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“Picb’il”: digital repatriation and textile production as cultural revival in the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala.



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Textile production on back strap looms in the Maya region of Central America has continued uninterrupted for over three thousand years. Forming the backbone of a rich cultural tradition, the craftwork of Maya women remains an indigenous tradition in the Maya region to survive the Spanish conquest and subsequent waves of violence. For Q’eqchi’ women of the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala, textile production not only plays an important role in continuing indigenous culture, but also contributes to family and community economic life.

As artefacts of cultural production, Maya textiles are integral to collections across the world, and museums and academic institutions have sought after them since at least the mid-nineteenth century. In many cases, these collected textile objects have been divorced from their context. The names of the artists, and even the communities in which they were produced, have been forgotten or unrecorded. Contemporary groups and communities of Maya weavers often remain unaware that historic textile objects from their culture and communities are being held in museums in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

This PhD research hinges on encounters between contemporary indigenous weavers in the Q’eqchi’ communities around Cobán in the Alta Verapaz of Guatemala and historic museum textiles by means of the visual repatriation of picb’il textiles; specifically, high-quality photographs of textiles in the collections of the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and the University of California, Berkeley. This has resulted in weavers not only experiencing what they described during interviews as connections to their communities’ past and ancestors, but also reproducing lost textile patterns by copying the patterns present in museum textiles, which they did not recognise as being woven by modern weavers.

Relying on extensive interviews with weavers and local community members, I juxtapose the history of picb’il weaving in the region with the role that master weavers, or weaving teachers, play in the continuation of picb’il affecting weaving in local communities. The thesis elucidates how national or international markets and vendors affects the ability of communities to continue relying on textiles as part of the women’s income, as well as engaging with the role that textile collectors and museum buyers played in regional textile production in the past.

The first chapter is a short history of the region in which I worked. The Q’eqchi’ weavers I interviewed live in a complex and difficult political environment, one whose history is violent. This chapter seeks to situate the history of picb’il within the history of the Alta Verapaz as experienced and perceived by my informants. It includes a specific history of two of the communities in which I worked most closely with informants.

The second chapter covers the methodology used during the course of the PhD, including the research design process that led to the adoption of the methodology and the challenges that arose in the field. This necessitated a reconfiguration of the research model to ensure that it suited the circumstances. It is in this chapter that I address the concept of visual repatriation as part of a field research model. The third chapter addresses the role of gender in Q’eqchi’ communities and the role of weavers as gendered actors. This chapter draws from anthropological research and focuses on the way in which picb’il textile production is a gendered act of cultural preservation. The fourth chapter is an ethnographic overview of the picb’il textile and its cultural and ethnographic value. In this chapter, I address the construction of the textile as well as its spiritual and ontological significance to the communities where it is produced.

In the fifth chapter, I address the impact of international and tourist markets on picb’il production in the Alta Verapaz while considering the future of the textile as these markets continue to grow or potentially collapse. This chapter examines past “booms” and “busts” of picb’il production, and what may have driven those changes. The sixth chapter is on intangible cultural heritage and the reactions of the weavers and other informants I worked with to the museum textiles I visually repatriated. In this chapter, I address the value of visual repatriation and the role that visual repatriation can have in the preservation and recovery of disappearing or lost cultural heritage.

The final chapter encompasses the museum aspect of my work, including the value of engaging with museum objects in anthropological fieldwork and the impact that museums have had on the preservation of objects such as picb’il textiles. In this chapter, I address the role that previous researchers and collectors may have played in picb’il production.

As a whole, this thesis further examines the ways in which museums by means of their collections can engage with and be perceived by source communities and ethnographers working both within and outside the museum world. Through this research, it became apparent that weavers and local communities have a distinctive interest in museum textiles as being physical connections to a shared Maya heritage in the region. Community members and weavers view these textiles as tools that can be used to recover lost heritage, and repair cultural damage from colonisation and the ensuing centuries of violence and genocide.





Barbira-Freedman, Francoise
Rostas, Susanna


Guatemala, Q'eqchi', Heritage, Textiles, Gender


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Trust Newnham College Crowther-Beynon Fund