Fig. 1: Fragment of the Prisoner Textile, 1300–1401 CE. Chimú. Peru, North Coast. Cotton and pigments, plain weave with paired warps and wefts, 73 7/8 x 125 7/8 in. (187.7 x 319.8 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, X 2037

Fragment of the Chimú Prisoner Textile

Susan E. Bergh

It is difficult to overstate the value of cloth among the many ancient cultures of the Central Andes, which together created one of the most aesthetically accomplished and technically innovative textile traditions in the world. Artistically embellished cloth, always fabricated entirely by hand and usually made into garments, emerged by 4000 BCE on the Peruvian coast.(1) By the time of the 15th-century Inca Empire, just before the Spanish conquest, elaborate textiles figured in many political, religious, and social events, serving as markers of status and wealth, esteemed gifts and exchange items, and precious offerings to the sacred forces that animated the ancient landscape.(2) Given the number of lavish examples surviving from intervening periods, it is clear that textiles had similar importance throughout ancient history, although the absence of Indigenous writing systems obscures many details of meaning and use.

During the Spanish colonial period, Andean weavers continued to produce luxurious textiles that fused native and European traditions.(3) Thereafter, Indigenous weaving declined in many regions for reasons rooted in the conquest, including a racially motivated regard for weaving as undesirable. But weaving and the Andean people who practice it persisted and survived, and since the 20th century weaving has undergone revival in several areas, though under dramatically changed circumstances.

Outstanding among the Menil Collection’s ancient Andean textiles is a large fragment created by artists of the Chimú, a people of Peru’s north coast who, after about 1000 CE, forged an empire that endured until the late 1400s, when the Inca incorporated it into their own imperial domain (fig. 1). The fragment comprises two painted panels, each with concentric rectangles that frame a central display of men identified as prisoners by their nudity and neck ropes. While two also have the disheveled hair typical of captives, others seem to wear the comma- or wave-shaped headgear (shown in frontal and profile views) that appears elsewhere in Chimú art, especially on fisherfolk (fig. 2). Scattered disembodied heads suggest the prisoners are on the verge of sacrifice, a known Chimú practice likely aimed in part at balancing the cosmic forces that controlled nature’s sometimes devastating whims. Working from the outermost edges, the borders contain additional prisoners, some still clothed; then S-shaped, serpent-like motifs; and, finally, small animals—in the right panel, perhaps rodents or foxes, and in the left, felines with bristling backs arranged in pairs around prisoners.

Nine similar fragments, some pristine and others damaged, are known (for instance, fig. 3). Technical features indicate that the ten appeared side-by-side in an original made of two very long textiles stitched together along a horizonal center seam. The fragments’ heights are generally intact, averaging 72 inches. The length has been reconstructed differently by the two specialists who have studied the matter most thoroughly—in the late Junius Bird’s estimation, it was at least 105 feet, or 20 painted panels, while Andrew Hamilton places it at just over 75 feet, or 14 panels (both believe some panels are missing).(4) Even at the shorter estimate, the cloth is one of the largest ancient textiles yet documented.

Since the early 1950s, when cloth was clandestinely discovered, folded, in a tomb, it has usually been interpreted as a wall hanging due to its size and Chimú rulers’ predilection for using adobe friezes to decorate the walls of imperial buildings, including their enormous palaces (ciudadelas) (fig. 4).(5) In this view, textiles served as ephemeral substitutes for friezes, perhaps to heighten the pageantry of special ceremonial events. But it is also possible the cloth functioned solely as a burial offering or shroud due to a lack of evidence about how it would have been attached to a wall—there are no ties or holes along the edges—and perhaps its hasty, unfinished execution, which could have been prompted by death’s exigencies.(6)

Some experts suggest the cloth’s imagery commemorates historical military victories, one the conquest of the Lambayeque (also known as the Sicán), a Chimú neighbor renowned for works in precious metals, including gold masks (fig. 5).(7) They reach this conclusion by noting that a few of the prisoners have teardrop-shaped eyes, a Lambayeque-style hallmark (fig. 6). Further radiocarbon dating, which currently places the Chimú conquest of the Lambayeque in the late 1300s but creation of the cloth in the 1200s, may support this idea more strongly.(8) Whatever the case, any reading should reckon with the likelihood that the captives are fisherfolk due not only to their headgear but also to the occasional appearance of W-shaped thorny oyster (Spondylus) shells and prisoners in the “curled” or crouch-like posture that Chimú fishers often assume. At least one is a diver who collected thorny oysters (fig. 7, compare to fig. 2).

In the era of the cloth’s discovery, Bird enlisted an intermediary to track down information about the tomb’s configuration. The resulting sketch, though of unknown reliability, is surprisingly detailed, showing a rectangular burial chamber with rose-colored (that is, painted) adobe walls and dimensions related by multiples—13 feet deep, 26 feet wide, and 39 feet long. Two stairways, each with seven steps, gave access to a wooden platform that spanned one of the tomb’s narrow ends; above each stairway was the backrest of a litter that, in life, served as an elite mode of transport carried by human porters. A backrest at the Cleveland Museum of Art may be one of the two (fig. 8).(9)

Among the other objects said to come from this obviously noble tomb is another textile that apparently formed a set with the prisoner cloth. Known as the “Marine Fauna Textile” after its depictions of teeming sea creatures and birds, it is painted in similar colors and has the same concentric-rectangle format, construction, and height. Its length, though reportedly considerable, cannot be determined due to deterioration; it survives today only as a few fragments (fig. 9). This matching, marine-themed cloth surely confirms that the prisoners are fisherfolk and, therefore, that both textiles concern the sea, a source of bounty and a revered sacred entity to which the Chimú may have offered sacrifices.

  1. Jeffrey C. Splitstoser, Tom D. Dillehay, Jan Wouters, and Ana Claro, “Early Pre-Hispanic Use of Indigo Blue in Peru,” Science Advances 2, no. 9 (2016): e1501623.
  2. John Murra, “Cloth and Its Function in the Inca State,” American Anthropologist 64, no. 4 (1962): 710–28.
  3. Elena Phipps, Johanna Hecht, and Cristina Esteras, The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530–1830 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004).
  4. Junius Bird, “Data on an unusually large painted Peruvian fabric,” undated report probably written in the 1950s or 1960s in Menil files in two versions, one apparently an update of the other. Bird did not sign the report; his authorship is assumed, based in part on credited publication of his observations in Alan Lapiner, Pre-Columbian Art of South America (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1976), 263–64, 447 n600, 448 n646, and remarks in his introductory essay in Peruvian Paintings by Unknown Artists: 800 BC to 1700 AD (New York, Center for Inter-American Relations and American Federation of the Arts, 1973), 8–9. Andrew James Hamilton, “New Horizons in Andean Art History,” Record of the Princeton University Art Museum 75–76 (2016–2017): 43–159 (see 71–88 for the cloth). Lapiner and Hamilton provide the locations of the other fragments.
  5. Henry Reichlen, “Dos telas pintadas del norte del Perú,” Revista Peruana de Cultura 5 (1965): 5–16, provides a second-hand account of the cloth’s discovery and early history. For interpretations of the cloth as a hanging, see page 15 of Reichlen; Amanda Voss Gannaway, “Visualizing Divine Authority: An Iconography of Rulership on the Late Middle Horizon and Late Intermediate Period North Coast of Peru,” Ph.D. diss., Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, New York, 2015, 86–87; and Hamilton, “New Horizons,” 86.
  6. Hamilton, “New Horizons,” 71–88 documents the cloth’s hurried creation. The origin of a series of small, rust-stained holes on the upper edges of the Menil and Dallas Museum of Art (1976.W.1906) fragments is unclear. The holes could be the result of modern tacks used to mount the fabrics before they entered the museums’ collections. However, Amy Szumilewicz reports apparently similar holes on Lambayeque-style painted textile fragments that may have functioned as hangings; she suggests they reflect the use of metal fasteners in antiquity (Amy Szumilewicz, “The Portable Murals and Painted Shrouds of Middle Sicán Tombs,” talk during the panel Andean Archaeology from the Middle through Late Horizons, 86th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, April 17, 2021).
  7. Lapiner, Pre-Columbian Art, 263–64; Gannaway, “Visualizing Divine Authority,” 86–87; and Hamilton, “New Horizons,” 86–87.
  8. The single radiocarbon date for the cloth, obtained from the fragment at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (52-3-30/7349), is cal. [calibrated] 1200–1290 CE (95% probability).
    Update, September 2021: after this essay was first published, the Menil fragment returned a radiocarbon date of cal. 1300—1401 CE (95.4% probability). Dating other fragments of the cloth might help to resolve the discrepancy between the Peabody and Menil dates.
  9. A backrest at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (52-30-30/7348) may be the other. A famous wooden Chimú funerary scene (maqueta) displays an arrangement similar to Bird’s description of the tomb.