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The Second Oldest Textile in Ecuador

A large jar neck and a piece of a cup as they were found in an ancient trash pit
Usually in archaeology a single potsherd -- a piece of broken pottery vessel -- isn't important. To draw any conclusions about how ancient people lived, you usually need a lot of sherds. But sometimes there's an exception.

In the late 1980s I excavated at the little site of Pirincay in the southern highlands of Ecuador, not far from the city of Cuenca. Pirincay was founded sometime between 1500 and 1300 BC by people who made nice red-on-cream painted pottery and who lived on the site -- building and rebuilding, throwing their trash out the doorway, and then leveling it and building again -- for almost 1500 years.

Workmen screen the excavated dirt to recover small artifacts

< Deep, stratified deposits from Pirincay's long occupation, just above the level where the sherd was found

Sorting sherds with the help of historian Deborah Truhan
The Pirincay people made a lot of pottery and broke lots of it too. I spent many, many hours cataloging the potsherds and trying to figure out what their pottery was like when whole and how it changed through time. Analysis of excavated materials normally takes years. One day while I was looking through the potsherds, I found a small fragment, a piece of the base of a red-and-cream painted bowl, that apparently bore the imprint of a textile:

The sherd
Click for a closer view

A bowl being placed on a cloth Here's what we think happened: a potter formed the bowl and let it dry out a bit. Then he or she (pottery operations in the Andes are usually a family enterprise) moved the bowl out of the way and in the process, set it down on a piece of cloth. The cloth left its faint imprint on the base of the still-damp bowl.

We have very few ancient textiles from Ecuador because the conditions for organic preservation are poor. Most of our information, in fact, comes from imprints on pottery -- chance events like the one at Pirincay. Ecuador's oldest "textile," from before 2000 B.C., is the imprint of two rags on a lump of clay from the early coastal culture of Valdivia. The earliest actual fragment of fabric from a well-dated source is much later -- around 500 A.D.

The Pirincay sherd was found in the dirt fill abutting a low stone platform, virtually the earliest structure at Pirincay. The style of the sherd and its context permit us to date it to somewhere between 1500 and 1000 B. C. A conservative interpretation of the relevant radiocarbon dates is that the bowl was made, used, and broken somewhere around 1300 B.C.

One of Dong's photos
If you have a pair of red-and-green 3D glasses, you can see the sherd in stereo.
Because this is so early, the sherd is a very important piece of evidence about the history of spinning and weaving in the northern Andes. So I talked to Dr. Nina Jablonski, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences. They had helped sponsor the Pirincay project and I asked them for the scientific help I needed to analyze the sherd. First we needed high quality photographs and the Academy photographer, Dong, spent the better part of a busy afternoon shooting the sherd.

Robin Whitley, DDS, and office manager Sharon Miller with a box of dentist's goo
But these photographs only hinted at what the sherd might reveal. So I decided we needed to use a scanning electron microscope to study the delicate pattern. At this stage you normally make a cast in the stuff dentists use to take an imprint of your teeth when you need a new crown (polyvinyl siloxan). Since this was a very small project, involving one sherd, I simply went to my dentist, Dr. Robin Whitley, who made the impression.

Mounted sections
Then I took the cast -- a positive impression of the textile -- back to the Academy and to their scanning electron microscope specialist, Dr. Darrell Ubick. Dr. Ubick was more used to taking pictures of bugs but he rallied to the cause. Because the cast was too big for the electron microscope chamber he began by cutting it into four parts and gluing each section to a threaded mount. Then the cast was dried hard to make sure the reflective coating would stick to it.

Dr. Ubick at the helm of the Hummel V Sputter Coater.
The Hitachi S-520 Scanning Electron Microscope at the Academy, usually used for entomology studies.
Electron microscope photo
Once dry the mounted samples were "sputtered" with a thin layer of gold and palladium to render them opaque to the electron beam. Then they were mounted in the chamber of the electron microscope. The samples can be viewed from many angles while in the chamber and the magnification can be changed with ease. Once you see what you like on the screen, a black and white photograph is made of what the electron beam has revealed. These pictures may not look like much, but they helped with the final analysis.

Dr. Meisch
At this point, Dr. Lynn Meisch of St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, was asked to help. Dr. Meisch is an expert on ancient and modern textiles of the Andes. She took the sherd and all the different photographs and casts and studied them to see what she could tell about this ancient bit of cloth.

Plain weave
2/2 twill
What did we find out? Well, because the sherd is so small we can't tell which is the warp (the vertical threads) and which the weft (the horizontal threads). This is a problem because the textile could have been either a plain weave (over one, under one) or, just possibly, a two by two twill (in which the weft thread, instead of interlacing over one, under one, goes over or under more than one warp thread at regular intervals). Dr. Meisch thinks a plain weave is more likely because twill weaves are not common in Andean weaving traditions and most known twills are late.

A typical spindle whorl from Pirincay
It is clear from the imprint that the thread was spun using a spindle and spindle weight (whorl). A spindle whorl was found in the same stratigraphic context as this sherd. The fiber spun had to have been either cotton or camelid (llama and alpaca) hair. It appears to be about the same thickness as modern button hole twist (slightly thicker than ordinary sewing thread); bast fibers, such as those from the century plant-like penko bushes (Furcraea spp. ) will not produce such a fine thread. The textile also appears to have had a design: a stripe with either Xs or diamonds on it. Again, because we have so little of the design field, it is hard to say how the decoration was constructed, although some form of warp manipulation is a common way of making this kind of design today.

Possible designs

Although a small and not particularly beautiful artifact, this sherd is helping shed light on the origins and the evolution of native Andean textile traditions.

A country woman at the market carrying her baby in a shawl. Ikat decoration is typical of textiles produced in southern Ecuador today.
A Cañari Indian man weaving with the native back strap loom. In northern Peru and in Ecuador men weave, while women spin.

For further reading on textiles, Ecuador and Pirincay:

Karen Olsen Bruhns "Prehispanic Spinning and Weaving Implements from Southern Ecuador," The Textile Museum Journal Vol. 27/28, pp. 70-77, Washington, D.C. 1988/89.

Suzette Doyon-Bernard "La Florida's Mortuary Textiles: The Oldest Extant Textiles from Ecuador." The Textile Museum Journal Vol 32/33, pp. 82-102. Washington, D.C. 1993-94.

Ann Pollard Rowe, editor, Costume and Identity in Highland Ecuador. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1998.

Karen Stothert et al "Reconstructing Prehistoric Textile and Ceramic Technology from Impressions of Cloth in Figurines from Ecuador." In Materials Issues in Art and Archaeology II, edited by Pamela B. Vandiver, James Druzki, and George Segan Wheeler, pp. 767-776 Materials Research Symposium Proceedings, Vol. 185, Pittsburgh, 1991.