Volume 12, Number 2, May 1990, pp.2-3

Natural Dye Research in the South Central Andes

by Vicki Cassman

The brilliant colors found in the archaeological and ethnographic textiles of the Andes never cease to amaze me. However, the technical analyses of these textiles are frustrating to read because they are limited to design and structural information and the dyes are only mentioned by color, i.e. red, blue, etc. During the 1984 Junius Bird Textile Conference at the Textile Museum, it became obvious that our lack of knowledge on the subject of dyestuffs of the Andes is also a concern of the majority of enthusiasts who participated. The need for basic research is clear. When the opportunity to live in Arica, Chile, presented itself, I decided to dedicate part of my work to dye research.

The research was divided into various stages: a literature search; interviews with Aymara women about their knowledge of natural dyes; field collections of plants mentioned in the literature or interviews; extraction and dyeing of premordanted alpaca and wool for the creation of a reference set for later analytical comparisons; and assembling a collection of small yarn samples from pre-Columbian textiles of known provenance and date for further identification.

Permission was granted to base the dye study at the Facultad de Estudios Andinos of the Universidad de Tarapaca in Arica, Chile. The Facultad includes departments of Anthropology and History (9 faculty members), Archaeology (5 archaeologists, a botanist, and a physical anthropologist), and Conservation and Museology (8 faculty and staff members). There are two museums associated with the Facultad and thirty years of excavated archaeological artifacts in overflowing storage areas. The University also has an Institute of Agronomy located next to the main museum.

Before leaving the states, I gathered as much information as possible from the ethnographical and archaeological literature, while reserving ethnohistorical and botanical literature searches for the Chilean libraries. Once in Chile with this information in hand, the search for the plant sources mentioned in the literature and known to be in Northern Chile began. However, I found my file card system awkward (more than 100 cards, one for every plant mentioned in the literature) and hard to manage. The cards were converted, with some effort (Spanish texts), into a database management system on a personal computer. The database consists of common and scientific names, element used (roots, leaves, etc.), processing needs, harvest season, region in which it might be located, altitude, and the literature sources. The computerization helped to sort out the various plants of the same type or location, as well as to highlight problems such as plants with the same common names, but differing scientific names. It was clear that I would need to divide up my plant search into three regions: the altiplano or highlands (above 4000 meters), the precordillera (2500-4000 meters), and the coastal region.

It seemed logical to begin in the altiplano where I could simultaneously collect plant samples and interview traditional Aymara women. I joined a group of anthropologists from the Taller de Estudios Andinos (TEA) for an expedition to the area known as Isluga (4,500 meters above sea level in the interior of Iquique) which is known for its fine production of traditional woven textiles.

Ana Maria Carrasco and Vivi Gavilan, both from the TEA, are working with the women of these communities to improve their economic status by improving the quality of the textiles which they produce to sell. There has been a steady decline in quality and this has hurt the women artistically and financially. During this trip we went from community to community teaching them how to dye with "analinas", pre-metalized acid dyes in this case, since their textiles have a reputation for bleeding with the first wash. During the slow moments of boiling and stirring, I interviewed the women in Spanish. It was disappointing to find that even the oldest women and men did not remember anyone using plants to dye textiles. Some knew of a plant dye for cakes, "ayrampu" (Opuntia soherensis), but most found it hard to believe plants were used by their grandmothers for dyeing yarn. They also wanted very much to know how to dye with plants because they said they have plenty of time to collect plants while watching their camelid herds grazing. We collected all kinds of plant samples on this trip for experimental dyeings.

The next trip the TEA group and I made was to the precordillera in the area known as Chiapas (about 3,200 meters above sea level). This time we brought a young weaver and city immigrant, Wilma Mamani, who was of great help. Not only did she conduct interviews in Aymara but she helped us locate suitable collection areas and provided common names for most plants. The interviews in Aymara did not produce any new information, but we were content that our earlier lack of results was not due to a communication gap. The Aymara knowledge of medicinal uses of plants is very thorough and when we asked about plants which gave color when boiled, we started to get closer to what we were after. When possible to locate, we collected the plants specified as producing a colored tea, and we collected many other plants for experimentation which were not mentioned by any of the sources. Our last day in Chiapas luckily coincided with the festival of Pascua Negro (Black Christmas on January 6th), which included traditional costumes and dancing in the church and through the village.

Back again, in my kitchen laboratory, weeks were spent boiling various plant soups, producing all kinds of strange aromas and some beautifully dyed yarns. So far, as could have been predicted, there are many sources of yellow dyes and a few of red or blue. It is also difficult to know what part of the plant to use, therefore when possible, several elements were tried, such as roots, leaves, seeds, flowers, or bark. Eliana Belmonte, botanist with the University of Tarapaca, has been providing the scientific names of the plants collected and used in the dye tests.

Recently, I have started collecting plants from the desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama (about 2,300 meters above sea level) in the fertile valleys of the city of Arica. Collecting is more difficult due to the large number of old world plants which have been introduced into these regions. It is also likely that another trip to a different area of the altiplano is necessary to be sure most of the altiplano plants are represented in the reference set of dyed yarns.

As for the last goal of the project, the collecting of samples from archaeological textiles from known contexts--that has been relatively easy, as I have been working on a National Endowment of the Humanities funded project to analyze and rehouse an archaeological textile collection from the Museo de R.P.G. Le Paige in San Pedro de Atacama. This collection, representing over 200 tombs (5-15 textiles per tomb), was excavated 20 years ago and was practically abandoned in a rustic storage area since the Padre's death. The material has been radiocarbon dated to 300-650 AD and represent the Tiahuanaco culture. The textiles are covered with fine soil and many show evidence of insect infestations, salt, and serious past mold problems. As the average relative humidity in the museum is quite stable at 5-15% (night and day, March through January), the textiles are extremely brittle and have suffered many losses during the years of neglect. A one to two centimeter length sample of dyed yarn is taken during the preparation of each textile for storage from areas that have previously suffered damage or loss. Permission has also been granted to collect samples from archaeological textiles in the collection of the Museum of the Universidad de Tarapaca.

There is much still to be done and this year is flying by. The project is enjoyable not only because it is filling a research gap, but also because it puts me in contact with many new people and places. The exposure to the Aymara culture has been one of the most valuable extras of the project.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Kress Foundation for their financial support of this project and the Universidad de Tarapaca and the Universidad Catolica del Norte for allowing me access to their archaeological collections. I am also grateful to Dr. Ann Hedlund, Arizona State University, for her support and interest in this project.

Vicki Cassman, Cassman Textile Conservation, Tempe, AZ

Note: Ms. Cassman can be contacted care of the Winterthur/ University of Delaware Art Conservation Program where she will be teaching the Textile block from July 12 to August 6.

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