Technical analyses of painted Inka and Colonial qeros

Ellen J. Pearlstein, Emily Kaplan, Ellen Howe, and Judith Levinson


Ritual drinking cups known as qeros have been used for millennia in the Andean region and are still used today in traditional communities. Inka period qeros, usually unpainted but with intricate incised decoration, and Colonial period qeros with elaborately painted decoration, are widespread in art and anthropology museum collections. The art of painting qeros is widely considered “lost”. The goals of this study are to identify the materials and methods used to create these vessels and to determine what these technical choices tell us about production.

Conservators at four New York City museums are carrying out the current study using a laboratory protocol and survey form developed for this project. The four museums own a combined total of more than 150 qeros. Collaboration is multi-fold: in addition to the combined resources of our respective museums, we have scoured the works of the chroniclers for references to production, and consulted botanists, conservation scientists, art historians, and anthropologists in the US and in the Andean region. Museum professionals in Peru have allowed unique pieces to be sampled for analysis. Consultations with master artisans in Colombia have led us to a better understanding of the complex processes involved in the procurement of raw materials and preparation of the paint binder. On the basis of these investigations, we have been conducting replication experiments in the laboratory.

Data from the chemical analyses and survey are being tabulated for a relational database. Results to date indicate that there was extraordinary uniformity in production and materials. All of the identified pigments are indigenous to the Andean region, and the resin binder has been traced to a plant found today in southwestern Colombia, on the northern frontier of the Inka empire. Significantly, the prehispanic materials and painting techniques continued to be used as long as these qeros were produced, well into the Colonial era.

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1999 | St. Louis | Volume 6