Chancay dolls

Object of the Month: 05/2005

What is it?:

Chancay dolls

Age: dolls - 20th century; fabrics - pre-Columbian (ca. 500 - 1000 BP)
Where was it collected:

Peru; by A.J. Baillon; dates collected unknown (Mr. Baillon donated his collection of Peruvian dolls and pre-Columbian Peruvian


(height, L to R) 28.5 cm; 28.6 cm; 24.8 cm

What is it made of?:

cotton, wool (camelid), natural dyes, plant fiber; also natural pigment (paint) on A72:24:26h

Accession #: (L to R) A72:24:26h; A72:24:26k; A72:24:26b

Chancay dolls
Chancay dolls

The three dolls shown above are contemporary Peruvian pieces made using ancient textile fragments. The dolls are near facsimiles of a doll making tradition that was in practice along the arid central coast of Peru 1000 years ago. These modern dolls are an example of indigenous Peruvian artisans redeveloping an ancient industry of their ancestors to provide a new source of income. Sometimes modern dolls are fraudulently sold as antiquities, but often Andean artisans maintain the connection to their past and sell them as a contemporary style of folk art that has ancient roots. These dolls represent a blurring of the line between the past and the present.

Modern indigenous Peruvian artisans recreate Chancay dolls (named after the Chancay culture that inhabited the central coast of Peru ca. AD 1000 - 1476) in the old style using ancient fabrics. A common difference between ancient and modern dolls, however, is the ancient dolls usually had textile woven faces. The fabric for the face was specifically created for that purpose. Modern dolls usually have facial features embroidered onto plain cloth. Also, since there is a market for the dolls, textile fragments used in modern doll manufacture are traded from throughout the Andes. It is not unusual for modern dolls to combine fabrics that originated at various locations along coastal Peru - from the North Coast to the South Coast, and that are separated in time by thousands of years. Most, such as the dolls pictured here, are composed primarily of Central Coast, Chancay fabrics.

The Chancay people inhabited the Chancay and Chillon valleys on the central coast of Peru. They are best known for their textiles. Thousands of Chancay textiles survive in museums around the world. This is in part due to a good environment for preservation on the Peruvian coast, but is also probably the result of extensive production. The Chancay were contemporary with the more widely known and intensively studied Chimu culture of the North Coast. The Chancay and Chimu were often in conflict with each other because they shared a common border. However, because of this, they share many similarities in their textiles. Both kingdoms were conquered and incorporated into the Inca Empire in the mid to late 13th century AD.

Most of the surviving ancient dolls that have been recovered had been placed as grave furnishings. Indeed, the vast majority of ancient Peruvian fabrics in museums today, such as the fragments used to clothe the dolls shown here, were most likely recovered directly or indirectly from funerary contexts. This is because these areas are less likely to be disturbed over time and subject to the elements than other more active areas such as those around residential areas.

The coastal areas of Peru and Chile, the arid slopes of the Western Andes, are favorable to the preservation of textiles. Humidity is the enemy of objects made of plant or animal fiber. The desert of the Western Andes is one of the driest regions in the world. Thanks to low humidity on the coast, many Peruvian textiles have survived in the dry sandy soil. The weavings that have survived over the millennia have added much to what we know about the pre-Columbian people of the Andes.

It is not known whether Chancay dolls were made specifically to be placed in tombs as funerary offerings, or if they represent possessions from life that were buried with their owners. Many speculations have been put forth. They may have served in memorial celebrations or as 'companions' for the dead (similar to the Egyptian Ushabti figurines). On the other hand, it has been suggested that they were toys or even puppets. It is interesting that some dolls have been found to contain small items such as spindles and yarns along with the usual stuffing of more rigid plant fibers.

Skirt with design of interlocking sea birds.
The iconography seen on the skirt of the doll on the left and the headband on the doll on the right are typical textile designs of the ancient Andes. The design of interlocking sea birds on the skirt of the doll on the left is painted in brown on tan cotton fabric. The design was painted by stencil. Painting by stencil or printing with cylinder or flat stamp were a way of mass-producing decorated fabrics.

Birds are a common motif in the Pre-Columbian iconography of the Andes. They were highly venerated, as documented by early Spanish chroniclers, because of their ability to cross between earth and sky. Sea birds were additionally important to the inhabitants of the dry coastal regions both because of their association with water and because they were the source of guano used for fertilizing crops.

Headband with hybrid creatures.
The figures on the headband of the doll on the right combine cat-like tails with bird-like heads. Hybrid creatures that blend feline, avian, and other animals' characteristics are not uncommon, and could symbolically represent a blending of qualities associated with the individual animals.