Four-cornered hat with birds

Photo: Paul Macapia

Four-cornered hat with birds

ca. 500 - 800

Remarkably well preserved, this four-cornered hat would have been worn high on the head of an official of the Wari Empire, which occupied the southern highlands of present-day Peru. The four corner peaks on the hat may have originally represented animal ears. This would have made a human-animal composite of the wearer, a common characteristic in Andean symbolic thought. Birds in profile and dynamic geometric patterns are depicted in alternating squares on the hat, which would have been part of an elaborate ensemble that included colorful face painting-one half a different pattern from the other-and a large, intricately patterned tunic. The wearer was virtually obscured and became a walking design.
Camelid fiber, cotton
4 1/2 in. (11.43 cm)
L.: 5 in.
Gift of Jack Lenor Larsen
Provenance: Jack Lenor Larsen, New York, New York; Gifted to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, December 6, 1976
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view

The person who wore this hat would have also painted their face… [they would] almost not look like a person anymore, but a walking design.

Rebecca Stone, interview, 2006

The Importance of Camelids

Camelids of the Americas include alpacas, llamas, vicuñas and guanacos. These animals make it possible for human beings to live in the extreme conditions of different environmental zones, including the dry coastal desert, dense jungle and high mountains. The people of the Andean highlands have always relied on these hardy animals for transportation, material for textiles for protection from the natural elements, and as a food source. Herds of camelids still constitute wealth in the Andes.

Camelids are the key to the longest unbroken weaving tradition in the world. The silky fibers from llamas and alpacas easily absorb natural dyes, and their flexibility makes the fibers perfectly suited to serve as the weft element in the weaving process. Camelids were commemorated in textiles and can be recognized by the two toes of their split feet and their upright ears, long necks and upright or drooping tails.
Llama, Andes
© 2007, licensed under Creative Commons

Materials Used

The extraordinary bright colors preserved on this hat were created with natural vegetable and animal dyes. The work to produce these dyes involved many people and points to the prominence that textiles served in ancient Andean society.

The intense scarlet red was produced from the cochineal beetle, which lives as a parasite on the prickly pear cactus. Their bodily fluid produces the most brilliant and permanent natural dye known. The insects are hand picked, dried and pulverized, with hundreds of insects needed to make just one ounce of dye.

Working with indigo plant as a dye is an extremely difficult process, as the elusive and unpredictable blue color appears on fibers only when brought into the air, before one's very eyes. This almost magical process adds to the high value placed on textiles created with indigo dye, as well as the figures and beings colored with the dye.
Cochineal beetles, Oaxaca, Mexico, 2006
Photo: Liz Sung, licensed under Creative Commons

How Have These Textiles Been Preserved?

Ancient Andean textiles represented status and authority in life and in death, as they were placed in tombs as offerings or wrapped around the deceased. The climate in the world's driest coastal desert dunes-from what is now northern Chile, through Peru and the south of Ecuador-preserved these textiles remarkably well. Some places in these areas have never recorded a drop of rain. These coastal deserts were similar to the deserts of ancient Egypt and provided a dry and stable environment under the earth, protected from the sun-the perfect conditions for preserving fiber. The ancient Andeans were aware of these preservative qualities. Many highland cultures would travel to the coast and place their textiles in the desert sands for burial, as was the case with this Wari hat. Many textiles have not survived in their original form, and fragments make up the bulk of the textiles in museum collections. Some complete pieces have been intentionally cut by modern dealers and sewn together with fragments from different textiles.
Andean tombs, Peru
Photo: Andrew Jones, licensed under Creative Commons

Preserving a Textile Tradition

Andean textiles provide the longest continuous textile record in the world because of the preservative conditions of the dry coastal desert sand. Andean weavers explored almost every possible technique in fiber arts, including the knotted technique used to create this hat. The pile surface they achieved resembles soft feathers or fur that might refer to the birds that are depicted on the hat or even the camelids from which the fiber used for the weaving originates. Textiles in the ancient Andes held a preeminent place among the arts, as expressions of power and manifestations of many aspects of an Andean worldview.
Quechua weavers, Awana Kancha, Pisaq, Peru, 2007
Photo: Mike LaBarbara, licensed under Creative Commons


Rebecca Stone, Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas, Emory University, talks about Andean textiles
Rebecca Stone, Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas, Emory University, discusses the importance of textiles in the Andes
Rebecca Stone, Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas, Emory University, describes the double cloth technique
Rebecca Stone, Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas, Emory University, talks on camelids in the ancient Americas
Rebecca Stone, Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas, Emory University, on the cotton used by ancient Andean weavers


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Indigo, May 9, 2003 - Oct. 19, 2003.

Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago, Ancient Americas: Art From Sacred Landscapes, Oct. 10, 1992 - Jan. 3, 1993 (Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, Feb. 14 - Apr. 18, 1993; Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 6 - Aug. 15, 1993).

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon, Oct. 17, 2013 - Jan. 5, 2014 (Montreal, Canada, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Feb. 2 - June 16, 2013).* Text by Victor Pimentel. Cat. no. 34, p. 347, not reproduced. [*Exhibition organized by Seattle Art Museum and circulated to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; however, Four-cornered hat only shown in Seattle.]
Published ReferencesMiller, Mary. "Art of Oceania, Mesoamerica, and the Andes." In Selected Works, pp. 59-64. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1991; p. 64, reproduced (as Tasseled Cap).

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures, London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 34

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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