We have been llama-mad lately in the museum’s conservation lab, as we prepare for the upcoming exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire. Just as the network that became the Great Inka Road passed through many time periods and many different Andean cultures, the exhibition will present a cross-section of life all along the road, before, during, and after the Inka Empire, with a focus on the empire's engineering accomplishments.
In preparing objects for the exhibition, the conservation team learned about life in the Andes, including just how important llamas were and are in Andean culture. During the Inka Empire llama caravans were essential for moving goods on the road between relatively isolated communities, and llamas still play this important role in Andean life today. Llamas provide wool for clothing and other warm, beautiful textiles and are a valued source of food. Because of their important place in Andean society, llamas are also highly revered in religious ceremonies. Figures of llamas were made of stone, shell, gold, and silver in past times. Llamas are still often depicted in fine, colorful weavings, and llamas themselves are adorned to take part in festivals and other special occasions.
Enter the llama neck collar, or pectoral.
In the Andes, decorative chest ornaments are one way people adorn llamas in caravans or for ceremonies, and this particular collar is a fairly typical example. The materials used—sheep’s wool, recycled machine-woven wool and cotton cloth, and polyester-cotton sewing thread—indicate that this collar likely was made in the mid-20th century.
When the collar came into the conservation lab, it was a little worse for wear. Exposure to moths and poor storage before the collar entered the museum's collection brought damage to some areas, giving the collar an unkempt appearance. Some yarns in the collar’s fringe were literally hanging by a thread! With careful attention and patience, I realigned the collar’s disorganized fringe and strengthened weak yarns with fine silk thread. I also reinforced fragile, moth-damaged areas by stitching them to cotton support patches.
Swatches of material for patching and supporting the llama collar are kept with reference photographs. This provides an accurate record for future conservators of the treatment and materials used. Photo by Claudia Lima, NMAI.
The overall result is subtle, yet very satisfying. The conservation treatment allows the collar to be handled carefully without worrying about pieces simply dropping off. The treatment also restores some dignity to the collar: Now our eyes are first drawn to its vibrant embroidery rather than to areas of damage. I spent a total of 67 hours working on this piece, and every second was worth it.
Embroidered llama pectoral. Mid-20th c., Peru. NMAI 24/5505. Top, left to right: The front and back of the decorative collar before conservation. Bottom: The front and back of the collar after the fringe has been aligned and strengthened and other worn areas have been stabilized. Photos by Kate Blair, NMAI.
The llama neck collar is just one of many textiles I have had the privilege of working on for The Great Inka Road. Many of the pieces are archaeological and hundreds of years old. Seeing their complexity and fineness leaves me in awe of the great skill of the weavers who made them.
The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire opens June 26, 2015, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. Follow the hashtag #InkaRoad on social media to learn more about the exhibition.
Kate Blair is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Textile Conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian.