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We analyzed a red paint sample from the surface of a gold mask excavated from a Middle Sicán elite tomb in Peru. The mask covered the face of the principal male and dates from ca. 1000 AD, a period when many painted precious metal objects were produced. The paint's inorganic pigment was identified more than 30 years ago as cinnabar (a mercuric sulfide scarlet-red to brown-red mineral), but the identity of the effective organic binder remained a mystery. Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) analysis of the sample indicated a proteinaceous composition, and no lipids were recovered from an N,O-bis(trimethylsilyl)trifluoroacetamide (BSTFA) derivatized extract of the sample analyzed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Proteomics analysis by nanoLC-MS/MS identified unique peptides in the sample, which were matched to human blood and bird egg proteins via Uniprot database searches. These included immunoglobulin heavy chain, immunoglobulin G, serum albumin, and ovomucoid. Cinnabar-based paints were typically used in the context of social elites and ritually important items. The presence of human blood would support previous ideas that red cinnabar paint may represent "life force" intended to support "rebirth". As the red paint sample came from the first scientifically excavated Sicán gold mask, the results suggest a method to authenticate similar unprovenanced masks now in private and museum collections. Proteomics data set identifier

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of proteome research

Publication Date



Mass Spectrometry Research Facility, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3TA, U.K.