Inka Figurines

Seven Inka Figurines Conserved

One highlight of the Peabody Museum collections is a set of rare polychrome wood figurines depicting members of the Inka royal lineage. 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.

Seven standing Inka polychrome figures

Fig. 1. The seven Inka figures 

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 engravings of Inka kings. Additionally, each king's headdress clearly exhibits the traditional indigenous red fringe of Inka royalty called themaskapaycha.

Inka male figure's head showing crown and red fringe

Fig. 2.  Detail showing turban style crown and red fringe 974-10-30/8904

Engraving showing inka rulers

Fig .3. Detail from engraving by Alonso de la Cueva showing Inka ruler Manco Capac (PESSCA 1333A) and full engraving (PESSCA 1293A)

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. 

Material Analysis

Material analysis was carried out in collaboration with conservation scientists from Harvard's Straus Center for Conservation. 

An x-radiograph was taken of two of the figurines, a male and a female, to examine the structural components and manufacturing techniques and to evaluate the condition of the underlying structure.

an x-ray image of a male and female Inka sculpture

Fig. 4. X-ray of male and female figures 

The x-radiograph revealed that the figurines are attached to wood bases with a wood peg and that the figures themselves appear to have been carved from one piece of wood. It also indicated that the hands of the male figure are composed of Metal (lead/tin alloy). Layers of gesso (calcium sulfate) were applied over the wood form to create the detailed relief of the facial features, folds of clothing, arms, legs, feet and ornaments. The surfaces were then carefully painted in a palette of red, white, black, green, brown, and flesh tone colors. All have inset glass eyes.


Fig. 5. Cross section of flesh-toned paint layer 

Analysis of several pigments was carried out using X-ray fluorescence, polarized light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. Identified in a cross section of the flesh tone paint layer were charcoal, red ochre, lead white and calcium sulfate. A sample taken from the red trim on one of the male figurines was identified as cinnabar or dry vermilion. The blue pigment was Prussian blue (discovered c. 1710) and one green pigment was identified to be from the copper arsentite group that is associated with the historical pigment Scheele's green (first findings published in 1778).

The pigment analysis allowed us to narrow down the date of manufacture to between 1778 and its believed acquisition date of 1816. The identification of these historic pigments is consistent with those used in Peruvian paintings from the Colonial Period. 

Conservation Work

When the figurines arrived in the lab they were noted to be in unstable condition with separtation their wood bases and actively flaking paint.


Prior to treatment the conservation staff met with Harvard University Art History and Archaeology professors to determine the most appropriate treatment strategy. In the end, techniques commonly used to conserve polychrome wood sculptures from Europe, Santos sculptures, and panel paintings were employed.



Fig. 6. Judy Jungels and Ester Chao in-painting figurines 

First, the surfaces were cleaned to remove dirt and grime from storage. Cleaning was only superficial since some of the residual soot-like grime could have resulted from their prior location in spaces or scenes where candle or oil lighting was used in their proximity.

The flaking paint was consolidated with a solution of isinglass adhesive( fish gelatin), which was chosen for its strength, stability, and its aesthetic compatibility.

Finally, select areas of gesso loss were filled with calcium carbonate in a polyvinyl acetate emulsion binder and toned with gouache paints. Major losses for which design elements could not be confirmed or predicted were left unfilled.

standing polychrome male figure beore and after conservation

Fig. 7. Male figure before and after treatment 974-10-30/8904


We would like to thank the people who generously offered their knowledge and advice on this project:  T. Rose Holdcraft from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, Narayan Khandekar and Henry Lie from the Straus Center for Conservation, and Professor Tom Cummins from Harvard University.


Ojeda, Almerindo. Project for the Engraved Sources of Spanish Colonial Art (PESSCA). 2005-2022. Website located at Date Accessed: 01/10/2-22.