BYU Student Uses Microscope to Find Origin of Ancient Looted Textiles

microscope-275984_1280In 2014, the Museum of peoples and Cultures at BYU acquired a collection of Pre-Columbian Peruvian textiles. Similar to many ancient textiles, these were originally obtained by looters rather than archaeologists. As a result, the textiles came to the museum like a solitary puzzle piece – out of context, with no instructions or explanation attached.

Taralea Foster, student of anthropology at BYU, put the textiles under a microscope to determine their cultural origins, as well as ways the textiles were likely used in the past.

To determine the origins of the textiles, one might expect an anthropologist to simply compare their designs and colors to similar textiles, and then make an educated guess. However, taking the analysis to a microscopic level made it possible to link the textiles to a more specific region. Under the microscope, the materials in the textiles were discovered to be a combination of cotton and camelid wool. Foster also determined that the spin of the thread fibers, the textiles’ thread count, and the weaving techniques used to make them were all representative of textiles from a specific Peruvian region.

Coast of Huanchaco, Peru – a city in the region the textiles were made

Taralea concluded that each of the five textiles she analyzed were probably from the northern or central coastal regions of Peru. They were woven by people of the Chancay or Chimu cultures, likely during the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1500 AD), and were likely used in tapestries or as garments.

Comparing the technical aspects of her textiles to those from other collections, Taralea was able to reconstruct the previously unknown cultural contexts of the five looted textiles and place them in their proper cultural and temporal position. The recovered information gives the textiles a new significance to the museum and will be used in their future research and display. The museum, in general, boasts many student-curated exhibits,  programs that are open to the public, and resources available to educators:

“For a lot of the cultures we have [featured at the museum], there were no written records,” says Paul Stavast, director of the MPC. “These objects are what the people left behind. This is how we understand who they were.”

Understanding the past takes teams of scholars and students to piece together the puzzle and build a comprehensible reconstruction of the past. Professors and students like Taralea Foster contribute to the rich scholarship and education at BYU that blesses the lives and enriches the minds of students everywhere.

Foster’s research was presented in this winning poster at the 2015 Mary Lou Fulton Conference:

Taralea Forster Poster

What is your favorite exhibit at the Museum of Peoples and Cultures?

Two New Exhibits at Museum of Peoples and Cultures

Two exhibits recently opened at our own Museum of Peoples and Cultures. Located on north Canyon Road in Provo, just a couple of blocks northwest of campus, the museum is open to the general public and is, in fact, a treat for students and families alike. Both the Greater Than Gold: Textiles of the Ancient Andes and the More Than Stone: Historical Archaeology of the Original Provo Tabernacle exhibits are designed and curated by students.


The Greater Than Gold exhibit illustrates the extiles for the ancient Andean people. Without a formal written language, the unspoken messages were communicated in other ways, one of those ways being cloth. Fine textiles were a sign of social status, wealth, and power. For this reason, there were many influences of textiles and cloth on culture and behavior.

Of the More Than Stone exhibit, Jess Simpson, a grad student at BYU who was able to volunteer during the excavation of the former tabernacle and meetinghouse, along with many other students. Of the experience she said, “my favorite part was finding things. I was right next to Haylie when she pulled a tiny doll with a painted face, and I found another little metal trinket. It was neat to see things that somebody loved a long time ago. These people loved this building and were there often enough to lose things like buttons and coins and toys. I think that that is a testament to the faith of the saints that settled here – they loved their church buildings.”

The exhibits opened during an open house on January 19th, and will be celebrated during the upcoming BYU Night at the Museums, in collaboration with five other campus museums, on January 29th, as well as during a Peruvian Date Night on February 12th. For more information on those events, please visit the MPC’s website, follow them on Facebook, or check out BYU’s calendar.