May 19, 2015

Preparing Objects for "The Great Inka Road": A Decorative Llama Neck Collar

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. 

Snapshots
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.

Llama collar before treatment, front Llama collar before treatment, back

Llama collar after treatment, front Llama collar after treatment, back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Kate Blair is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Textile Conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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April 17, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Guayabo and Las Mercedes

Tomorrow, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video, led by Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, an archaeologist who works at the National Museum of Costa Rica, takes a look at two archaeological sites in what is now Costa Rica—Guayabo and Las Mercedes.

Guayabo and Las Mercedes are important for excavation because the scale of the architecture found there suggests that they represent societies where power was highly centralized. In southern Central America, they stand as uniquely monumental examples.

Many of the objects unearthed in this area were excavated in the early 20th century by teams who worked for the American businessman Minor Cooper Keith and his wife, Cristina Castro Fernández, whose family was prominent in Costa Rica. The Keiths amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 objects during their time in Central America. In 1916, Minor Keith became a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian—Heye Foundation, later to become the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

Research excavations resumed in the region in 2005. Objects recovered from Guayabo and Las Mercedes continue to provide new insights into the lives and societies of the peoples who lived there.
 

  

For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue. A short article on Minor Keith can be found on pages 72 and 73.

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

 

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

 

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April 13, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

This Friday, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video takes a look at three archaeological sites—El Silenció, Finca Seis, and Batambal—all of which contain stone spheres made by peoples of what is now Costa Rica before AD 1500.

The video features Francisco Corrales, a member of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Costa Rica. The three sites he invites us to experience are within the Greater Chiriquí region of Central America, an area that is further explored within Cerámica de los Ancestros.

The sites are unique from one another in terrain. El Silenció houses the largest stone sphere recorded thus far, but years of pasture burns in the grasslands area have taken a toll on the stone's outer layers. In the low-lying river plain of Finca Seis, flooding buried the spheres under many layers of sediment, preserving the only original alignment found to date. Batambal rests high in the mountains, a strategic position for views of surrounding hills and the valleys below.

The reasons for the stones’ creation remain a mystery. Corrales explains that while spheres apparently marked locations with special significance where important events would have taken place, some may have had astronomical purposes as well. Anthropologists and archaeologists continue to survey the areas, and junior members of their fields do much of the cataloguing work, providing a unique learning environment in which to build the expertise of a new generation of scholars.

 


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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April 03, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—El Panteoncito

In just a few weeks, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the April 18 opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This second video looks at El Panteoncito, an archaeological site located in El Salvador. 

El Panteoncito is one of several sites in the Cordillera del Bálsamo Project surveyed by Marlon Escamilla, an archaeologist with the School of Anthropology at the Technological University of El Salvador. In this video, National Geographic Society archaeologist and anthropologist Fabio Amador explains the geographic and social significance of El Panteoncito, uncovered in part by Escamilla’s research.

El Panteoncito sits high in the mountains. Living there would have been very difficult, but the site would also have provided its inhabitants with a strong defensive posture. From El Panteoncito, views are practically unimpeded in all directions, offering advance warning when the community needed to protect itself.

One unique aspect of the site is that it affords scholars the opportunity to learn what foodstuffs the inhabitants grew and consumed. Researchers have determined that many of these food practices have been carried forward to people who live in the area today. The site also serves as a place to study the history of the last migration of peoples in the region before contact with the Spaniards. 

  

 

To learn much more about the first peoples of what is now El Salvador and the sites where they lived, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed
 is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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March 27, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Joya de Cerén

In less than one month, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the April 18 opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This first video looks at the Joya de Cerén World Heritage Archaeological Site

The village of Joya de Cerén, in what is today el Salvador, was abandoned more than 1,400 years ago, shortly before the eruption of Loma Caldera. Buried under volcanic ash, Joya de Cerén was preserved unusually well. The site has provided clues to the domestic life of the peoples of the area, as well as an excellent overview of early architectural practices. Many of the objects excavated there illuminate social structures as well, pointing to a culture whose people had a high quality of life, with a say in both the authority and trade systems within their communities.

 

Interested in knowing more about Joya de Cerén? Download the free exhibition catalogue and turn to “Dwelling in the Ancestral Joya de Cerén Village,” beginning on page 23. 

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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