An Ancient Passion For the Geometric

THE vivid, densely patterned square objects on this page are obviously no ordinary pieces of headgear. The Andean pre-Incan people who made them over a thousand years ago had a genius for textile-making and a passion for the square and the triangle. But why these hats were made, and who wore them, is still a matter of conjecture. What we do know is that they were made in the altiplano of western South America. This region, a vast plateau high above sea level, includes parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Most of the altiplano is quite barren, scoured by winds that permit only scrub eucalyptus to survive. The very dry climate preserved the brillance of the original dyes in fragile textiles for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists know that one source of these hats was the Tiahuanaco culture, which was centered around the altiplano's Lake Titicaca. This culture seems to have been a hegemony that predated and overlapped the early Incas. It is said to have lasted a thousand years - twice as long as the Incan civilization. (The famous Incan empire, which absorbed the Tiahuanaco, only existed a hundred years before being brutally ended by Pizarro. Many of the marvels of engineering, metalwork, and textiles that we thi nk of as Incan were originated in pre-Incan times.) The Wari people may also have produced the square hats; little is known about their culture, except that they, too, are thought to have been assimilated by the Incas.

It is probable that the densely designed square headgear evolved from an earlier Tiahuanaco knotted hat which was less square in form, and decorated with simple raised zigzags. Indians who live in the area today still wear an unadorned circular cap with earflaps and a chin tie, as well as the bowler hat which typically shows up in tourists' photographs.

The square hats seen on these pages were worn straight and low on the forehead, and tied under the chin with a string. In South American museums there are ceramic pieces, presumably from the same period, showing men wearing this headgear. From the elaborate tapestried tunics depicted, it is clear that the hat owners were high status - nobles, priests, or warriors. There is little other recorded evidence of these hats: Their makers and wearers never developed a written language.

The hats are dated from the fourth to 10th centuries AD. A more precise dating is difficult, not only because of the lack of written records, but because artifacts such as these were likely to be found in temples and graves, sites which have been heavily looted through the centuries. When looted objects became marketable to archaeologists and tourists, they were brought to the villages for sale. Removed from their context they could no longer be carbon-dated.

Some of these hats show unmistakable signs of everyday use. Others are pristine, indicating they were either stored, perhaps as heirlooms, or were part of a burial rite, interred with their owners. Although we know little about the religion of these people, the new clothing placed in the tombs tell us that they believed, at least for the leaders, in some afterlife.

The wool used to construct these hats was from the llama and alpaca. The spinning was done on spindles that were painted and engraved, indicating the work was highly regarded. The threads were doubled, tripled, or quadrupled to give uniform thickness. Skillful dyers used a mineral mordant to bring the red from the cochineal, a scale insect, up to a brilliant scarlet; yellow came from ocherous earth; blue and green from the dependable, ubiquitous indigo plant, and brown from other vegetable juices.

These hats were constructed on the same building principle as fishnets, a technique that uses a single strand knotted on itself. The knot used is called the larkshead and consists of two symmetrical half hitches. The types of single element textile construction most familiar to us are crocheting, tatting, and knitting - all of which use some hand-held instrument. In the case of these ancient hats, a single needle was used.

The Tiahuanaco hats are more cunningly geometric in construction than those of the Wari. They are knotted in one piece from the center of the square top downward, with strange peaks growing out at the four corners.

The Wari, instead of attempting to make the hat in one continuous process, made several pieces for the sides and tops that are joined by sewing or additional knotting. They added pile tufts into each knot, giving a soft, lustrous surface like fur or plumage. The workmanship of all the hats is so refined that a magnifying glass is needed to see where various colored threads join.

The Wari also liked to finish off the four jaunty peaks with exuberant tassels. Researchers think that those peaks are vestiges of animal ears, dating back from earlier headpieces that were designed with representations of animal heads.

The geometric designs on and of the hats themselves tell us something of the pre-Incan mind-set. Geometry seems to have been a concept embraced by this precisionist people with a fervor equal to Euclid's. The intensive designing of the motifs feature squares within rectangles, and triangles that make bigger triangles or squares. The representational motifs of birds, beasts, and suns with rays are also all stylized geometrically.

While the technical demands of the work might point to squared-off shapes in the designs, one realizes that the artisans were capable of forming circles when they wanted to and were in no way forced to stylize the subjects of their designs into straight lines. This they did by deliberate choice not only in their textiles, but in their wall carvings. The walls themselves, of which only ruined temples remain, are enormous mosaics of irregular rectangular blocks fitted together without mortar. These walls possess such exactness and stability that, even when looted for later building purposes, they have remained straight and unwavering.

Other surviving textiles of the altiplano of western South America, including those of the Incas, are exquisite. Aside from knotting, there were varieties of woven fabrics: seven plain weaves, double-faced cloth, tapestry using both the brocade and embroidery techniques, feather fabrics, gauzes, and fabric embellished with gold bangles, tiny bells, and gold particles. With the simplest looms, these ancient highland weavers produced some of the most refined textiles in the world.

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