This story of a golden crown with an exquisite golden plume caught my eye yesterday. Actually, it did far more than catch my eye. It brought to mind a relatively little-known chapter in the history of the Inca Empire—the fierce conquest of the proud and wealthy chiefs of highland Ecuador, nearly a thousand miles away from Cuzco.
But before I get to that, let me tell you first about the crown. It comes from a royal tomb in or near the small Ecuadorian town of Chordeleg, a place where the Cañari people once buried their greatest chiefs and nobles. In 1854, someone digging in the site—someone I haven’t been able to track down, so possibly a curio collector—discovered this Andean masterpiece. What happened next is unclear, but in 1862, the president of Ecuador sent the crown as a present to one of the greatest queens of the day, Victoria, soon after the death of her beloved Albert. Perhaps this Latin American statesman was a sentimentalist and meant to cheer her up. In any case, the queen’s officials duly logged it into the royal collection at Windsor Castle. And there it remained until another British queen, Elizabeth, prepared to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
To mark the grand occasion, curators planned a major exhibition of the queen’s royal treasures in Edinburgh. The gold crown from Ecuador fit the bill perfectly, but no one knew much about it, though some had described it as a symbol of the Inca Empire. Was it really? The queen’s curators called in the experts, who proceeded to conduct metallurgical studies and stylistic analyses. These revealed a surprise. The crown wasn’t Inca at all: it was likely the work of a Cañari goldsmith. And this raised two different scenarios. Quite possibly, the goldsmith fashioned it for a wealthy Cañari chief in the early 1400s. Or perhaps he designed it later in the century for an Inca king. Such rulers, after all, delighted in donning crowns adorned with the plumage of tropical birds. Continue reading