Feathered Walls: Hangings from Ancient Peru

September 16, 2013–May 12, 2014

The Discovery of the Panels

In February 1943, newspapers in Arequipa, in southern Peru, reported that villagers had discovered an ancient "burial ground" in a field where the Ocoña and Churunga rivers meet. The site became known as Corral Redondo, probably in reference to the three concentric circular walls, all about three feet in height and built of rough fieldstone, that were its most prominent architectural feature (redondo means "round" in Spanish). The villagers excavated an unknown number of bodies and many offerings, among them miniature objects and male and female figurines, made by the Inca (15th–16th century).

The most spectacular objects, however, were created by the much earlier Wari people (7th–10th century): eight ceramic vessels, each three to four feet high, that together contained ninety-six large, rolled-up feathered panels. The vessels are thought to depict humans, perhaps Wari dignitaries or ancestors, with mythological imagery painted on their bodies. Most of the panels are completely covered with the fine body feathers of the blue and yellow macaw, laid out in rectangles; others are entirely yellow or blue and orange. The ties still attached to the upper corners of many of the panels suggest they were used as hangings designed to transform an interior space into a radiant ceremonial setting.

What was the function of this isolated site, which was important enough to attract offerings from two of the Andes' most powerful cultures? Answers are still elusive, but it seems obvious that Corral Redondo was a huaca, or sacred place. It is known that the Inca used their finest textiles to cover the walls of shrines. Perhaps the Wari hung the luxurious feathered panels on the walls of the circular enclosure while they performed rituals prior to burial. Centuries later, the Inca came to the site for special ceremonies and to bury offerings to honor their gods and ancestors.