Posted by R. John Howe on 10-15-2003 07:35 AM:

Chilkat Distributed Abstraction Evaluated

Dear folks –

The Chilkat practice of using “distributed abstraction” in their designs is interesting. Steve Price pointed out early that it would seem to be a rather sophisticated species of abstraction. This made me wonder what other legitimate evaluative statements might be made about it. Is the distributed abstraction of the Chilkat’s a demonstrably “good” species of abstraction, in some sense, or can it be critiqued?

I ran into a web site that talked about “modeling” and in it, there was a quoted sentence from Picasso:

“Art is the lie that helps us see the truth.”

This led me to the notion that perhaps one way to evaluate various sorts of abstraction might be to ask what purposes do they seem to be aimed at and then to examine how successful they seem in achieving these purposes.

Samuel characterized the move to distributed abstraction one primarily motivate to “fill the space.” But I wonder whether there might not be more to it than this. (What Chilkat “truths,” for example, might the move to distributed abstraction seem to reveal or to more effectively accentuate? What advantage might there be in displaying two mouths in the abstracted design of a creature with only one?)

What objectives do you think the Chilkat dancing blanket designers might have had when they moved to distributed abstraction and how successful to you think they are in achieving them?

What are some other noteworthy instances of distributed abstraction in the world of art and how do they compare?


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-15-2003 08:19 PM:

Dear folks -

Come, now. There must be opinions, perhaps even informed ones, about the Chilkat entry into the field of abstraction in art.

Could it be that the opening up of the animal might in part be intended to show a greater proportion, on a flat surface, of a figure that occurs in life in the round? This seems to me less likely. Parts are repeated in the abstraction, but it does not seem to work noticeably to let us see some part of the "back" of an animal that is "facing" us.

Or, to take up a critical question, are the designs on the Chilkat dancing blankets "intelligible?"

One notion of "intelligible" might be do they successfully communicate a discernible something? Maybe not, if they are/were ambiguous, not only to the scholars, but to the Chilkats.

Another notion of "intelligibility" might be, do/did they call up a particular human response (to someone in the Chilkat culture) with some reliability? These designs would clearly succeed in this latter function if they are of animals in a "crest" relationship with the makers' tribe or clan, but it would seem that a realistic rendition would accomplish this just as readily. It is hard to see how the particular species of abstraction the Chilkats adopted might improve the design's ability to serve such a function.

There must be a number of similar questions.


R. John Howe

Posted by Sue Zimmerman on 10-16-2003 12:45 AM:

Hi John,

For distributed abstraction and calculus even, the Vedas are the place to go. I can't sing in Sanskrit via computer though, so I guess, as a concrete example, that's out. But you know those Arabic numerals in rugs? The Arabs called them "Al - Arqan -Al - Hindu" which means Indian figures. They should know, they were the translators. The Indos of the Indo-Europeans were heirs of someone else too, I guess. So, anyway, the closest I can get to another example of distributed abstraction in art, without making people faint, is Mayan hieroglyphics. Sue

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-16-2003 09:21 AM:

Dear folks -

I tried to follow Sue Zimmerman's suggestion that Mayan hierolyphics might be an analog of the distributed abstractions of the Chilkats.

The Mayan hierorglyphics are abstracted designs and could be seen to resemble Chilkat devices.

Looking for some to show you I found, oddly, that some of the sites the provide the most accessible images are some that are basically interested in selling you T-shirts.

Nevertheless, learning can occur in odd places so here are a couple of links to explore. (Often the hieroglyphics are presented in entire pages that make the devices seem too small to examine, but usually if you click on the lower right corner of such a page, a red squarish shape will usually appear. This, when clicked, in turn produces a larger readable image of the page.)

Look around a bit in the sub-links in the site above.

Although the Mayan hieroglyphics are clearly abstractions it is not clear to me how they might be seen as an instance of "distributed" abstraction. Their elements are in fact those of a written language, something the Chilkats are reputed not to have had.

So while I admire Sue's imaginative suggestion, the Mayan hierographic systems seem to me distinctive from the Chilkat abstractions.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-16-2003 01:57 PM:

Dear folks -

We could also attempt to evaluate given Chilkat dancing blanket designs on more familiar aesthetic grounds.

Here are three black and white images of such blankets:

How would you rank these three Chilkat blanket designs in aesthetic terms and why?


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-17-2003 04:57 AM:

Hi John,

How would I rank these three Chilkat blanket designs in aesthetic terms?
Very low.
Because I don’t like them.
I don’t know, they simply don’t turn me on.
One of the reasons could be the relative lack of colors.
So, I tried a little experimental coloring:

It looks a little better but I still don’t like it.
I DEFINITELY prefer the Turkmen Asmalyks.
Because I like them. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps I have to read again Christopher Alexander’s theory on "a set of tools to judge beauty". But I never found it very convincing…


Posted by R. John Howe on 10-17-2003 05:42 AM:

Hi Filiberto -

Your reaction is very interesting. Chilkat dancing blankets seem here to command generally very positive reactions from those who collect in other areas. I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps in part because totem poles and their designs (which are also of the "formline" variety) are likely a part of the early education of most U.S. students.

I was in conversation with a TM board member the other night at a TM reception, marking their current work with and exhibitions Navajo weavings and some quilts attributed to African-Amercians. This board member and his wife are long-time collectors of African art and he has a large collection of Caucasian flatweaves. They also own several Navajo blankets. When I mentioned the Chilkat dancing blanket, his eyes lit up and he confessed that they had wanted to own one for some time.

I think the boldness of their graphics is what many here find appealing. I don't think it depends much on color, although the colors used do add to their attractiveness for me.

But I'm very glad that you said out loud that they do not speak to you.

By the way, you likely know, but your suspicion that Christopher Alexander's book on aesthetics (using Turkish village rugs as his focus) would likely not help much, is probably correct. We tried to apply him with some expert assistance in Salon 11.

The results did not encourage us that Mr. Alexander's formalism might be a source of help. In fact, if he is right, we would all have similar reactions to the Chilkat dancing blanket, since he holds that our aesthetic evaluations are essentially "hard-wired."

I am hoping that I can find a few to take on my comparative task above, despite the fact that it is "buried" in a thread that not everyone will be encouraged to look at again.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 10-17-2003 06:01 AM:

Hi John and Filiberto

I like the Chilkat textiles a lot, although I agree with Filiberto that the color makes them much more attractive. I'm not sure that the appeal they have for me is aesthetic - that is, I don't think I'd describe them as beautiful per se. I find them extremely interesting, and I find myself looking for all the body parts and how they relate in the pieces. That is, their appeal is more intellectual than emotional for me.

I don't know that I've ever seen one at close range, and scale makes a lot of difference in how something affects me (and probably other people, too). I can tell that the Salor trapping in Mackie and Thompson's book is clearly very beautiful just from the picture in the book. But seeing it in the wool at the Textile Museum (I've seen it twice, now) has taken my breath away each time. Its scale is extraordinary, and this adds greatly to its impact.

Of the three images you posted in this thread, I tend to prefer the third. I think it's the orderliness in the arrangement of the field. I dislike the first one because it doesn't fit my prejudice of what it should be. I expect a Mercator projection of an animal; that one looks like a partially disassembled totem pole. For all I know, someone who collects these things and knows a little about them could educate me and change my preferences completely, though. My first few rugs were modern formal workshop Persian carpets, and I thought they were about as good as such things could get.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-18-2003 05:54 AM:

Dear Steve and all -

Here is a little more information about the three Chilkat blankets above that might help in our evaluations of them.

The first is likely the oldest, having been collected by a named person in 1932. It is said to have a "raven" design.

The second piece was also collected by a named person, and is estimated to have been woven in 1900. This design is also seen to be either of a "hawk" or "raven" variety.

No estimated weaving date is given for the third blanket, but it is of the "paneled distribution" variety of abstraction that seems to have characterized the most fully "developed" (I know that word is objectionable) stage of Chilkat design progression that seems to have its acme sometime in the 19th century. Emmons describes it as a "diving whale" rendition.

I am also interested in Steve's suggestion that the appeal that the Chilkat dancing blanket designs have for him is that they are "interesting" in a way that he feels falls outside the world of "aesthetics." I cannot, of course, question his experience, but "interest" would not seem, necessarily, to bar the possibility that the interest had an aesthetic character. I wonder how he detects that his particular interest is without an aesthetic dimension.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 10-18-2003 07:55 AM:

Hi John

Interesting and beautiful are not mutually exclusive. The first seems to me to be an intellectual response, the second an emotional one. Most worthwhile things have elements of both, but in varying proportions.

To go back to the TM Salor trapping, for instance, I find it both extremely interesting and extraordinarily beautiful. The Chilkat blankets don't hit me as terribly beautiful, but I find them very interesting. That is, I find myself mentally playing with their content, rearranging elements in my mind, fitting things together various ways to try to make sense of them. Their appeal to me is more nearly akin to that of a well written book (Michener's The Source comes to mind for its remarkable composition) than to that of, say, Richard Farber's wonderful ballet score, Five and a Half.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-18-2003 08:03 AM:

Hi Steve -

Michener writes well?!?!?! My God!


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 10-18-2003 08:53 AM:

Hi John

He's probably the most widely read 20th century American author, which makes me suspect that he does something right. But I used the word "composition" intending it to mean the way the book is structured rather than as a comment on his command of written English (which I also think is excellent, that just wasn't what I was talking about).


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-18-2003 02:59 PM:

Hi Steve -

I didn't mean to gasp. I was just momentarily distracted by an unexpected example.

Michener did sell a lot of books. And he is reputed to have done a bit of research. A bit formulaic (is that a word?) for my taste.

Back to the rugs.

Yes, I see your distinction. You can admire aspects of craft without experiencing much beauty.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-19-2003 05:44 AM:

Dear folks -

It may help in our evaluation of the designs on Chilkat dancing blankets to have a couple of concrete maps that indicate which aspect of a given design represents what.

Here are two examples from Samuel. In each case I will give you first an overall image of the entire blanket, followed by a labeled analysis of part of the designs on it.

This design is said by Emmons to represent a "diving whale." . Here is how the various parts of it are labeled.

Some of this labeling is not unexpected, but notice that what we might ordinarily see as a "face" in the center is interpreted as the "body" of the animal. And the "head" and "mouth" are seen to be represented by the area of design in the pointed bottom. And there are "tail-like" features in the designs labled "tail" but there are also things that look very much like "eyes." We might not be able to guess, without expert assistance, which part of this design represents what part of the animal or how the animal is oriented in this abstraction.

What the second design below represents is in dispute between two scholars. "Emmons say it represents a "sea bear. Boas calls it a standing eagle."

Here is a labeled interpretation of it.

The "body" is still what seems like a "face." but now the "head" is seen to be at the top and the "tail" and the "feet" at the bottom.

It is not entirely clear to me from Samuel's treatment whether these labels are those of the scholars alone or whether they are at least in part shared by the Chilkats themselves.

Perhaps these labeled interpretations may help us decide about the character and quality of Chilkat abstraction.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 10-19-2003 07:48 AM:

Hi John

I am relieved to see that people who write about Chilkat motifs are just as likely to disagree on interpretation as are people who write about textiles and about African sculpture and masks. My impression in the latter two fields is that much of the mischief arises from marketplace hype - vendors telling the buyers some romantic story that makes a piece more attractive to the buyer. The fairy tale then just gets embedded by repetition. I suspect the same is true for American Indian art.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-19-2003 09:15 AM:

Steve -

There are fables that apparently go with most of the Chilkat dancing blanket designs. They are usually about how the tribe established a "crest" relationship with a given animal.

I have spared you from far.

But the ones I have encountered seem less likely market driven than does the average rug story we hear about nowadays.


R. John Howe

Posted by Sue Zimmerman on 10-19-2003 10:19 PM:

I might be a bit more inclined to read books by experts if their labeled interpretations matched up with what they wished to interpret. None of these elements in the the drawings match up with those in the photos. For me that's a hard thing to get by. Sue

Posted by Steve Price on 10-20-2003 05:43 AM:

Hi Sue

I have the same problem with these. For a brief moment I thought I had solved the puzzle. If you look at the "face" that's labeled "body" in the first one (the "diving whale"), you can see that the nose could easily be read as a whale. Sadly, the piece that is interpreted as either a standing eagle or a bear has the same design element for a "nose".


Steve Price

Posted by Sue Zimmerman on 10-20-2003 11:42 AM:

Hi John and Steve,

The corpus of prehistoric knowledge was mostly conveyed by song and dance. One of the reasons archaic visually depicted languages remain virtually undeciphered is that the minute variations within the individual hieroglyph's "cells", which are visually depicted memory devises, despite having great significance, have been "deciphered" out of the equation. What remain is classified into letters and syllables used to construct written texts, etc.

In the US, at least, we have a now trite expression "Don't give me a song and dance" which is used derogatorily to mean "get to the point" or "say it in plain English". In the West, at least, we want, generally, to be spared the song and dance. We have scholars and experts to present ancient knowledge to us in a more palatable form. Well, you get what you pay for so we are left with the song and dance without the song and dance.

In order not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater", (to use another now trite but easily digested saying), a different approach is necessary. I have taken a different approach. In order to adequately convey it, and to clarify why Mayan hieroglyphics and the symbols in Chilkat dance blankets are analogous in their use of "distributive abstraction", two questions must be answered with a "yes".

These are the questions. Do you really want to know? Do you want my song and dance in your Salon? Sue

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-20-2003 03:32 PM:

Steve and Sue -

My own reactions are not much different from yours, BUT in the second labeled drawing above, it seems to me (once the interpretations of "tail" and "feet" have been given) that one can discern "claw-like" forms in the second one that are not unlike either bird or bear feet and the "tail" area does have a rectangular area that could be seen to be shaped roughly like some bird tails. What is confusing to me (and the "face" drawing is beyond me as a "body") is that there usually seems to be an "eye" form nearby each design segement and it is often larger than the part of the design that seems to be most representational.

Sue -

About your two questions. Sure, if your analysis doesn't take us too far afield. I'll license myself here to say so, if I think that occurs.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-20-2003 09:23 PM:

Dear folks -

Wendel Swan has written me on the side, suggesting that perhaps it would also be useful to look at some designs on Pre-Columbian tunics and mantles from Peru.

He suggests that it might be even more appropriate to compare the Chilkat designs with others in the Americas than it would be to contrast them with those on the Turkmen asmalyk.

I looked around the internet a bit and here are some sites that show a variety of ancient Peruvian designs.

I will leave to others the possible identification of similarities with aspects of Chilkat design, but I did not encounter, I think, any that seem to me to be of the "distributed" variety.

I am hoping that Wendel will share his observation directly with us here.


R. John Howe

Posted by Sue Zimmerman on 10-22-2003 01:22 AM:


Long ago, it is said, some people had ancestors who lived in a very damp place where it rained all the time. Their bones never had a chance to dry out so they had really big problems with joint pains. They found that dancing helped their health. They developed medical treatments which incorporated different movements and breathing techniques, etc., one of which was called "bonemarrow/brain washing", which made them feel better. They designed different styles based mainly on their observations of various animals, to help with various energy flow problems. One amongst these was called "Tu Go Naxin". "Naxein" is what the Chilkat's call their dance blankets.

The Chilkat dance blankets display what is being called "distributed abstraction" because they are Qigong medical diagrams charting the metabolic pathways of Qi energy. Untill quite resently the finer points of Qigong were not made public and were passed down, generation to generation, secretly.

The Mayans, I have found, had their version, too. Theirs is probably closer to the source though because it is much more sophisticated in that it includes histology, zoom in and zoom out views, and where exactly in the brain such things as speech and hearing are processed. I know this because once I figured out the system I was able to find the same stuff in modern medical books. I'm betting it is pre-Mayan but I have more work to do on this before I know that.

I could explain more but it would be a very technical technical workshop and exactly the sort of thing which might be thought too far afield. I think it is interesting though. Sue

Posted by Stephen Louw on 10-22-2003 04:23 AM:

Dear Sue

I am interested in your statement that the Chilkat dance blankets include "Qigong medical diagrams charting the metabolic pathways of Qi energy".

To the simple minded, like myself, this begs more questions than it answers. What evidence, for a start, can we base this observation on? Is this simply the fact that people previously committed to secretly passing down this ancient wisdom have decided to break ranks and share this insight with the general public? Or is there a more reliable basis for this atribution?

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-22-2003 04:24 AM:

Dear folks -

Sue Zimmerman suggests that the designs on Chilkat dancing blankets may be in part a reflection of some traditional medical practices that existed in both Chilkat society and in ancient ones in South America.

A few years ago, the Sackler Museum here in Washington, D.C. had an exhibition of Tibetan paintings of the human body, used in traditional Tibetan medicine, that sound similar, to those Sue mentions above, if abstracted quite differently. We have a daughter who is a nurse, but who has always been attracted to naturalistic medicine and the pictures in the associated book were so beautiful that we bought her one. I looked around the Sackler site to see if I could find an example, but could only find the more geometric "mandala" figure that is not a literal drawing of the human body.

But, as Sue says, traditional societies had "pictures" of the various aspects of the body that they used in their healing practices. The Tibetan traditional medicine above had its counterparts in China and India, likely, in part, because of its Buddhist character.

As you can likely tell, my own exploration of the origins of the Chilkat dancing blanket designs has been quite circumscribed, but I have not detected any hint in any of the stories told about it in the literature what would suggest that they were related to Chilkat medical practices in some way. Instead the root story of the origin of the Chilkat formline weavings, seems to actenuate famine (although the reference may only be to winter) and relief from it, with the addition of what might be called, "the girl weaver gets a prince" wrinkle, that also seems to suggest the origin of the giftgiving potlatch.

Here is Samuel's rendition of how the Chilkat dancing apron (notice not yet a "blanket") orginated. You can find variations in some of the links I provided in the initial salon essay.

"On the banks of the Skeena River in a Tsimshian village lived a widow with her young daughter. Although the dark days were growing lighter, deep snow still blanketed the ground and gowned the trees in ermine robes. The people and the animals were hungry, for the season's stores were low and no food was to be found on the frozen land.

"The fire in the center of a great chief's house burned slowly as day by day the young girl sat, facing the painted screen in the rear of the house. Beautifully carved and painted with a myriad of small figures, the screen told of the greatness of her clan and of a time of leisure and plenty. Day after day she gazed at the screen, mesmerized by the figures as they flickered in the firelight. Day after day she suffered from the pain of her hunger. There came a time when the figures on the great screen took possession of her, and forgetting her hardships, she began to weave a waist robe filled with the forms in the firelight.

"Slowly, the weaving grew; slowly, the snows melted. The spirit of spring spread itself across the land, swelling small buds into blossoms and broadening the bellies of women. Working the designs of her men into soft wollen strands, the young woman wove, creating an apron of subtle beauty. When the weaving was completed she attached it to a caribou hide and added layers of leather fringe. While listening to the melting snow, she carefully sewed puffin beaks, each with a tiny feather inside, in a flowing curve beneath the weaving. To the tails of the bottom row of fringe, she sewed clattering deer's hooves. The apron was finished. As she moved to wrap it carefully in intestine cloth, the rattle of the beaks spoke of the melting snow and of the summer that was soon to come.

"The summer did arrive, and with it the son of the chief, seeking her hand in marriage. Greatly honored, she presented the apron to his father. To validate the privilege of owning such a beautiful garment, the chief gave a feast, sacrificing many slaves and dancing in the apron. People marveled that such a masterpiece could be created in wool, its fame spread throughout the land and commissions for similar garments came to the woman. She and her mother shared the secrets of the weaving with the women around them, and in this way the Tsimshian became renowned for their creation of the exquisite Dancing Apron."

Notice that there is no mention in this tale of any "crest" animal, nor is there any role of such an animal in bringing spring. The designs already exist, so the relationship with any crest animal pre-dates this story and the creation (in fable) of the first Dancing Apron. Perhaps there is a medical implication in these designs, but it has not been visible to me in my reading so far.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-22-2003 04:47 AM:

Dear folks -

In considering Chilkat formline designs, in this thread, it might be useful to be sure to read the analysis of it in this link that I provided in the initial salon essay:

Now this is primarily a comparison of scholarly views, not necessarily those of the Chilkats and related tribes themselves, but Emmons and others did do field work, and so can often report what Chilkats did say their designs represent.

Note in this respect, that there are indications in this link that Emmons (and perhaps others) found contradictions between Chilkat interpretations of particular the designs. If so, that would provide a basis for one species of critique that I have suggested could be legitimate: that a given species of abstaction was not successful in the sense that its ambiguity grew to such an extent that its root meanings could no longer be reliably described by the Chilkats themselves.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-22-2003 04:58 AM:

Dear folks -

And here is a paragraph by Emmons on Chilkat design explaining in part what various aspects repesent and answering to some extent the question of "why are there seeming "eyes" everywhere in Chilkat designs?

"...The patterns were a highly stylized form or art often representing clan symbols and natural forms in an abstract geometric pattern. Animals were portrayed as if sliced down the center and laid out flat. The small circles are ball and socket joints. Eyes were often used as space fillers. The men designed the pattern and painted the abstract figures on a wooden "pattern board." As the blanket was bilateral, only half the pattern was painted in life-size dimensions. The blanket pattern could be interpreted in a variety of ways, however only the man who designed the blanket knew the true legend."

Emmons' suggestion here that the small circles are ball and socket joints is the closest indication I have found to Sue's suggestion which also referred to "joints."


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-22-2003 06:18 PM:

Sue -

I put "naxein" into a Google search and got this at a couple of sites:

"Beautiful Chilkat blankets are used as dance robes. The fringe provides a wonderful visual effect as the dancer moves. (The Tlingit name for the Chilkat blanket is Naxein, meaning "fringe about the body.)"

Your original indication of this term seemed to relate it somehow to a health purpose of some sort. Here are a couple of your sentences in that post:

"...They designed different styles based mainly on their observations of various animals, to help with various energy flow problems. One amongst these was called "Tu Go Naxin". "Naxein" is what the Chilkat's call their dance blankets."

How does one decide that a word that is indicated as referring merely to "fringe about the body" has implications for some sort of therapuetic dancing? I'm missing the connection in these seemingly similar words.

The Chilkats certainly had theories about life and death and health and illness, but I've not seen other suggestions that they are reflected in the Chilkat designs or in Chilkat dancing.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 10-23-2003 06:46 AM:

Hi Sue,

I'm having lots of trouble sorting out what you're tryng to say here. I'd be grateful to you if you will clarify it. Please use simple, direct forms of expression.

Originally posted by Sue Zimmerman
Long ago, it is said, some people had ancestors who lived in a very damp place where it rained all the time. Their bones never had a chance to dry out so they had really big problems with joint pains.

It may not be very important - some people do develop joint discomfort in cold, damp weather - but your bones don't "dry out" under other conditions. They're in an environment of constant, controlled humidity regardless of weather.

They developed medical treatments which incorporated different movements and breathing techniques, etc., ... They designed different styles ... to help with various energy flow problems. One amongst these was called "Tu Go Naxin".
Am I correct in interpreting this as meaning that one of their healing dances specifically involved wearing a dance blanket, and that dance was called "Tu Go Naxin"? If I missed the point, please correct me.

The Chilkat dance blankets ... are Qigong medical diagrams charting the metabolic pathways of Qi energy.
Is there evidence that the Chilkat blankets are medical diagrams, or is this something that you intuit on the basis of the fact that their repertoire of uses includes at least one dance that is for healing? As a side point, the notion of Qi energy is a peculiar one, certainly outside the physical understanding of the concept of energy and outside the fundamental laws describing the behavior of all forms of energy. Whatever it is (if real), and whatever pathways it follows, they aren't metabolic pathways - that term has a fairly specific meaning and is used to describe the steps in transformation of one chemical species into another (glucose into carbon dioxide and water, for instance; glucose into fat for another).

... Mayans ... is much more sophisticated in that it includes histology ...
You can't actually mean what this appears to say. Histology is the microscopic study of tissues, and cannot exist in the absence of some instrument that permits this to be visualized (like a microscope). Nothing like this existed in the Americas. So, you must mean something else. What?

... and where exactly in the brain such things as speech and hearing are processed.
Color me exremely skeptical about this statement. if there's anything to it, it's simply astonishing.

I think it is interesting though. Sue

I agree.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-30-2003 03:46 PM:

Abstraction in Some Peruvian Designs (Long)

Dear folks –

Last weekend, I encountered a book in a local flea market that let me explore somewhat further Wendel Swan’s indication that he thought he had seen some ancient Peruvian designs that resembled those in the Chilkat dancing blanket.

The book is “Ancient Peruvian Ceramics: The Nathan Cummings Collection,” by Alan R. Sawyer. The book was published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966. Because the book focuses almost entirely on ceramics the arguments that can be made based on it must by analogy, although the “South Coast” ceramics that seem to exhibit the most complex instances of abstract design were often found in burial sites where textiles were also discovered.

Before I begin with the designs I want to mention one other cultural feature of the South Coast Peruvians: they bound the heads of women to give their foreheads a sloping shape. Perhaps entirely by coincidence, the Chilkats also practiced similar heading binding to achieve a similar effect.

But to the ceramics. Peruvian ceramics are divided into those made in North Coast areas and these are distinguished from those made on the South Coast. The designs on the North Coast ceramics are quite realistic, while those of the South Coast include complex abstraction. I am going to show you several instances of the latter, referred to as “Paracas,” which is a peninsula, and to give you the associated descriptions from Sawyer’s text.

(There will be occasional references to the “Chavin” period or to “Chavinoid” characteristics. These refer to an earlier period, the stylistic tendencies of which continued to influence to some extent the ceramic designs of both the Peruvian North Coast and South Coast.)

Sawyer indicates that this design is from the border of a mantle. Here is his description of it:

“…It bears the reverse-repeat of a complex monkey figure with long serpentine tail and similar head ornament, each having saw-toothed edges and ending with a trophy head like the one held in its hand. A larger trophy head is pendant to the chin, and within the body is a cat or monkey figure, which in turn contains a small feline. Small human, animal and bird figures are used as background space fillers…”

This abstract design seems still to be one in which the basic form of the “monkey” creature can be discerned but there are lots of motifs placed about it in ways that violate realism considerably and there are devices repeated and placed without regard to their anatomical location in life.

Here from a somewhat later period are some “feline” designs (cats are big in these Peruvian ceramics) that show a progression in abstraction.

Here is Sawyer’s description of this progression in a feline figure:

“…The Phase One example (154) shows a simplified frontal mask with emphasis on canine teeth. The body has a Chavinoid eye pattern between the legs (resembling the position in modeled version) and a triangular hat.

“The second-phase version (155) show a considerable advance over the first. Both mask and the body are widened and more elaborate. Two Chavinoid eye patterns now appear below the body, and the tail may be represented by the two elements with curled ends above the back.

“Our third-phase example (156) shows a variant in which the body panel is represented by pelt markings alone, with the tail evidently represented by a conventionalized guilloche, shaped like an hour glass, in the center. The nose has been eliminated and the canine teeth reduced to parallel lines.

“The final Early Paracas phase is represented by rendering in which both face and body elements are further attenuated and abstracted (157). The body consists of three eye patterns with tail elements above, but the paws on the legs have been eliminated.”

Now I don’t know anything about these ceramics or their designs at all, but while the designs do seem to feature a “Mondrian-like” paring down of elements and even their omission sometimes, the figure still seems “readable.” Attenuation and abstraction are considerable but there is not much actual displacement of body parts a la the Chilkat distributed abstraction usages.

The next example is from an even later date. It centers on a “fox” motif. It is one that does have some aspects of Chilkat Dancing blanket graphic designs.

Here is Sawyer’s description:

“…The blind spout is in the form of a long-snouted fox head, and the figure is incised on the body of the vessel, spread out like a pelt stretched for drying. The forelegs surround the head spout, while the hind legs and the tail hang down the gambrel.”

Here is a second example of this type.

I want to be clear that these are designs on items of ceramic that have a 3-D form. Here is how they occur on an actual item of Peruvian ceramic.

‘…On the earlier bottle there are Chavinoid eye patters on each side of the pelt, give it the appearance of a frontal fox mask, in which the tail element becomes the snout. The body in the later version is constricted, but in both cases the modeled head makes identification of the fox comparatively easy.”

And again, I am out of my element daring to comment on these designs and on this commentary, but it seems to me that there are potentially three features of Chilkat dancing blanket designs in these two examples.

First, the animal has been divided, head to tail, and opened up into halves. This is one of the major moves the Chilkat artists made in their abstraction of their animal designs.

Second, we seem to have “eye” forms in places where “eyes” do not ordinarily occur in nature. And the fact that Sawyer provides a rationale for their meaning seems not to touch at all their odd placement.

Third, it is not always clear whether the design shows the animal in profile of head on. Multiple readings are possible despite that rather unambiguous “head.”

So these two examples do seem to have some features that resemble Chilkat usages.

By now, you may be getting a bit weary of these sequences, but bear with me for one more. Here is another sequence of ceramic designs based on a fox motif.

Here, also, is Sawyer’s interpretation of them.

“…The highly abstract profile is divided into head and body panels, similar to feline motifs. The head is in profile…but without the foreleg below the jaw. The nose, brow, and ear are unified into one element. The body…has both circular pelt markings and eye patterns between the legs---no doubt a deliberate endowment of the fox, with feline attributes, as we have seen to be the case with the falcon and serpent designs.

“By the beginning of the second phase of Early Paracas, the fox had undergone considerable transformation (163). The two panels unite to form a single profile figure and the foreleg reappears below the jaw, which now lacks teeth. The eye of the head matches the Chavinoid eye beneath the body, and the foreleg is balanced by a hind leg beneath a triangular tail. Pelt marks are used as space fillers in the background.

“A variant of the third phase (164) displays a tendency toward abstraction, though the relationship of the feet with the long snout and tail is retained. Pelt marks appear both on the body and in the background.

[ed. In] “The fourth phase of Early Paracas (165)…The fox is elongated and compressed below a band of teeth motifs. The small pelt-marking circles are restricted to the background above and below the long snout.”

“…A more unusual fox motif …(167) is…decorated with motifs made up of two half-fox figures, joined back to back and inverted to form a human mask… Again we encounter the Paracas penchant for double meaning.”

OK, what can we conclude, if anything, from these Peruvian examples?

It appears that the designs on the Peruvian ceramics that indulge in the greatest abstraction…that of the Paracas, of the South Coast, do have some features that are similar to the abstraction deployed by the makers of the Chilkat dancing blanket. Paracas ceramic designs are abstract, sometimes very abstract. Some instances of them do divide the creature down the middle head to tail and open out the two halves. There is also a frequent use of “eye-like” devices, and some of these turn out to be actual eyes but others seem to be pelt marks. There seem to be “eye” forms in places where neither actual eyes nor actual pelt marks occur on the animal. There is apparent use of some small motifs as filler devices unrelated to natural representation. Last, the designs in the Paracas ceramics seem sometimes to be deliberately ambiguous. Sometimes animal parts are shown in profile and at other times head on and some usages invite multiple readings. These latter usages could be seen to be instances of “distributed abstraction.”

But most of the tendencies of Paracas ceramic designers seems less extreme than do those of the designers of the motifs on the Chilkat dancing blankets that exhibit “distributed abstraction.” There seems not much question, usually, about what animal is represented by a given Paracas design.

I conclude that while the Paracas ceramic designs do exhibit some features of “distributed abstaction,” they are quite distinct from, and a much milder species of this sort of abstraction, than that which the Chilkat artists practiced.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-30-2003 08:41 PM:

Two Obscure Words

Dear folks –

It has been noted here, sometimes, that I am visibly interested in obscure English words. And I plead guilty. It is one reason why I read and reread Michael Innes’ murder mysteries. In each of his books, Innes manages to slip a few words into the seeming ordinary parlance of his characters that you and I have never heard anyone use in either our own or overheard conversations.

This post is by way of acknowledging and clearing up two potentially obscure words that occur in the post immediately above this one. They are words that Mr. Sawyer, the author I have quoted there, has used, but since I am the one who has put them in front of you, I bear some responsibility for avoiding confusion about them.

The first word is “gambrel.” Sawyer uses it in the paragraph below the image labeled “160” and I think he means it to indicate “leg.” If that is so, I think he should have said so more directly.

The second obscure word Sawyer has used is potentially more interesting. It is the term “guilloche.” Sawyer uses this word in his interpretation of image 156. My dictionary says that it is an architectural term and refers to “…An ornamental border formed by two or more bands interlaced in such a way as to repeat a design.” Here is an image of one example of a guilloche:

I don’t recall off hand, a border pattern that exhibits these precise features (Caucasian “butter churn” borders have this outline and are composed of elements that fit into one another in similar ways) but perhaps someone else will offer a closer example.

You are now equipped to reread the post above more transparently than perhaps you did initially.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-31-2003 04:02 AM:

Hi John,

It looks like there are similarities between those designs on Peruvian ceramics and on Chilkat dancing blanket. Some common cultural roots perhaps…
What about ancient Peruvian textiles?


Posted by R. John Howe on 10-31-2003 07:39 AM:

Hi Filiberto -

There are certainly books on early Peruvian textiles but I don't own any, partly because I've always had trouble with fact that they all come from burial sites and that seems like a species of "grave-robbing" to me. Others obviously see that differently.

But to answer your question directly, the ceramics Sawyer discusses in this book are mostly from large burial sites in which (he says explicitly) there were also textiles. In fact the first image in my post is from a "mantle" which is a kind of textile. I think mantles were wore about the shoulders. So I tried to say (perhaps not clearly enough) that I think that the designs on the ceramics are likely similar to those on the textiles of these people.

Someone may have a book on Pre-columbian textiles that would permit specific confirmation of that suspicion but I don't.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-31-2003 08:11 AM:

Hi John,

I knew the first image was from a mantle, but, as you said, it was only from the border of it.
What I’d like to know is if the same kind of organization of space/design or "Distributed Abstraction" existed in the "field" of Peruvian Textiles - especially mantles: Chilkat blankets were used as short mantles after all.

I understand that you don’t have the answer to that question, though. Maybe somebody else…


Posted by R. John Howe on 10-31-2003 08:24 AM:

Filiberto -

I just did a quick Google search for "Peruvian textiles Paracas" and got a few links that do show similar designs on the associated textiles.

Here are a few of the links:

And here is a link to a book that seems likely:


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-31-2003 08:43 AM:

Filiberto -

Here is a link from a search on "Paracas mantles."

Note that the text below describes the various designs. Some fields were apparently plain but others were decorated.

Here's another:

Note that many designs were embroideried rather than woven.

A few more:

There are apparently quite a few images up on the internet. (Music on the last link is just extra. )


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-31-2003 09:52 AM:

No, the designs on the mantles do not recall the Chilkat blankets as the ceramics do.
I also had a look to the "small shoulder ponchos": same conclusion.