Land where shamans got high to fly

Exactly what is being depicted will always be a mystery, but it's a breath-taking mystery, writes Katie Russell.

Currently at the National Gallery of Australia's Gold and the Incas: Lost worlds of Peru exhibition there is the opportunity to view an object with an extraordinary tale of survival over 1700 years. It may not glitter like gold, but it tantalises in so many ways.

The textile is woven from camelid wood and cotton. Set against a monochrome indigo ground, dozens of crazy, contorted figures of shamans are embroidered in a dizzying array of colour combinations. The rhythm of alternating, opposite postures subtly asserts the Peruvian world view of order and balance in nature.

Each of these pinwheeling figures is unique, with individual facial decorations or masks, head-dresses and costumes; several hold gold sacrificial knives known as tumis, and staffs or swords.

The shaman figures appear to be cavorting, spinning around in space - a dance brought on by a coca-induced trance as they transform into flying creatures. The ability to fly is a fundamental attribute of shaman as this gives them the power to move between all three realms: the underworld, the earthly world and the sky - birds are the only other creatures able to do so. The shaman is therefore the perfect companion for the deceased on their journey to the realm beyond their earthly life.

This single cloth took thousands of hours to create, and was but one of 65 wrappings around a fardo, or mummy bundle, of a male of high status discovered in the Wari Kayan necropolis. The sheer dedication to the task of making such fabrics is testament to the significance of the journey of the dead for the living.

The Paracas environment, where the desert plunges into the sea (there are areas where no rainfall has ever been recorded) has proved to be an ideal natural conservation laboratory. These unique preservative conditions have allowed the textile wrappings, human remains and other accoutrements of mummy bundles like this one to retain their quiet and vivid beauty in secret underground burial chambers.


Undisturbed during the Spanish conquests, these burial grounds were only discovered in the early 20th century by huaqueros (grave robbers). Fortunately, Peruvian archaeologists secured the sites to preserve their rich contents for future generations. Documentation of their work provides a detailed record of Paracas life and death that these mummy bundles have revealed almost 2000 years after they were buried with such reverence.

There's more than one way to interact with this fascinating object during a visit to Gold and the Incas: Lost worlds of Peru. An iPad app, inspired by this textile, has been developed specially for the exhibition's Family Activity Room. It allows visitors to decorate, accessorise and animate their own flying shaman figure. These personalised shaman can be sent home as a memento and are added to a vast virtual cloth that appears on the exhibition website, nga.gov.au/Exhibition/Incas.

Despite the conclusions drawn from the archaeological record and the work of textile scholars, the deeper significance of the Mantle with flying figures eludes the 21st-century viewer. Like the latter-day Peruvian shaman Carlos Castaneda, this textile, my personal favourite in the Gold and the Incas exhibition, is destined to remain ''an enigma wrapped in a mystery''.

Katie Russell is head of learning and access at the National Gallery of Australia.