Andean cultures are located close to some of the most arid deserts in the world, and perhaps the natural mummification that ancient peoples there observed inspired them to adapt their mortuary practices to augment natural processes. In many cultures of the region, bodies were carefully prepared to last for centuries or millennia, and were buried with elaborate offerings, always including large quantities of textiles. Since bodies were usually buried in an upright fetal position (with head on knees), when wrapped with layers and layers of lavish textiles, the mummy bundles did not have a clear head to act as a focal point for veneration. Therefore, “false heads” of wrapped textiles were created for the top of such bundles, and in some cases wooden masks, showing a stylized face, were tied on to such bundles. For the Chancay people, these were not portraitlike, but had very simplified features, with wide, diamond-shaped eyes and long straight noses, as well as frequently including a “wig” of hair that hangs down on either side of the face. More elaborate textiles are also often wrapped around the top of such masks, imitating the turbanlike headcoverings worn by the Chancay. These are often painted red, a color associated with purifying or commemorative rituals in the Andes. In this case, it seems that even the mask itself was later wrapped in even more textiles, which through the centuries have left a patterned impression on the mask.
New World Antiquities, San Francisco; purchased by a private collection, 1988; given to Walters Art Museum, 2009.