Three Inca Wooden Cups

By: Dr. J. Alden Mason

Originally Published in 1934

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IN THE course of the “housecleaning” of the Peruvian material in storage, which has lain untouched for many years, two examples of the rare wooden queros have turned up. These supplement well the excellent specimen lent to the Museum last year by Mrs. S. F. Kilburn which was at that time supposed to be the sole example of this interesting type in the Museum. The provenience of Mrs. Kilburn’s specimen is unknown: it was purchased in a curio shop in the neighborhood of this city. The exact place of origin of the Museum’s examples is also unknown, but they were secured in Peru and presented to the Museum by Mr. Randolph Clay in 1912. Dr. J. Alden Mason, curator of the Museum’s American Section, has written the following article about the three cups.

THESE queros, this being the Quechua Peruvian name for cups of a certain form, are made of a hard, heavy, dark wood with decorations on the exterior in mastic or lacquer. The larger specimens are about eight inches in height. The technique of painting is that of cloisonne, as the design was first incised to a slight depth in the wood, and the depressions then filled up to the surface with thick color. This was a common technique in ancient America, as it is found in pottery, especially in Mexico, and certain modern Mexican Indians still make decorated gourds in this manner.

Three wooden cups with flared rims and bases, painted with intricate designs and lacquered
Plate VIII — Peruvia Queros, or decorated cups of wood, belonging to the last period of the Inca Empire
Museum Object Numbers: 43-24-1 / 43531 / 43532
Image Number: 20464, 20471, 20473

The colors are well preserved, as is the wood, and it is likely that in the majority of cases these objects are not the result of archeological excavations but have remained in the possession of Peruvians or other persons since the time of the Conquest of Peru by Pizarro. This suggests what is also indicated by a study of the queros themselves, that they belong to the last period of the Inca “Empire” and were in use in the early part of the sixteenth century. Some, however, are reported to have been found under archeological conditions, and the late A. F. Bandelier found three in clefts of rock near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.

Certain of these cups bear designs which seem to contain Spanish elements, while others apparently have none, suggesting the conclusion that they were made both immediately before, and immediately after, the Spanish Conquest. The two larger examples of the three under consideration contain no obviously European elements, although the freedom of the art is greater than that typical of the Inca, but the figure shown in the smaller specimen wears a hat that looks quite European.

A large number of colors are employed; red is predominant, followed by buff and yellow. Blue-green, brown, olive, black and salmon are also evident. Richly appareled and adorned human figures, birds, trees, flowers and geometric designs are shown. The larger vessel in the Clay collection portrays single figures, but the other two show scenes, that of Mrs. Kilburn’s cup being especially complex and full of life. Six figures are shown in the latter vessel. The most prominent one is portrayed from the front, and five others, shown in profile, flank it. Two of these hold up what may be fans on long poles or ceremonial staffs. The central figure has something of the appearance of a woman, though she apparently carries a shield and a spear. Probably the scene represents homage paid to a noble personage.

These cups were probably used in ceremonies for drinking a native beer known as chicha. One of the Spanish priests wrote in the seventeenth century, “The most common of these drinking cups are of wood, of the shape of our glass tumblers, wider at the top than at the bottom. They hold a pint of wine. They are painted outside with a kind of lacquer, very relucent in various colors, and with different raised figures and paintings. These wooden vessels are called queros.”

Cite This Article

Mason, Dr. J. Alden. "Three Inca Wooden Cups." Museum Bulletin V, no. 5 (March, 1934): 53-55. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/1556/


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