The Paracas Culture

The Paracas culture reigned on the south coast of Peru in the years 600-175 B.C. The most important Paracas findings come from the smallish area of Paracas peninsula that has given the name to the culture. Thousands of gorgeous textiles found in ancient cemeteries are especially significant.

A Paracas deceased was equipped for the tomb by lowering him into a basket on the bottom of which there were a number of textiles. The basket and the deceased were wrapped in a shroud, on top of which were piled new textiles and vegetable products, animals, trofe heads, combs, pottery, jewels, tools and so forth. Then the whole pile was covered with a new shroud, and the more noble the deceased was, the more sacrificial, textile and shroud layers he was wrapped in. Dead people were not mummified, but the hot dryness of the desert has preserved them and their funeral yield almost intact.

Besides textiles, ceramics is a significant art form of the Paracas culture.In the early ceramics of the area one can detect powerful influence of the Chavin culture, but relatively soon themes such as the surrounding maritime nature were established as the ornamental motifs. The Paracas ceramics has a black ground colour. The vessels were decorated only after the baking with the help of resin-based colours. Also the so-called light Topará ceramics has been found in the Paracas tombs, but it is presumably imported.

This pumpkin-shaped vessel represents Topará style ceramics sometimes found in Paracas graves. © Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú - Instituto Nacional de Cultura del Perú, Lima, Peru (Cat. 29)

The Paracas Textile Art

The Paracas textiles have largely astonished and charmed scholars of textile art. Tens of metres of fabric may have been used in the Paracas textiles, and since they have been decorated almost without exception by embroidery, even tens of thousands of working hours have been counted into creating the most splendid works of art.

The bulk of the Paracas textiles can be divided into two styles of embroidery: linear and Block Colour style. In linear textiles, only four colours have been used and they have been decorated on top of a weaved basic fabric by embroidered straight lines and by embroidered sashes that go round the edges of the fabric. Among others, felids, birds, serpents and the so-called big-eyed Eye god figure are typical motifs of embroidery. They are often hard to make out from their background and identify as separate entities.

The textiles representing Block Colour style differ from those of the linear style notably. The decorative motifs of the linear textiles have been copied almost unchanged from one weaving generation to another, while in many of the textiles of the Block Colour style there is a completely unique decorative motif. Also a rich use of colour and a checked composition of well-curved pictorial motifs outlined by borders are chracteristic of the Block Colour textiles.

This magnificent mantle represents the linear decorating style of the Paracas textile art, characterized by narrow decorative belts which run across the fabric. The wider borders of these belts and the fabric have been decorated with a smiling anthropomorphic figure with a tall tail. © Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú - Instituto Nacional de Cultura del Perú, Lima, Peru (Cat. 34)