Just in time for Peru’s bicentennial celebrations, the long-absent “Echenique Disc” is home. This pre-Inka gold ornament, recognized by millions as the symbol of the city of Cusco, had been in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) for 109 years when the museum committed to returning it “for the benefit of the citizens of Peru and particularly the Indigenous communities of Peru.” In June 2021, the NMAI signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Peruvian government and transferred it to the custody of Peru’s Ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C.
Upon its arrival in Lima, then-President Francisco Sagasti hosted its official reception at the Presidential Palace at a small, in-person ceremony with Peru’s foreign minister, culture minister, and U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kenna. From there, the ornament, now re-christened the “Sun Disc,” was declared “Cultural Patrimony of the Nation” and transferred to the former Inka capital of Cusco in time for that city’s famed Inti Raymi (sun festival) before taking up its new home in the city’s Museum of Regional History. Thanks to the NMAI’s commitment to voluntarily returning the disc, the effective coordination by Peru’s Ministry of Culture, and the support of the Peruvian and U.S. embassies, the famous symbol of Cusco is once more in Cusco.
Highly valued by Peruvians as emblematic of their cultural and national identity, the disc’s design became the official symbol and shield of the city of Cusco in 1986. The disc itself is a circular thin sheet of metal 13.5 centimeters (5.3 inches) in diameter, approximately 90 percent gold, 5 percent silver, and 5 percent copper. While its provenance is unknown, it was made with techniques commonly used in ancient Andean metal work.
George Gustav Heye, the founder of the Museum of the American Indian – Heye Foundation (the predecessor institution to the NMAI), purchased the disc in 1912 from Dr. Eduard Gaffron, a German physician and antiquities collector working in Peru. According to the NMAI, the disc was included in multiple exhibitions during its time in the museum’s collection, most recently in a 2015-2021 exhibition titled “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.”
The disc’s homecoming after more than a century of absence – and in time to mark two centuries of Peruvian independence – realizes a longstanding desire of the Peruvian people and was widely celebrated in print and on radio, TV, and social media. “The return of the ‘Echenique Disc,’ on the occasion of commemorating our bicentennial of national independence, constitutes a cause of deep joy for all Peruvians, a fact that 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,” said Peru’s then-Foreign Minister, Allan Wagner, on the occasion of signing the MOU.
“We feel very proud to celebrate the return of the Echenique Disc as a symbol of the friendship and fruitful diplomatic relations that characterize our two countries,” said Ambassador Kenna. To underscore those ties in a human way, the Embassy commissioned an alumna of the ECA Academy of Women Entrepreneurs training programs to manufacture disc-shaped chocolates imprinted with the ornament’s design. Shared just as the bicentennial celebrations reached a peak in late July with Peru’s independence day and the inauguration of the new Castillo administration, these chocolates served as a sweet reminder of our enduring friendship to key contacts both old and new.
Protecting Peru’s long and rich cultural heritage is a shared priority for both our countries, and the United States collaborates closely with Peru on these efforts in support of our MOU for the protection of cultural property, which will turn 25 in 2022 and helps prevent and counter the trafficking of valuable artifacts. Under the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the United States has spent more than $3.3 million across two decades supporting 30 conservation projects in 13 regions of Peru, the most of any country in the Western Hemisphere.
In Peru, where pride in ancient heritage ranks second only to its world-famous cuisine, this type of support – like the return of the Echenique disc – generates tremendous goodwill. Chocolate helps too.
About the Author: Ed Cox serves as the Public Diplomacy Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Lima. He has also been posted in Panama and India and has served in Washington, D.C., in the State Department’s bureaus of Western Hemisphere Affairs and African Affairs.