Gold Crown not what was First Thought

A gold crown presented to Queen Victoria in 1862 has long been described as a unique survivor and symbol of power from the Inca civilization. But new research reveals that the object’s origins may be even more intriguing than previously thought.

Deborah Clarke of the Royal Collection began researching the crown’s history in preparation for the exhibition Treasures from The Queen’s Palaces at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse (from 16 March). As part of her investigations, she asked experts at the British Museum to look at this extraordinary object. During testing and examination, it was established that the crown, excavated in Chordeleg in the South of Ecuador in 1854 and later presented to Queen Victoria by the president of Ecuador, may not in fact have been made by the Incas at all.

Treasures from The Queen’s Palaces reflects the tastes of monarchs and other members of the royal family who have shaped the Royal Collection, one of the world’s great art collections. The selection of 100 outstanding works has been made across the entire breadth of the Collection, from nine royal residences and more than five centuries of collecting, and includes paintings, drawings, miniatures, watercolours, manuscripts, furniture sculpture, ceramics and jewellery. Most items, including the gold crown, will be shown in Scotland for the first time.

The crown was examined last month in the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research by Dr Colin McEwan, Curator for Latin American Collections, and Susan La Niece, Senior Metallurgist. They believe that the style and techniques used in the crown’s manufacture indicate that it was probably made by skilled metal-smiths belonging to the Cañari ethnic group in the Cuenca region of southern Ecuador, where the object was excavated. The Cañari ruled a powerful confederation that was not conquered by invading Inca armies until the mid-15th century – one of the last areas to be added to their empire.

Dr McEwan has determined that the crown is part of an impressive hoard that includes objects now held in the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington DC. He explained that the crown ‘was clearly used by a person of high status as an emblem of lordly or royal authority forming part of a suite of golden regalia, along with bracelets and anklets’. Stylistic details suggest that the crown belongs to a pre-Inca Northern Andean gold-working tradition, which encompassed the coast and northern highlands of Peru and the southern highlands of Ecuador. Dr McEwan said, ‘One hypothesis therefore is that the crown could have been worn by a Cañari lord well before the Inca invasion in the 15th century.’

However, the crown’s spectacular gold plume suggests a second theory – that the object was made by local Cañari craftsmen employed in service to the royal court of their Inca conquerors. Dr McEwan explained how the plume was designed to shimmer and move, and to catch and reflect the sunlight. As a gold version of the feathered plumes that Inca royalty wore in their crowns, it would have been a symbol of solar power and the Incas’ divine right to rule.

The challenge of deducing who may have made the crown, and who may have worn it, adds a real sense of excitement to the research, Dr McEwan explained. ‘It’s a little bit of a detective story, and we have only one part of the jigsaw puzzle. The plumes raise the question of whether it was commissioned by the Incas and provide valuable clues to the relationship between the Inca and the Cañaris. The Treasures exhibition has opened up a whole new avenue to reassess the crown and its context – that’s where objects start to come alive again – through the combination of scientific and collections research.’

He added, ‘The application of innovative analytical techniques such as XRF [a non-destructive X-ray technique used to analyse metals] here at the British Museum allows us better to understand the technology deployed to make the crown, and also now to compare it stylistically with other far-flung objects in other museum collections. We are planning a scientific paper that will finally reconnect the crown to the related body of objects from the same tradition for the first time.’

Exhibition curator Deborah Clarke said, ‘It’s very exciting to have delved further into the history of the crown. We have always known this was a really unusual object, which is one of the reasons why it is included in the exhibition. It has also proved fascinating because there is so much to find out about it – and this study has paved the way for more work to be done.’

The exhibition is on from 16th March – 4th November. Tickets and visitor information: or 0131 556 5100.

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