Mystery of gold crown given to Queen Victoria

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

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, which opens on 16 March at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse. 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.

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 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.’

Book tickets to see Treasures from The Queen's Palaces at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse.