spanish. Many other cultures flourished in South America before the Incas. While each culture was unique, there were some traits shared by all the cultures of the Andean region.

An important shared tradition was the appreciation and significance of textiles. Textiles were used not only for clothing but to announce political status, social nexus, ideological affiliation, and cultural identity. Textiles, the single most important commodity of the ancient Andes, were used for payment. A special class of weavers was responsible for some of the most complex and elaborate textiles ever made. Many of these textiles are in collections around the world, where their artistry is a source of fascination and a subject of research.

While study of these textiles has focused on form and structure, one of their outstanding features is their brilliant, vibrant colors. Great importance was attached to the dyeing of thread and the making of dyestuffs. Until recently, however, little has been done to understand these processes fully—an understanding important for proper conservation, restoration, and description of these textiles.

Conservation image

Over the past six years, the UCLA Institute of Archaeology and the GCI have collaborated on research to resolve problems in Andean dyestuff identification. The research has two aims: to better understand the cultural meaning of textiles and the relationship between people and their environment through the identification of dyestuffs; and to develop easy-to-use methods to identify ancient Andean dyes, increasing the conservation knowledge necessary for the appropriate display and treatment of the textiles.

In the 60 years before the current research began, fewer than 300 ancient Andean dyed cloth samples had been analyzed. Since the UCLA-GCI work started in 1993, the team has analyzed an additional 600 dye samples. Team members have examined and evaluated a number of analytical techniques and recommended specific techniques to use with threads dyed with different colors. The research has also identified two types of red dyes previously unknown in Andean textiles.

To date, team members have presented seven papers at international conferences and written five articles for peer-reviewed journals. The research (which has also been presented to numerous scholars in the field) is an example of a fruitful collaboration between archaeology and conservation science that can advance knowledge of the achievements of cultures of the ancient New World.

For more information about the textile research, please contact the Getty Conservation Institute Museum Research Laboratory.