In the previous edition of Arte-Factual, I looked at Mexican sugar skulls, a folk art tradition that combines Christian religious practices with ancient Mesoamerican beliefs. This time around, I thought I’d turn my attention to the burial doll replica Lara Croft comes across in the remote town of Kuwaq Yaku in the jungles of Peru.

Burial doll replica from Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Burial doll replica from Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Image credit: Tomb Raider Horizons.

While doing my preliminary research for this article, I discovered that the burial doll replica in Shadow of the Tomb Raider is modelled after Chancay dolls, which were discovered in graveyards across Peru’s central coast and whose purpose is not fully understood. These dolls are named after the Chancay, a Pre-Columbian culture that rose to prominence in the wake of the Wari Empire’s collapse in the 11th century.

The Chancay inhabited the Chancay valley and other neighbouring valleys north of Lima and were known for their pottery and elaborate textiles, which they mass produced for domestic use and trading purposes. Their economy was based on agriculture, fishing, and regional trade thanks to their proximity to the coast, fertile river valleys, and access to trade routes leading into the Peruvian highlands and jungles. At the turn of the 15th century, the Chancay culture went into decline as the Chimú and Inca Empire began to encroach on their territory. The Chancay were eventually absorbed into the Inca Empire and then conquered and colonised by the Spanish in the 1530s.

But let’s take a moment to talk about the Chancay textile industry. As I mentioned earlier, the Chancay produced huge volumes of exquisite textiles for their own use and for trading with other settlements across the country. These were made from llama wool, cotton, and even bird feathers, and many of these survived into the modern age thanks to the arid conditions of Peru’s coastal regions.

The Chancay used a wide variety of colours in their textiles, though reds, yellows, and other earth tones were the most common. They also used a variety of techniques, including open weave, embroidery, brocade, and painted tapestries, and favoured geometric, anthropomorphic, and stylised animal motifs. Llamas, sea birds, fish, and felines were popular motifs and incorporating them into designs was thought to be a way of harnessing those creatures’ strengths and qualities for oneself. The use of contrasting light and dark patterns, like those seen on the doll that Lara uncovered, are not just aesthetically pleasing but also represent the duality of life as experienced by the ancient peoples of Peru.

Chancay doll from the Walters Art Museum collection
Chancay doll from the Walters Art Museum collection.
Image credit: The Walters Art Museum.

These eye-catching textiles were used for clothing and other daily necessities – such as cloth bags – but they were also used as grave goods or for wrapping mummified remains. But what about the aforementioned burial dolls? Well, due to the widespread looting and destruction of Chancay burial sites, archaeologists still have gaps in their knowledge as far as Chancay funerary practices are concerned and the actual purpose of these textile dolls remains a mystery. Some believe that the dolls represent the deceased. Others argue that the dolls were once owned by the deceased; perhaps they were cherished toys. And then there are those who believe the dolls were offerings from living relatives. Were these dolls the Chancay equivalent of Egyptian ushabti figurines? No one knows for certain.

The dolls themselves are fascinating artefacts in their own right. The bodies were often made from twigs, reeds, or grain tightly bound in yarn or cloth and these figures would be dressed in robes and other outfits made from woven cloth. The dolls’ faces were stylised, simple, but expressive and some bore special facial markings that may have denoted status or rank. Some dolls had hair made from camelid fibres and many more of them had simple headdresses made from gauze. Some, like the one Lara found, were shown carrying babies while others were found carrying musical instruments or items associated with specific trades and professions.

Upon closer inspection, Lara concludes that the doll she found was made from modern materials and suggests that it may have been a promotional toy made for the Porvenir oil company, which had set up an oil refinery near the town. While it’s entirely possible that the burial doll replica was made from modern-day fabrics, it isn’t unusual for replicas like this one to have been pieced together from scraps of ancient textiles.

People from impoverished communities in and around Lima often try to supplement their meagre incomes by crafting and selling replica burial dolls to tourists and collectors. The interiors of the dolls are newly made, albeit using centuries-old methods, and scraps of ancient fabrics, often from different eras and different regions, are used to cloth and decorate these replica dolls. According to experts, the easiest way to tell if a doll is a genuine antique or a modern forgery is to look at its face; ancient dolls usually had woven faces with fairly complex designs while modern-day dolls have simple facial features that have often been embroidered onto cloth.

Chancay doll
A modern Chancay burial doll, similar to the one found by Lara Croft. Image credit: Unknown.

Looting and black market sales of Chancay textiles pose a credible threat to Peru’s cultural heritage and archaeological sites but it would be remiss of us to ignore the realities of life in some of Peru’s poorest regions. Climate change, corruption, and a wealth of other factors have impacted the livelihoods of thousands, possibly millions, of people across the country and local communities often have little choice but to use the limited resources at their disposal to make ends meet; in this case, ancient textiles and other artefacts “liberated” from nearby graveyards and other archaeological sites.

It’s easy to condemn this apparent disregard for cultural property but curator Maggie Ordon offers an alternative interpretation: that modern Chancay dolls represent a bond between the past and the present, and that they are “a testament to both the original culture’s rich textile activities and also to contemporary people dealing with economic hardship and the cultural heritage of the region”. Viewed from this perspective, modern-day Chancay dolls are not products of cultural destruction or appropriation but a way of honouring the past and giving ancient traditions a new lease of life.

The doll that Lara found may have been part of a corporate ploy to win over the people of Kuwaq Yaku but, hey, it’s the thought that counts.


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If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the art and artefacts seen in the Tomb Raider games, feel free to check out the other articles listed in the “Arte-Factual” archive.