A Technical Study of Colonial Period Peruvian Figurines

Group of Inka Figurines
A Group of 19th-Century Inka Figurines, PM 974-10-30/8904–8910.

Within the research collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, there are seven small polychrome wood figurines depicting male and female members of the Inka royal lineage. Due to their poor condition and apparent rarity, they were identified recently as a curatorial and conservation priority.

This article discusses the history and significance; the results of the material analysis; and the conservation issues of these unique objects.

The acquisition and collection records for these objects appears to suggest that the figurines were collected in 1816 by Captain Eliphalet Smith, Jr., probably in Lima, Peru, and donated to the Peabody in 1974 by one of his descendants.

The seven standing figurines may have been part of an original full set of Colonial Period carvings of Inka royal lineage, starting with the first Inka king, Manco Capac and followed by subsequent rulers possibly up to Atahualpa. Both male and female figures are featured with specific decorative accoutrements commonly attributed to Inka royalty and other members of the elite. Each king displays a distinctive “turban” style crown, which was invented in the 1740s by the artist Alonso de la Cueva (1684-1754) and used in his illustrations of Inka kings. Additionally, each king's headdress clearly exhibits the traditional indigenous red fringe of Inka royalty called themaskapaycha.

The dating of these figurines based on stylistic iconography and material analysis indicate that they could have been manufactured as early as the mid-18th century. Bibliographic research thus far has shown that the depictions of Inka figures were commonly seen in illustrations and paintings in the early 19th century; however, such representation in sculptural form was extremely rare.