Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Science at the Museum: Analyzing a Fifteenth Century Inca Corn Stalk, Part 1 of 2

The New World department has a comprehensive display of pre-Columbian artifacts from Central, Meso-, and South America located in the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Study Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art on Level 4 of the North Building. Objects in this space are made of clay (ceramics), metals, wood, and stone and served a utilitarian, decorative and religious/spiritual purpose.  Often, all three functions were rolled into one. In the South American section of the gallery, displayed in the first glass case is a beautifully crafted Inca sheet metal object in the shape of a partial corn stalk with two ears of corn.

The corn stalk is quite a special object in that only three examples of Inca metal corn stalks are known to exist–one at the Denver Art Museum, one at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, and one at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC. The Denver Art Museum is currently carrying out research that will contribute to a more in-depth understanding of this intriguing object.

Research into the object’s past purpose and function involves collaboration between curators, conservators, and scientists with each discipline incorporating particular methodologies and techniques. The curatorial approach mainly focuses on art historical and cultural research, undertaking comparative visual studies with similar type objects, and research into provenance or history of the object’s origin, location, and ownership. 

Margaret Young Sanchez is the Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Pre-Columbian Art at the Denver Art Museum. Margaret has kindly contributed the following explanation of the possible origin and significance of the corn stalk:

Ancient South American peoples were proficient metallurgists who manufactured cast and hammered objects of gold, silver, copper and bronze. Gold or silver sheet metal was formed into crowns, earspools, and pectorals, and into luxurious cups, bowls, and jars. The Inca manufactured sheet metal llamas and human figurines that were used as offerings on mountaintops and at other sacred locations; several are now preserved in museums.

To judge from the accounts of Spanish conquistadors, such works represent only a tiny fraction of Inca gold and silver treasure in the sixteenth century. They describe buildings with walls sheathed in gold, large disks that represented the sun and moon, and life-size human statues, all of which were melted down by the Spanish. Among the most intriguing accounts are those that describe the Coricancha shrine in Cuzco, where the Inca royal mummies were venerated. In a courtyard and an adjacent garden were planted full scale gold maize stalks, as well as life-size statues of llamas and herders. The maize plants were reputedly erected during planting and harvest festivals, and as part of investiture ceremonies. Other Inca shrines may have contained similar ritual objects. A sheet metal maize ear in the collection of the Denver Art Museum’s collection may be one of the few surviving remnants of this Inca practice.

In Part 2 of this post we'll discuss how faculty at the Colorado School of Mines helped us analyze this rare piece, and what their efforts revealed.

Image credit: Corn stalk, 15th century, Inca culture. Denver Art Museum: Museum Exchange, 1960.64.

Gina Laurin is a senior objects conservator at the Denver Art Museum.