Panel, 600–900. Wari culture. Peru, Arequipa, Corral Redondo. Macaw feathers, cotton, and camelid fiber, 31 ½ x 86 ¾ in. (80 x 220.3 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Promised Gift of Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter Collection, TL 2018.19.1.1

Luxurious Feathered Cloth from the Wari People

Heidi King

In February 1943, newspapers in Arequipa in southern Peru reported that residents in a small village had discovered an ancient “burial ground” in a field where the Ocoña and Churunga Rivers meet not far from the Pacific coast. The site became known as Corral Redondo, probably in reference to the three concentric circular walls, each about three feet high and built of rough fieldstones, that were its most prominent architectural feature. The reports stated that in the course of one night early that month the villagers dug up an unknown number of mummy bundles, which they burned immediately, and many offerings, among them miniature objects and male and female figurines in gold and silver of the kind deposited in shrines by the Inca in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The most spectacular objects excavated that night, however, had been created by the Wari people many hundred years earlier: eight monumental ceramic jars, each three to four feet tall, that together contained 96 large, rolled-up feathered panels. A total of more than 160 objects were recovered at Corral Redondo, which the villagers divided among themselves and quickly sold. Eventually, the authorities were able to recover most of the objects, while others were sold on the international art market. Today the vast majority are in museum collections in Peru, the United States, and Europe.

Between 7th and 10th centuries CE, the Wari people created what many scholars believe was South America’s first empire, surpassed in influence and scope only by the better-known Inca in the late 15th and 16th centuries. The Wari heartland was in the Andes mountains of Peru, where they built impressive architecture at their capital, also known as Wari, near the modern town of Ayacucho, and at several provincial centers. Gifted engineers, they are thought to have connected these centers with road networks that the Inca later expanded; through labor-intensive agricultural innovations, such as terracing and irrigation, they transformed the dry highlands into fertile land. The Wari also forged strong connections with peoples in the prosperous valleys of the Pacific coast, an arid desert region where many Wari and Wari-influenced artworks have been found in tombs and offerings. The feathered panels in this exhibition are among these works.

Feathers, particularly those from colorful birds, were a highly valued material in ancient Peru, and featherwork was likely one of the most treasured of Wari art forms, which also included other types of fine textiles, meticulously crafted polychrome ceramics (as can be seen in the examples included here), exquisite personal ornaments made of precious materials, and small-scale sculpture. Such portable luxury goods were markers of wealth and power, and, because the Wari, like other ancient Andean peoples, did not use a writing system, they also played an important role in expressing, recording, and preserving concepts about the human, natural, and supernatural realms.

The monumental ceramic jars that contained the feather panels have globular chambers with three small loop handles and constricted necks featuring polychrome human heads, faces on one side and dark hair wearing patterned headbands or crowns in back. The faces have wide open eyes and sculpted noses, mouths, and ears. The jars are thought to depict humans, perhaps Wari dignitaries or ancestors, with mythological imagery painted on their bodies. The fact that the panels had been placed into these containers protected them from salts and minerals and insects in the soil, which accounts for the excellent state of preservation of most over more than a thousand years.

The panels measuring on average 84 inches wide by 29 inches high (213 x 74 cm) are completely covered with feather mosaic consisting of thousands of the fine body feathers of the blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna), a bird native to the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. In the bold minimalistic design, the feathers are laid out in rectangles of diagonally opposed blue and yellow feather fields. A few panels in the group are entirely yellow or the mosaic is of blue and orange feathers. Across the top is a narrow, plain brown band crudely stitched to the backing with braided ties at each end, with some of those now missing on some of the panels.

The feather mosaic on the panels was created by stitching strings of feathers knotted to cotton cords to the foundation fabric of fine, plain-woven cotton. The laborious task of producing feather strings required knotting literally thousands of individual feathers—sometimes two or more were tied into a single knot, especially when the feathers were very small—onto hundreds of yards of strings. It is estimated that on average 15,000 to 16,000 feathers were required to completely cover each panel. Detailed studies of feather strings on a few of the panels revealed that a variety of knots ranging from simple to very complex were used for holding the feathers. Invariably the shafts of the feathers were bent over a string and knotted at the bend. A second string also knotted to the feathers is used to stabilize them, preventing the feathers from turning in all directions. On one panel it was found that the knots attaching each feather to the string vary according to the feather color; one type of knot was consistently used on strings of yellow feathers and another type of knot with those of blue feathers.

The panels are among the most striking and yet enigmatic artworks to have survived from ancient Peru. The formal sophistication of their design and the superb craftsmanship of the panels have appealed to modern sensibilities, and they served as inspiration for 20th-century artists such as Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning, who acquired one of the panels for their collection, which is now on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

They are in fact unique within the sizable group of remarkably diverse textiles produced by textile artists in Peru prior to the conquest in the 16th century. No comparable objects are known from scientific archaeological excavations or in collections otherwise. What may have been their function? When first discovered, they were thought to be mantos (mantles) because they resemble Paracas mantles in size and format: this, however, is most unlikely. More plausible, because of the fragility and preciousness of the material, is the suggestion that they were hangings used for temporary display—on festive or ceremonial occasions, being tied to wall tenons or poles with the straps still present on many of them. More recently the suggestion has been made that they might have been displayed on a slanting thatched roof of an important architectural structure; how they may have been arranged is not known.

As enigmatic as the panels’ function is the function of the isolated site of Corral Redondo where they were found. The site was important enough to attract precious offerings from two of the Andes’ most powerful cultures, but what was its significance to the Inca in the 15th and 16th century and the Wari more than 500 years earlier? It is safe to say that for the Inca Corral Redondo was a huaca, or sacred place, considering the find of over 30 precious Inca miniatures known from numerous scientifically excavated capac hocha offerings in high mountain shrines. The colonial literature reports that the Inca covered their huacas, or shrines, with fine cumbi cloth, some of which was feathered. It is likely that during Inca times the brilliantly colored feather panels were hung over the rough fieldstone walls of the Corral, transforming this spot surrounded by mountains rich in gold—gold mining continues in the area to the present day—and overlooking the confluence of two rivers into a potent ceremonial space. But what did the site mean to the Wari people? Was it a sacred place for them too, one where they buried lavish offerings between the 7th and 10th centuries and which were then reused by the Inca? Or did Corral Redondo have meaning only to the Inca, who brought Wari heirlooms to the site to honor it? Unfortunately, answers to these and other questions remain elusive.