Projects and Science

Chile or Peru
South America


Spindles from the Atacama Desert

The objects shown here are from an old, dissolved private collection. Acquired by the deceased collector in the 1960s.

The origin is specified as Atacama Desert. The Atacama is situated along the Pacific coast of South America approximately between the cities of Tacna in the far south of Peru and Copiapo in northern Chile, over a distance of about 1,200 kilometers. However, the spindles with the small ceramic spindle whorls resemble spindles of the Chancay culture (ca. 1000-1470 AD), which was located in the coastal areas of Central Peru.

Chile, Atacama, spindles
Pre-Columbian spindles with large wooden and very small ceramic spindle whorls from the Atacama Desert. 

Five of the spindles still have fine-spun cotton thread wound around the shaft. The object on the bottom right is probably a wooden awl for tightening weft yarns while weaving. Length of the spindles left to right: 15", 11", 11", 10.2", 10.6", 10.5" and 12.3". Length of the awl: 8". Diameter of wooden spindle whorls: 2", 1.8" and 1.5".

At the time of acquisition from the old collection, the longest spindle (left) was not mounted with a whorl. Instead a large wooden spindle whorl was placed (in addition to the small ceramic spindle whorl) on the second spindle from the right, but the wooden whorl sat too loose to fulfill its function. On the other hand the whorl fits perfectly with its center hole on the long spindle on the left. The single wooden whorl was mounted onto the awl, but it is doubtful whether the awl with its flat oval cross-section was used as spindle shaft. Because of the sparse information on the origin of the spindles from the dissolved collection the find context (e.g. if all the spindles come from the same assemblage) is not known. It is also not know whether the spindles and whorls were excavated in this condition or if they were arranged this way by previous owners. Therefore the spindles and spindle whorls, respectively the awl, were rearranged to a more likely serviceable condition.


Chile, Atacama, spindles at acquisition
State of the spindles and awl at the time of the acquisition in 2014.
Chile, Atacama, take-apart-spindle
Spindle with demountable shaft (in the first image the spindle leftmost).  Total length: 15", whorl diameter: 2".

Chile, Atacama, awl
Wooden awl or pin beater with flat oval cross section and traces of former painting (detail right). Length of the awl: 8".
Chile, Atacama, ceramic spindle whorls
Small, sometimes painted or engobed, ceramic whorls. Bottom left: paint in 60x magnification.

Chile, Atacama, tassels and cactus spools

Cylindrical hollowed cactus chunks with different natural dyed cotton threads and tassels/fringes.
Length of cactus chunks: 6.7" – 7.6".

Chile, Atacama, tassels

Chile, Atacama, tassels
Top: small tassel with a woven upper end with representations of birds (details top right).
Bottom: fringes strung on a thread. Red, blue and yellow colored cotton thread was wound around a core thread (details bottom right). Length of the tassel: 5.5"; Length of fringes: 14.2".

Chile, Atacama, yarn and ply-yarn

Natural white (S-spun) and natural brown (Z-spun) cotton yarn on the spindles (top). Yellow, S-spun ply yarn on the cactus chunks (60x and 70x magnification).






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