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Pre-Inca-style chest ornament (~800 BCE–1 CE) from Cusco, Peru (all images courtesy the Museum of the American Indian)

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In a ceremony today, June 15, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian returned a pre-Incan gold ornament from its collection to Peru’s government. The item, an “Echenique Disc,” is recognized as the symbol of the city of Cusco in Peru, once the capital of the Inca Empire.

The ceremony was held at the Washington, DC, residence of Peru’s ambassador to the United States, Hugo de Zela. It followed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Machel Monenerkit, acting director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Peruvian officials, including the country’s minister of foreign affairs, Allan Wagner; minister of culture Alejandro Neyra; and mayor of the Provincial Municipality of Cusco, Victor Boluarte.

Hugo de Zela, Peruvian ambassador to the United States, and Amy Van Allen, project manager of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, at a ceremony in Washington, DC, on June 15

The “Echenique Disc” is a circular thin sheet of metal measuring 5.3 inches in diameter. It’s made of approximately 90% gold, 5% silver, and 5% copper, and crafted with techniques commonly used in ancient Andean metal work. The disc features a center face that includes two or three other smaller faces with various symbols on its outline. Slits made in the gold sheet would have allowed it to be worn as a pendant or chest ornament, according to the museum.

In 1986, the city of Cusco adopted the disc as its official symbol for its high cultural and national value. It is being returned to Peru as the country celebrates 200 years of independence. Peru’s ministry of culture said that it will incorporate the item into the country’s National Inventory of Cultural Heritage. It is said that in 1853, observers noted a similar gold disc in the possession of the Peruvian president, General José Rufino Echenique. 

In a statement today, Wagner said that the object’s return, concurrent with the celebration of Peru’s bicentennial of national independence, “will help to reinforce our values ​​of unity, solidarity and resilience and that, without a doubt, strengthens the historical and close ties of friendship between Peru and the United States.”  

George Gustav Heye, the founder of the Museum of the American Indian, purchased the gold-silver-copper alloy disc in 1912 from Eduard Gaffron, a German physician and antiquities collector working in Peru

George Gustav Heye, scion of an oil family and an American collector who founded the Museum of the American Indian in 1916, purchased the disc in 1912 from Eduard Gaffron, a German physician and antiquities collector working in Peru. The New York museum was based on Heye’s vast collection of Native American art. He also served as the museum’s director until 1956.  

Speculations about the origins and iconography of the disc varied over the centuries. Some early Western explorers, like William Bollaert and Clements R. Markham, hypothesized that the disc’s symbols represented calendrical or astronomical entities from the Inca empire, between 1438 and 1532 CE. This theory was later contested by several archaeologists, who have dated the item to the pre-Inca Early Horizon Period (800 BCE to 1 CE).

Julio C. Tello, who is known as the “father of Peruvian archaeology” and the first Indigenous archaeologist in Peru, described the center face as a feline sun deity. Jorge A. Calero Flores, a contemporary Peruvian archaeologist, suggested that the distinct icons repeated on the disc’s border represent the spirits of traditional plants and flowers.

Over the years, the ornament was included in several exhibitions, including Star Gods of the Ancient Americas (1982-1984), a traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of the American Indian. It was also displayed in Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories (2004–2014) and The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire (2015–2021) at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Referring to Peru’s celebrations of 200 years of independence, Monenerkit said in a statement today: “In recognition of this important event and the tremendous significance the disc has for the people of Peru, I am proud to mark this moment together. This return is consistent with the museum’s mission to facilitate the continuity and renewal of Indigenous cultural traditions.” 

Correction 6/16/21 1:06pm EST: The National Museum of the American Indian clarified that the exchange of the gold ornament was not a formal repatriation, but a return. The text has been updated to reflect this. The article has also been revised to clarify that the first time the object was displayed in an exhibition was organized by the Museum of the American Indian, a predecessor to the modern Smithsonian institution.

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