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June 18, 2015

On the Great Inka Road: Conserving an Arybalo

Arybalo 1GuamanPomaJune


Left:
Inka arybalo (ceramic vessel, NMAI 14/5679) awaiting conservation. Right: Illustration of Hawkay Kuski, the rest from harvest, showing an Inka woman pouring a'qa (maize beer) from an arybalo into qeros (cups). Pen and ink drawing by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (Quechua, ca. 1535–1616). From El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government, 
1615). Royal Library, Copenhagen GKS 2232 4º.

 

During the last few years, conservators have been busy working on the objects that will be on view in the exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, opening Friday, June 26, at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Objects illustrated in the book that accompanies the exhibition—including this arybalo, or ceramic vessel—had to be conserved early so that they would look their best for museum photographer Ernest Amoroso. 

Arybalos, distinctive vessels found in every part of the Inka Empire, were typically used for holding maize beer—chicha in Spanish, or a'qa in Quechua, a language older than the Inka and still widely spoken in the Andes. At 112.5 cm tall, this particular arybalo (NMAI 14/5679) is one of the largest known in the world and would have helped people celebrate in a big way. Note the pointed base and flared neck, characteristics of all arybalos that made pouring from them easier. The handles were made to be strung with rope for easier carrying.  

In addition to the characteristics that made arybalos such great containers, this one had an unexpected feature: a round hole in the vessel's back. My colleagues in Conservation and I were perplexed until we took a closer look at the arybalo's cracks, which were visible as dark lines around the hole and through the designs on the front. 

Arybalo 2 Arybalo 3
Left: The back of the arybalo and the puzzling hole. Right: A crack running across the side of the arybalo and through the designs on the front. 

By studying the cracks, we realized that at an unknown date the vessel broke and was put back together using shellac and metal wire. This was a typical repair practice for antiquities collectors and restorers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Holes were drilled on the edges of broken pieces, then metal wire was inserted through the front and twisted in the interior, putting the pieces back together in a manner similar to stapling. The previous restorer filled in the cracks and the wired areas using plaster, then painted the repairs to match the surrounding ceramic. Over time, the color in the restored areas darkened and became distracting.

Arybalo 4

Arybalo conservation 5

Left: One of the wire repairs. Right: An earlier plaster restoration: the blue arrow points to painted plaster that darkened over time; the red arrow, to a wire mend and damaged ceramic exposed after the plaster repair was removed.


This arybalo, however, is too large for anyone to reach the repairs via the neck and twist the metal wires tight, so restorers cut an access hole into the back of the arybalo. The hole, therefore, was not part of the original function of the object. The metal-wire repair technique is no longer used by conservators because it damages original surface, and there are adhesives available today that are strong enough to hold ceramics. 

During this restoration, conservators removed the plaster repairs using cotton swabs dampened with water. Conservator Beth Holford and I then applied a conservation-grade acrylic spackle fill to the cracks and over the exposed metal wires. After making sure the fills were even with surrounding ceramic, we painted them to blend in with the original designs. 

Arybalo  6

Arybalo 7 Arybalo 8

Top: Conservator (and blog-writer) Fran Ritchie and conservation colleague Beth Holford working on the arybalo. Above: A new repair made with conservation-grade acrylic spackle, before and after it has been painted to blend in with the original pattern. 

Total time spent treating the arybalo to this point? More than 50 hours. Come see the conserved arybalo in The Great Inka Road, on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from June 26, 2015, to June 1, 2018!

Team arybalo NMAI 145679
Top, from left to right:
 Conservator Emily Kaplan, Collections specialist Veronica Quiguango, mountmaker Shelly Uhlir, Fran Ritchie, and Collections specialist Tony Williams prepare to transport the arybalo, now ready for its close-up, to the museum's photo studio. Above: Inka arybalo, AD 1450–1532. Peru. Ceramic, paint. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. (14/5679) 

—Fran Ritchie

Fran Ritchie worked on The Great Inka Road as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian. She is currently a conservator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos are courtesy of NMAI Conservation.

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