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Alton  S. Tobey

The Inca Trephination Mural
at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

 

Tobey working on preliminary sketches for the Smithsonian murals.

   Tobey completed hundreds of working drawings, took thousands of photographs and did extensive preliminary archeological research in the course of creating these and his many other murals

   This devotion to research won him recognition in the form of a feature article in the May 1976 issue of American Artist magazine, the complete text of which can be seen elsewhere on this site.

           On July 15, 1965, Alton Tobey, his wife Rosalyn and son David left for the Ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu, Peru on an adventure that would occupy more than six months of his time. Tobey had been chosen to research and paint a scene that would recreate one of the first instances of open skull surgery known to man, that had taken place there in the early 16th century. The mural, which would measure some seven by twelve feet when completed, was to be installed in the Smithsonian's Hall of Physical Anthropology.

           The evidence showed that not only had this procedure, known as trephination been undertaken many times in this ancient city, but that the success rate had been high. This was clearly demonstrated by the discovery of numerous skulls that had a tell-tale "tick tack toe" cut out of them (see further below); and many had evidenced that the skulls had grown back, clearly indicating that the warriors upon whom this operation had been performed had lived and that their wounds had healed.

          

 

This preliminary sketch, known as a 'cartoon' was one of many done by the artist in preparation for his painting of the final mural. In it, a warrior who suffered skull injury in battle is seen being operated on to relieve pressure on the brain, by a high priest-surgeon of the Inca Empire.

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           Looking at Tobey's sketch for the mural above, you can see where the standing chieftain is leaning on a tall staff. At the top of the staff is a blunt, star-like cast metal head, a main battle weapon of the Incas. In combat, if a warrior were unlucky enough to have this strike his head, it would crush his skull.

           The Incas, who had a very sophisticated understanding of cranial structure for their time, developed this technique of cutting around the crushed-in skull, and of removing all the depressed debris and keeping the surgical field sterile. With shards removed, the bruised brain had room to swell out as part of the healing process. The results of this operation are plainly visible in the museum with a display case positioned next to the mural that shows numerous skulls that had regenerated successfully.

          Machu Picchu had been discovered in 1911, in an expedition led by Yale Professor Hiram Bingham. It is some 43 miles northwest of Cuzco, and had been built by the Incas sometime around 1460-1470 A.D. Machu Picchu is best known for its buildings constructed in a polygonal architectural style with some 200 of them, mostly all temples, built from granite. Carved with hand tools of bronze or stone, their blocks fit so tightly together without mortar that even the thinnest of knives cannot be inserted between them. A close look at the sketch for the mural above will show the structure of this master masonry in the background. Tobey was renowned for this attention to such detail and for his insistence upon reconstructive accuracy in all of his work.

 

Ancient Machu Pichu as seen from high above the Andes. Photo © Louis H. Albert

          Whatever its original purpose, the site of Machu Picchu today is one of the most captivating on the entire South American continent. Its allure draws not only from the mystery and intrigue of its past, but from its physical beauty. Perched high in the Andes mountains, the spectacular panoramic views and remains of temples, homes and agricultural terraces conjure up images of a thriving civic center in one of the most dramatic natural spots on earth.

 

 

 

 

Above left: two skulls discovered in ancient Peru that showed evidence of trephination surgery having been performed upon them as early as the 15th century A.D.

Above right: Ancient surgical instruments used in the operations: obsidian (volcanic glass) knives and copper and bronze Tumi knives.

          Meeting the people of Machu Picchu and experiencing the mystical beauty of this famed ancient sacred place was only one of the necessary steps that Tobey would undertake before even a single brushstroke could be applied to canvas. His research for the mural took over six weeks in Peru, Guatemala and Mexico, where he explored every possible detail of other artifacts from the period -- tribal ceremonial dress and costume, jewelry and many kinds of ornamentation, textiles, and hundreds of artifacts that would be referenced for objects that might be incorporated into the mural. His visits to museums in Cuzco and Lima gave him much information on what these accessories and costumes in the final murals should be.

Above are some artifacts from ancient Peruvian culture (left to right): A gold Inca Mask of the Sun, a chica (fermented beverage) flask, & fabric from an Inca mantle, ca. 1000-1476 A.D.

         After familiarizing himself with the subjects, details and locale for the painting, Tobey's next task was to outline a preliminary draft of what the final composition should be. This was done in a series of drawings, only a couple of which are shown here, which eventually evolved into the final preliminary painting shown first on this page.

 

 

Tracing overlays (left) on a black and white preliminary sketch showing compositional lines and areas used to construct the mural, and the completed preliminary monochrome drawing (right). Two other preliminary sketches for this mural can be seen on Tobey's works on paper page. After visiting that page, use your browser's "back" button to return to this page.

          Since it was impossible to know precisely how the ancient trephination operation had been performed hundreds of years ago, Tobey researched the next best thing; and personally attended and took a series of photographs of an actual trephination operation conducted in a modern veteran's hospital in New York City.

         Following this, photos using a plaster head model were taken to recreate the exact position of the hands that would have had to use the primitive instruments in the surgery; and local school children were set up to model the exact positions of the patient, high priest/surgeon and other participants in the procedure, as they probably appeared.

         From this, a detailed drawing of the operation was filled in on the preliminary black & white sketch, and then completed on the color cartoon which would later be copied to the seven by twelve foot canvas.

 

 

 

 

Left to right, above: A modern operation; Modeling with a plaster head; Setting up the figure positioning; Detail drawing on the sketch.

 

Final detail of the trephination operation as it would appear in the finished painting

          The mural was completed in Tobey's studio over a period of some five months and delivered rolled up in a station wagon to the Smithsonian where it is on permanent display. The detail below is the best available photograph of the central portion of the mural, showing the procedure in progress. Certain differences between the cartoon painting shown at the top of this page, and this final detail of the final mural itself, which was unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution on February 28, 1966 -- such as the change in color of the headdress feathers worn by the surgeon/priest from black to red -- were the result of Tobey's insistence upon absolute accuracy in detail in this painting, as in all his other historical works.

 

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"A mural is a symphony of painting. It requires all the elements ususally seen singly in other types of painting and tries to coordinate them into a single organic composition. . . "

-- Alton Tobey

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The Alton Tobey Collection

Judith Tobey, David Tobey; Directors

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