Monday, March 16, 2015

Cultures of the Ancient Americas; A series in parts. Part 5 (Textiles and Baskets)

The Arizona Museum of Natural History has recently received major donations of objects from the American Southwest, Mesoamerica, and the Andes region of South America. The museum has opened a new exhibition, Cultures of the Ancient Americas, created solely from the new gifts. These magnificent objects offer insights into the cultures that produced them and underscore the monumental achievements of ancient peoples from New Mexico to Bolivia. We also celebrate the extraordinary generosity of our donors, who made the exhibition possible. Moche materials are the gift of Walter Knox of Scottsdale, AZ. Over the next several weeks AzMNH’s Museum Musings will highlight these objects and the cultures they represent, and suggest the special experience awaiting visitors to the exhibition.

The Final Chapter... 

Tiwanaku, Bolivia: Gateway of the Sun

Tiwanaku (Tiahuanacu) culture is named for the archaeological site of Tiwanaku that lies around the shores of Lake Titicaca in the Andean highlands.  At 12,630 feet in altitude, Tiwanaku was one of the highest cities anywhere in the ancient world.  It was central to a civilization that extended from northern Chili and northwestern Argentina through highland Bolivia and Peru between 300 and 1000 CE.  Tiwanaku was important as the center of a regional state system that predated the Inka Empire.  It occupied a strategic position between the high-resource area of Lake Titacaca and the dry Altiplano.  Agriculturally it depended on a system of "flooded-raised fields," in which mounds planted with crops were separated by shallow canals.  Its population comprised farmers, pastoralists, and specialized artisans of ceramic, textile, and ornamental goods.  Tiwanaku society was stratified, with elites controlling a distribution system of goods and services to the rest of the populace.

Basketry Vessel
Tiwanaku, 300-1000 CE
Andean Highlands, Bolivia

This small basket has everted sides and basic construction with pleasing decorative elements that elevate it from the ordinary.  It has either been well used or has just weathered the ravages of time, but still manages a flare for simple elegance.  It is made on a coiled bundle foundation with a closed weave and a self rim (i.e., rim and body have the same stitch style).  With a coil count of 8 coils/inch and 18 stitches/inch, it has a fine rather than a coarse weave.

The design mirrors the form of the basket, emphasizing the outward reach of the side walls.  The black and red "step and wave" pattern designs are narrower at the base and expand towards the top.  The design must follow the form.  But almost as though accommodating this, each step breaks open at the rise to the next step into a volute, an angular open spiral.  It is as though the design is implemented to allow further expansion.  This lends fluidity to an otherwise angular design.  The design is repeated around the basket, as well as vertically.  The rim terminates the next level of design before it reaches completion, giving the impression that the vessel extends beyond its own boundaries.  The exemplary gracefulness gives this basket a simple elegance.

Basketry "Olla"
Tiwanaku, 300-1000 CE
Andean Highlands, Bolivia

This basket is made on a basic coiled bundle foundation, has a self rim, and a closed, fine weave (8 coils/inch, 16 stitches/inch).  The form of the basket is distinctive.  The body is globular with a narrower neck and everted opening.  The body rests on a single coil sewn to the base by the same wefting as the whole; this lifts it slightly lending a certain singularity to the piece.  Side handles, with braided edges, join just below the rim to attach at the shoulder, and stand out as a different technique applied to the basket; the effect is charming.  A fine black line on one coil separates the neck from the body.  Stepped right triangles encircle the body; every other triangle is vertically offset, and the direction of the stepping is reversed.  Alternating reversals such as these are often used as a means of attaining visual balance in a piece but may also have symbolic attributes.  These designs continue onto the base of the basket where they lose their patterning with reduced coil size.

This is an unusual form of basket in a two-handled olla shape.  There are not many examples of Tiwanaku basketry, so it is difficult to state just how unusual.  As baskets tend to preserve less well than their ceramic counterparts, they are often thought of as having been part of the technology of a culture some time before their appearance.  Basketry forms and designs often became later replicated in ceramic counterparts.  This form of vessel also occurs in Tiwanaku ceramics.

This concludes our series on Cultures of the Ancient Americas. We hope you enjoyed it.

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