“Peruvian Dolls: A Bridge Between the Past and Present”

Peruvian Dolls: A Bridge Between the Past and Present

by Maggie Ordon

Figure 1. Doll, 1950-1995; textiles, 1000-1476, Chancay, Peru, cotton, alpaca, in memory of Elizabeth (Betty) Ege Freudenheim, HLATC 2001.1.1

Figure 1. Doll, 1950-1995; Textiles, 1000-1476, Chancay, Peru, cotton, alpaca, in memory of Elizabeth (Betty) Ege Freudenheim, HLATC 2001.1.1

We feel a certain magic when holding textiles artfully and skillfully woven a thousand years ago in the area now known as Peru. We marvel at the environment and climate that preserved the cloth— the existence of which allows us a glimpse into the complex world of past cultures. Countless ancient textiles are being discovered in the thousands of burial grounds along the coastal region of Peru within a contemporary context of poverty and political tension. It is through the confluence of these two conditions that a collection of dolls in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection speaks. The twelve dolls and two face hangings in the collection were made in the mid- to late-twentieth century of Pre-Columbian textile fragments. The HLATC dolls appear to be modeled specifically on dolls found in the central coastal valleys of Peru that are attributed to the Chancay culture that thrived in the region from 1000 to 1400 CE.

The dolls in the collection are said to be made by contemporary indigenous women in Peru who use tattered textile fragments from Pre-Columbian gravesites. They are representative of similarly constructed dolls sold in Lima tourist markets (Reid 29–31). The prevalence of these dolls in the street markets in Peru and through online sellers indicates a trend of reusing archaeological textile fragments for tourists and consumers. These reproduction-style dolls spark new questions about the already extensively explored rich textile practices in Peru. For example, how are these dolls reusing archaeological textiles, and thus, giving new cultural meaning to the textiles? These dolls also encourage us to consider how the past and present cultures of the area now known as Peru are being communicated, both for a tourist market, for which these dolls were produced, and through museums, who collect archaeological objects. How do these dolls fit into the larger question of cultural property, Peru’s national claim to ownership of ethnological materials in the country, the rights of the indigenous population, and the relationship of tourists and museums to these objects and people? Even though the dolls in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection pose these questions, the answers are elusive and far reaching. The dolls are complex artifacts—they capture the rich textile traditions of Pre-Columbian cultures through their use of the extant fragments; they embody the current complex political and economic situation of Peru; and they personify the tension over the appropriate care of archaeological objects and cultural property. This article will help situate these dolls within these contexts, in order to establish a base from which to approach these issues, as well as to gain an understanding of the dolls themselves.

Description of Dolls in Helen Louise Allen Collection

I was able to work closely with the dolls in the collection. Physically examining the dolls and attempting to reconstruct a similar doll awarded rich understandings of the dolls and their significance. I looked at many facets of the dolls, including the weave patterns and structures, fibers, and the conditions of and skill levels that went into the dolls and the textiles.

Figure 2. Hanging, 1950-1995; textiles, 1000-1476,Chancay, Peru, cotton, alpaca, in memory of Elizabeth (Betty) Ege Freudenheim, HLATC 2001.1.13

Figure 2. Hanging, 1950-1995; textiles, 1000-1476,Chancay, Peru, cotton, alpaca, in memory of Elizabeth (Betty) Ege Freudenheim, HLATC 2001.1.13

There are three types of objects in the collection that represent similar reuse of archaeological textiles: face hangings, and large and small dolls. Pictured here is the smaller of the face hangings in the collection [Fig. 2]; it is a reed-filled, flat, rectangular pillow, 7 1/2 inches high by 6 ¼ inches wide, embellished with assorted textile fragments and embroidery.

The large doll’s [Fig. 1] body and head are composed of a reed or other vegetal fiber; two fabric layers have been wrapped around the flat vegetal fiber with large stitches holding the pieces together. A smaller piece of cloth is stitched down to the front of the large doll, creating the appearance of a tunic. The head is wider than the rest of the body and is wrapped with a plain weave, faded solid-colored cloth distinct from the garments. A fine gauze weave fragment covers the top and back of the doll’s head. The arms and legs are composed of a vegetable fiber wrapped with red cotton yarn. Each arm bifurcates one half inch from the end. Two small dolls are sewn to the large doll, one on both the front and back, as if it were holding its babies.

The small dolls [Fig. 3] in the collection are less structured without arms or legs. They appear to be made by folding the base fabric around an inner layer of cloth. On several of the dolls a thin strip of fabric peeks out from the center of the bundle. Another gauze layer is draped over the base layer and a yarn is wound around the middle of the bundle creating a head. All the dolls share similar facial features. Eyes, nose, and mouth are embroidered in red thread. The eyes use two colors—dark thread outlines a red center. The small dolls have closed mouths, while the large doll has an open triangular shape. Each facial feature is constructed by embroidering three straight stitches.


Figure 3. Doll, 1950-1995; textiles, 1000-1476, Chancay, Peru, cotton, alpaca, in memory of Elizabeth (Betty) Ege Freudenheim, HLATC 2001.1.3

Catalogue entries and subsequent testing revealed the use of several fibers: cotton, alpaca, and acrylic. In my analyses of fibers under the microscope, I saw varying qualities of cotton yarns. For example, the fine, tightly spun red yarn from the arms of the large doll, [Fig. 1] and the natural yarn around the neck of HLATC 2001.01.009 were smooth with the characteristic twists and nubs of cotton. Contrastingly, the cotton fiber removed from 2001.01.004 was very rough and tangled, had dark specks, and took up a much larger portion of the microscope’s field of view. The yarns from the fragments suggest both different qualities of fiber and spin, as well as possible effects of age. The acrylic yarns were only used in the embroidered facial features and yarns holding the dolls together, while natural fibers appeared in the original textiles and the applied yarns. The multiple fibers and their condition signify access to synthetic materials and commercially produced thread, as well as continued use of locally produced threads or materials. A range of colors and weaves are represented in the sample of the dolls and face hangings— golden gauzes, blue and cream striped panels, brown painted cloths, and red tassels. The weaves are mostly tight, warp faced plain weave, either solid or striped. Gauze weaves of finely spun yarn, which are prevalent in the Chancay gravesites, were consistently used as head coverings. The head band on the small face hanging [Fig. 2] is a tapestry weave of four different colors and the headband and tunic on HLATC 2001.01.001 [Fig. 1] are complementary warp weaves. Other structures are seen in embellishments in the face hangings and HLATC 2001.01.001, such as tassels, braiding, and fringe. The patterns on the textiles are similar to many extant Pre-Columbian textiles, including striped, geometric, and zoomorphic patterns, as will be discussed below.

The dolls show evidence of multiple makers. The textile fragments appear to be high quality, finely hand spun and woven; on the other hand, the construction of the dolls is sloppy with loose, conspicuous stitches; hanging threads; and bunched up, fraying fragments. The roughshod assembly of the pieces signifies a different attitude towards the materials than was held when the cloth was originally made.

Pre-Columbian Textiles and Aesthetics

The dolls in the collection are modeled on dolls from gravesites from 1000–1460 CE and use what has been determined to be textile fragments from Pre-Columbian graves. In order to understand the context of the original cloth used in the dolls and the implications of its reuse, it is helpful to briefly describe the textile practices and aesthetics of Pre-Columbian cultures. There were many empires that thrived over several millennia along the coast and mountain region in what is now known as Peru. While many developed unique textile practices and aesthetics, surviving textiles demonstrate consistently fine quality weaves in a plethora of techniques.

Cloth itself was sacred, woven for specific purposes and not cut. The weaving process and the patterns produced embodied the cosmological beliefs of the people. The dualistic cosmology of the Andean people included the belief that every element in the universe has a balanced opposite. Often, this binary paradigm visually abstracted and made geometric the landscape, social structure, spiritual realms, and animals. The physical landscape of mountains and terraces interlock with the spiritual realm in checkered or stepped patterns. Angular spirals of woven light and dark yarn curl around each other. Animals such as birds and cats were sacred creatures; textiles woven with their images harnessed the animals’ spiritual power. The bird motif on HLATC 2001.01.001 is representative of the Chancay culture’s unique way of illustrating birds (Anton 141–147; Lathrop and Mahler 15–17; Riley 8–10). The Chancay culture wove faces and human figures into their fabrics that are similar to the faces on both the original and reproduction dolls [Fig. 4]. HLATC has several other Chancay textiles that demonstrate these similarities, including objects 1996.01.001, 2001.01.048, and 2001.01.054.

Figure 4. Left: Detail of doll, 1950-1995; textile, 1000-1476, Chancay, Peru, cotton, alpaca, in memory of Elizabeth (Betty) Ege Freudenheim, HLATC 2001.1.1 Right: Detail of fragment, 1000-1476, Chancay, Peru, cotton, Gift of Wilfred Harris, HLATC 1996.1.1

Figure 4. Left: Detail of doll, 1950-1995; textile, 1000-1476, Chancay, Peru, cotton, alpaca, in memory of Elizabeth (Betty) Ege Freudenheim, HLATC 2001.1.1
Right: Detail of fragment, 1000-1476, Chancay, Peru, cotton, Gift of Wilfred Harris, HLATC 1996.1.1

In addition to explaining how textiles encoded broad social and cultural beliefs, scholars also suggest that textile practices themselves are represented in the fabric; the cloth is illustrated with images of cotton plants, people weaving, and garments (Stone-Miller 14). From the spins of the yarns to the figural representation of alpacas, the people in these early cultures demonstrated their reverence for textile practices within cloth itself. For example, Mary Frame eloquently describes how “the shapes, the underlying grids, the infinite repetitions, and the symmetrical motions that generate patterns, when taken together, describe a specific conception of space… [and] how the configuration of patterned space is referenced toward the elemental interworkings that compose fabrics.” Frame describes how the directional spins and plies of the yarn mirror the imagery of spiraling, sinuous patterns, or how the geometric patterns map out braiding techniques (Frame 113, 115–121, 124–127). Textiles themselves were a manifestation or model for broader cosmological conceptions. The process of weaving represented a harmonious intermeshing of the binary systems encoded in the fabrics’ patterns. The designing, spinning, and weaving activities all invoked a sense of respect for and reflection on textiles. These analyses illustrate how deeply these cultures esteemed and treasured their textile practices.

Original Chancay Dolls

The inclusion of textiles and finely crafted objects in graves was common practice in the Pre-Columbian cultures. In fact, it is this ritual that has afforded us such rich archaeological evidence of their complex societies. Even though these dolls are unique to Chancay graves, most Pre-Columbian gravesites would typically include textile-wrapped mummies, textile related artifacts such as looms or spindles, pottery, figurines, and other assorted items.

In addition to being composed of textile fragments found in ancient graves, the dolls in HLATC are modeled on dolls that were placed in burial sites in the Chancay valley of central coastal Peru near the present capital Lima. The purposes of the original dolls of Pre-Columbian burial sites are enigmas; while not abundant, there is some scholarship available on the archaeological dolls (Hodnett; Lathrop and Mahler, VanStan). For example, M. K. Hodnett conducted a thorough study of over one hundred dolls in the Amano Museum in Lima, Peru. Her close analysis of the dolls reveals recurring motifs in the doll’s construction: tapestry-woven faces, camelid fibers imitating human hair, gendered garments, ornaments, musical instruments, things held in hands, and activities of multiple dolls attached to a single platform. For example, she distinguishes male and female dolls by both the garments worn and patterns on their faces; females have several variations of diagonal stepped patterns, while the male pattern of three triangular sections is more standardized. The faces of both genders, however, have dramatic facial features: diamond shaped eyes of either black or white outlined with the opposite and rectangular mouths with square teeth alternating from black to white. Moreover, the garments all appear to be woven specifically for the dolls. She also describes several dolls that are part of larger tableaux. These scenes vary from platforms on which dolls dance around a tree to an open-faced cloth cube in which a musician, a dancer, a cupbearer, and others surround two finely dressed figures. While Hodnett’s study ends with many questions, she concludes that the dolls’ similarity in features and physical proximity in archaeological sites suggests that they were produced in a small area or by a workshop (16–24, 38–53, 60). This is a widely accepted interpretation of the creation of Peruvian textiles; other scholars have discussed the highly organized, hierarchical social structure of early cultures in the area and its relation to the production of a large quantity of high quality textiles (Stone- Miller 17; Paul 378–387).

Although the recently constructed large doll [Fig. 1] in HLATC is substantially different in intention, skill level, and use from the dolls found in Chancay graves, the dolls share similar construction details and treatment of the body. The bodies of both kinds of dolls are based on a reed or vegetal fiber and then dressed in representative garments. All the dolls have similarly constructed arms, with bifurcated ends; the newer dolls’ limbs are wrapped in reddish color yarn similar to the originals. The original dolls, around 12 to 13 inches tall, tend to be slightly larger than the recent reproductions. The original Chancay dolls wore garments woven to scale, whereas the recent dolls haphazardly wear assorted fragments as makeshift clothes, which may not even go around the entire body. All the doll types wear gauze headdresses. HLATC 2001.1.1 [Fig. 1] also has alpaca tassels at the side of the face, perhaps mimicking the original use of camelid fibers as hair (Hodnett 25-28, 40). The HLATC dolls all have embroidered faces and not the unique, specialized tapestry woven faces; the heads do have similar trapezoidal shapes, though. Moreover, despite the simplistic embroidery, the facial features on newer dolls create a similar geometric look: outlined eyes, straight nose, and a straight mouth. Though the reproduction dolls do not show teeth, the face hangings recreate the checkered open mouth seen on original Chancay dolls and textiles [Fig. 2]. While the Chancay grave dolls are occasionally found sewn or attached to cushions with sharpened sticks, creating dioramas, newer dolls may be sewn flat to padded bases as hangings. The small, baby-like dolls, which are sometimes seen alone or held by larger dolls, do not appear in the Chancay-style graves. Perhaps these are instead a solution to having only smaller textile fragments available.

The Current Social Context of Archaeological Textiles and the Dolls

Due to complex political struggles, changing land use, and ethnic tensions, many people in Peru suffer in urban and rural poverty. These harsh social and economic conditions in the capital and its surrounding area have acutely affected the condition and conservation of archaeological sites and artifacts. The valleys in which the Chancay culture buried their remains are particularly vulnerable to looting, given their proximity to the tourist and art markets in Lima. Looting the artifact rich tombs that dot the coastal landscape of Peru, of which there are already five thousand known sites, is one way people struggle to survive (Atwood Stealing History 24, 53). The looting of burial sites is primarily driven by the demand of the antiquities market— collectors will pay high prices for pristine ceramics, whole tunics, or gold ornaments. Peru, however, has little money to finance excavations of burial sites, let alone to protect them from looters (Atwood Stealing History 63, 71). Because of the lack of protection and the economic need of the community, “looting is about the only work to be had, and although it’s illegal in Peru to desecrate tombs…police can always be bought off with a freshly dug up pot or two” (quoted in Atwood, “Standing up to the Smugglers” 118). This problem of unregulated, profit driven looting is exacerbated when a site yields only fragments, shards, or objects not in vogue on the international market at a certain time: any artifact not deemed profitable by the looter will be discarded. Whole piece textiles are currently a popular commodity and are being physically “preserved” as they are illegally traded. Nonetheless, there is an immense amount of archaeological information and potentially valuable artifacts that are not being preserved for scholarship and heritage.

Tattered fragments, broken pottery, and human bones—uncovered and tossed aside by looters— litter the coastal burial sites. One Web site described the process of the dolls’ production: “There are three large archaeological sites in the Chancay area of Peru, and women from that area gather antique textile scraps (not museum quality) and create these intriguing dolls. The authentic Pre-Columbian dolls can be seen in museums all around the world, and the artisans create wonderful reproductions.”1 The women who are credited with making these dolls collect these leftover fragments and reuse them in the dolls. Given that these dolls are then sold in Lima street markets for only an American dollar or two (Reid 29–31), it seems as if these dolls are a way to earn much needed income by using available materials already disturbed by looting— a symptom of an already pervasive activity. In terms of cultural property issues, however, one can ask whose position it is not only to claim these remains as cultural heritage, but also who can benefit or utilize them as well. Do the remains belong to the local indigenous community who gather them, the nation-state of Peru, the antiquities market who will honor the artifacts as “art,” or museums who seek to preserve and study cultural history or textile techniques? Peru first established national laws governing archaeological artifacts in 1921, and has sought recently to maintain a state claim to all ethnographic and archaeological material in Peru. Both locally and internationally, issues of cultural property and heritage are very much entangled with politics, law enforcement, and economics National and international enforcement is very difficult: customs officials are barely able to catch the illegal export of major lootings that include precious metals and whole, pristine, undamaged textile pieces. (Atwood Stealing History 50, 88-98). While the Chancay dolls are on the US Import Restriction List, the list distinguishes the fake ones as having embroidered features. This distinction seems to suggest that traffic in the reproduction dolls is not restricted. Although the categories subject to import restriction include textiles, the restrictions only describe panels, tunics, and gauze. The list indicates specific dimensions of textiles for customs officials to watch for—many at least a square foot in size. These laws seem to devalue the fragments in the dolls as not worth either custom officials’ time or the legal label of “archaeological or ethnological material.”2 In one way, this suggests that the reproduction dolls are not considered part of the cultural property being protected.

Several articles have lambasted looters for not taking pride in their cultural heritage. Pre-Columbian experts argue that local indigenous people are violating their own heritage when looting local burial sites. Archaeologists and museum professionals work to educate people to take pride in earlier Peruvian cultures and to respect the gravesites. Nevertheless, the communities also face impoverished conditions and must negotiate subsistence and cultural pride in daily life. The local indigenous communities express their frustration with ownership claims of the burial goods through protesting archaeologists, such as Walter Alva, who protect archaeology sites: “Walter Alva, give us back the jewels… Alva comes here, brings all the foreigners around, shows them the huaca [burial site]…and we never got a dollar. Look at this place—we have nothing” (Quoted in Atwood Stealing History 36–37). On the other hand, some local residents are actively engaged in protecting the cultural treasures and act as guards at the burial sites (Atwood “Guardians of the Dead” 42–49). These examples illuminate the social tensions surrounding the economics of cultural property.

Museums, archaeologists, scholars, and educators have been instrumental in not only amassing more information and greater understanding of Pre-Columbian cultures, but also in disseminating that information in Peru and internationally. However, issues concerning cultural property rights are tested in international ownership and display of artifacts. For instance, Peru has recently pushed Yale University for the return of Inca objects taken from Machu Picchu in 1911 and 1912. The New York Times hosted a panel discussion on issues of repatriation in March 2006. The discussion grappled with such questions as how to negotiate cultural patrimony with broad, global access; “cultural property as a political construct;” and museums’ associations with imperialism.3


This article has attempted to describe and situate the dolls in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection within a framework of the textile practices of the Peruvian region in addition to current issues surrounding looting and cultural property. While this article cannot answer the above questions concerning ownership and appropriate treatment of archaeological artifacts, these dolls illustrate a way in which the local community is taking advantage of the available resources, re-interpreting a practice previously performed in the same area, and caring for their families with money earned selling the dolls. The tourists who purchase the dolls will then carry with them bodily representations of not only Peru’s past, but also its present issues as well. These dolls serve as a testament to both the original culture’s rich textile activities and also to contemporary people dealing with economic hardship and the cultural heritage of the region.

The HLATC dolls, which now carry a long history, have found their way into a textile collection, where they can be studied as examples of Pre-Columbian artifacts, as well as nuanced objects that speak of contemporary issues. The fragments used in recently constructed dolls, without more information about their source, may or may not be museum quality or valuable to archaeologists and other scholars. If the fragments were from looted graves, the dolls mark the loss of other objects and information. Nevertheless, the HLATC dolls represent another layer of history and cultural property, the story of contemporary women collecting fragments, crafting dolls, and selling the dolls for income.

The HLATC dolls create a connection between the present people of Peru, the people buying the dolls, and the people of the past who made the textiles. The small, formless dolls in the collection lead us to think of babies and mothers, intimating a new bond between the dolls, their multiple makers, and ourselves. These connections are reinforced through the form of a doll, a symbol of the many makers and users in the dolls’ histories. Despite the limited scope of this article, these dolls have offered an interesting and important introduction to the above issues. Most importantly, they signify a bond between the past and the present. Both the textiles of the ancient Andean cultures and the dolls crafted with the remaining fragments represent “aesthetic solutions for bridging and balancing” (Maraga 15) belief systems within a culture and connections to a culture’s past. As the textiles of the ancient cultures of the Peruvian area visually interlock cosmological levels, balancing the spiritual with the corporeal realms, the reproduction dolls made by contemporary indigenous peoples using the same textiles merge temporal periods, balancing present economic needs with available archaeological materials. The textiles charted the universe; the dolls embody the connection between other worlds and our own.


1. Bluecorn Trader: The World Cultures Store. http://bluecorntrader.com/cgi-bin/bluecorn/IAT-15.html1 April 2006.

2. Department of the Treasury. “Archaeological and Ethnological Material from Peru.” Federal Register Notice. June 11, 1997 http://exchanges.state.gov/culprop/pe97fr01.html 16 March 2006.

3. “Antiquities Panel at The New School.” Online transcript. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/arts/artsspecial/ 29 March 2006.


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