Past Treasure of the Month – February 2010

Carved Peruvian Gourd
A Peruvian gourd

The Rosenberg Library featured a Peruvian gourd as the February “Treasure of the Month.” In North and South America, the term “gourd” refers to a hard-shelled squash that is grown for ornamental or useful functions as containers, tools, dishes, musical instruments, and protective clothing. The art of gourd carving is used as a means of story-telling and documentation, and is a popular world craft. In Peru, gourd carving is the oldest and most traditional local handicraft. February’s featured artifact was donated by Mr. John McCullough.

A woman carving a gourd.

Gourds are biodegradable and often fragile, but evidence of their habitual use is commonly found in many cultures. Some historians believe that gourds were utilized by Peruvians as far back as 7,000 – 12,000 years ago. Carved gourds or their remaining fragments are important tools for historians, botanists, and anthropologists because the arrival of these non-indigenous plants presents questions about Pre-Colombian contact between distant lands and the western coast of South America. Gourds may have arrived in the Americas when their seeds were carried to South America by churning ocean tides. Another possibility is that they were introduced to the native inhabitants by various seafaring cultures. Gourds may have also been brought across the Bering Strait by ancient nomadic groups. An example of the significant of the origins of Peruvian gourds comes from an excavation that produced gourd fragments with illustrations of what is hypothesized to be the oldest identifiable religious icon found in the Americas.

Pyro-engraved gourd/Woodcarver Online Magazine

In Peru, most gourds are grown along the coastal landscape and are traded to artisans who live in mountain villages. These artisans visually record the evolution of cultural life by carving illustrations of celebrations, oral traditions, beliefs and myths, rituals, weddings, political events, and scenes from everyday life. Most artisans learned their craft from their elders, often creating distinct decorative styles particular to specific villages or families.

Carving techniques include scratching on the outer shell, fine-line hatching, or a combination of what is known as pyro-engraving to create geometric drawings and iconographic scenes. Pyro-engraving, or wood-burning, is the use of a heated buril, a primitive carving tool, against the surface of the gourd. These illustrations require several steps to create. First, the green flesh from the harvested gourd is removed to expose the light-colored hard shell. The gourd is then cleaned and dried before the artist sketches a design on its surface with a pencil or similar utensil. The designs are then etched into the gourd’s surface to make the sketch three dimensional. Pyro-engraving further enhances the designs by creating varied tones. The intended results develop shades of black, orange, and brown. Some artisans rub charcoal or chalk into carved designs to darken or lighten the areas.

A display of nine decorated gourds.

The Peruvian gourd at the Library is carved with images of women going to market. These women walk llamas, a widely used pack animal of the Andean region, and carry large satchels of goods on their backs and balance large containers on their heads. They pass mountains, villages, and forests on their journey. Pyro-engraving was used to distinguish patterns on the women’s clothing, the mountaintops, village rooftops, and variations in the fur of the llamas and their saddles. Chalk may have been used to lighten the gourd’s decorations.