Image: Textile showing deity
This image shows a fragment from a Huari-style ceremonial panel from Peru, dating from A.D. 750 to 800. The tapestry shows a fierce-looking deity with rays coming out of his head.
updated 7/8/2005 10:16:55 PM ET 2005-07-09T02:16:55

A tapestry at least 1,000 years old shows a fierce-looking deity with rays coming out of his head. Other superhumans stare at the viewer through pupils divided by vertical lines that make them look cross-eyed.

Big tunics are adorned with pictures of women beating drums, men playing pan-pipes and others who seem to be making a ritual fire with a kind of wooden drill.

All are in a new display at the capital’s Textile Museum, finely woven by the Huari people who ruled most of Peru between about A.D. 750 and 950. That was a half-millennium before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. The Huari had their own ideas about how to represent nature, and their images are often hard to make out, like abstract paintings of today — but the colors are vivid.

Along with the textiles, archaeologists have made other finds — not included in this exhibit — that give an account of Huari life. The dry climate along Peru’s Pacific coast has preserved textiles in brilliant condition. With pottery and other remains they tell a story that the Huari had no written language to record.

Some of the textiles have as many as 200 threads to the inch, double the number in many European tapestries. The threads are tucked in at the back, so that the pictures can be seen from both sides. Fragments of one 8-foot (2.4-meter) Huari piece, given to the museum in 2002, are exhibited below a reconstruction by the staff of what it may have looked like originally.

“From fragments of tapestries that seem to be deliberately torn and ceramics deliberately broken, from the remains of animals and humans, we can get a pretty vivid idea of what Huari religion must have been like,” said curator Ann Pollard Rowe.

X-rays of one bundle still wrapped in cloth show the skeleton of a baby with a knife in its neck. It belongs to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Rowe said.

“That’s about as good evidence as you can get that there was human sacrifice too,” she added in an interview.

Also found in tombs are jars of corn and equipment which she thinks were used to brew the corn beer still drunk today at Peruvian Indian festivals.

“Among the symbols around the face of the main Huari deity figure is a plant form that has been interpreted as Anadenanthera colubrina, the seeds of which produce a hallucinogen that might have been added to the beer,” she wrote in a brochure given to museum visitors. Today’s beer-drinkers in that region no longer do that, she added in the interview.

The exhibit called “Gods and Empire” will be on view at the small museum in Washington’s embassy district through Jan. 15, 2006. Admission is free, with a $5 donation requested.

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