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Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia at British Museum

By Edited Dec 6, 2013 1 2

A Fascinating Journey into the Past

The British Museum presents Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia. The exhibition showcases over 200 fascinating objects selected the Museo del Oro, Bogotá, one of the world's finest and most comprehensive holdings of pre-Hispanic gold. Also on display are more than 100 rare items from the British Museum's own comprehensive collection. 

The exhibition explores the history of the ancient Colombian people spanning a period from 1600 BC to AD 1600. The population comprised more than thirty different societies, at least twelve of which were well practised in metallurgy. The display looks specifically at metal items, especially gold and gold alloys,  and other technically complicated items such as jewellery and body decorations, stoneware, ceramics, carvings, textiles and feathered ornaments.  Beyond El Dorado focuses on artefacts crafted by six groups in particular – people we know as Tairona, Tolima, Zenú, Quimbaya, Muisca and Calima. 

Beyond El Dorado examines the superb craftsmanship that tells us so much about these different cultures. Through these rare items we take a fascinating journey into the past, into the lives of these peoples, their trading activities, their traditions, their spiritual lives and each group's very distinct artistic styles.

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The Origins of El Dorado

Truth or Myth

For hundreds of years Europeans have been mesmerised by the legend of El Dorado. Some imagined it might be a lost city of gold, but the truth behind the legend is far more interesting. 

El Dorado literally means ″the golden one″ and applies in particular to the traditions of the Muisca people, inhabitants of the central highlands of modern-day Colombia's Eastern Range. In centuries past a newly elected leader, his body covered in powdered gold, would dive into Lake Guatavita (near modern Bogotá), emerging as the new leader of the Muisca people. 

Beyond El Dorado features a many fascinating artefacts, including gold jewellery and body decorations, funerary items such as chairs, masks and burial urns, poporo (lime flasks), some complete with their necks and dippers,  as well as several very beautiful tunjos – votive figures used by the Muisca as an offering to the gods.   Many of these objects were re-claimed from Lake Guatavita during excavations at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The Symbolic Meaning of Gold

In pre-Hispanic Colombia gold was not valued as a currency but instead had huge symbolic importance. The upper-classes used it to show their place in society or even their semi-divine status, in life and in death. 

These ancient cultures believed it enabled communication with the spirit world as well as facilitating social and spiritual transformations. Many animals had symbolic powers and craftsmen would copy their shapes to create ritual objects. Sometimes they would represent them by just one particular feature.

People wore zoomorphic ornaments, feathers and animal skins to give themselves the characteristics of a bird, a bat, a jaguar, a crocodile or whatever animal they wished to emulate. They thought that by wearing such animal decorations they would view the world through different eyes, the eyes of the creature whose features they had adopted.

People also believed their spiritual rulers, with help from hallucinogenic drugs such as coca[1], often carried in exquisitely decorated gold flasks, were able to transform themselves into animals and cross the boundaries between sky, earth and water, the upper world and the underworld.  

Highlights of the Exhibition

The exhibition looks at highly sophisticated and complex gold-working methods, such as the use of tumbaga[1], an alloy made of gold and copper. Tumbaga has a lower melting point and is easier to cast than gold on its own. Highly versatile, the alloy can be cast, drawn, hammered, welded, soldered, embossed, engraved and inlaid. 

Tumbaga was widely used in some of the most dazzling pieces on display such as this Popayan Bird Pectoral. A pectoral is an decorative ornament suspended round the neck and worn on the chest[1].Pectorals were frequently placed on the chest of deceased persons and this item was discovered in the 1930s in a tomb in La Marquesa, Timbio, in the Cauca region of southern Colombia. The pectoral takes the form of a human figure wearing an elaborate plumed bird headdress, a nose ring and leg bindings. The figure is flanked by four zoomorphic attendants, two on either side of the head and legs. Two bird-like creatures hold on to the figure's upper arms. 

Bird pectoral, Popayan, gold alloy, AD100-1600.
Credit: Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

This stunning object was made using two different techniques. The lost wax technique was used to make the very complex upper part, and the lower section was created by hammering. Lost wax casting was popular with Colombian goldsmiths, especially when producing highly complex and sophisticated items. The object being made is sculpted in wax and encased in a ceramic mould. Molten gold or whatever metal is being used is then poured into the case through a channel. The wax melts as the hot liquid fills the cavities thus creating a exact metal replica of the wax model. The molten metal is left to harden before the mould is removed and polished. The technique is also known as lost-mould casting or cire perdue[1]. 

Lost Wax Casting Method

Only a Few Textiles Have Survived

Another extraordinary item is a very rare painted cotton sheet[2]. Because of their very nature few delicate textiles such as this have survived. This rare cloth has patterns woven into the borders and spiral and interlocking patterns in brown and blue painted in the centre. The design features squatting figures with skull-like faces, wide eyes and hollow cheeks. Each wears an intricate feathered headdress resembling a halo. The cloth was originally used in a burial and the pose reflects the position of the body when it was wrapped. The patterns are typical of Muisca designs and similar decorations have also been found on ceramic pots and stoneware in the region. 

Painted cotton textile, Muisca, AD1300-1400.
Credit: Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Animal Spirits, the Supernatural and Hallucinogenic Drugs

The exhibition explores the spiritual lives of the ancient Colombians and their use of hallucinogenic substances that they believed allowed them to engage with animal spirits and the supernatural. Coca (Erythroxylum novogranatense) was just one of the substances of choice. The leaves were kept in special bags made of organic material, natural gourds, or containers made of tumbaga. To enable the body to absorb the stimulant the leaves were mixed with an alkaline substance, often powdered calcium carbonate made from crushed lime or powdered seashells. This powder would have been stored in a poporo, a lime flask. The flask consisted of two parts, a container and a neck, Many were crafted in gold alloy. The poporo had a dipper which was used to convey the powder to the mouth[1].

This Quimbaya poporo neck, dates from between 500 BC – AD 700. It is beautifully decorated with six identical cast faces and was most likely attached to a natural gourd. The top of the neck has a opening where the lime dipper was inserted.

Poporo Neck

Poporo top with human faces, Quimbaya, AD600-1100.
Credit: Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Tickets and Further Information

This outstanding exhibition is curated by Elisenda Vila Llonch and organised with Museo del Oro, Bogotá. The British Museum wishes to thank bankers Julius Baer and American Airlines for their support. Without it, projects like this would simply not be possible.

Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia will be on view until 23rd March 2014. The exhibition is accompanied by a varied programme of public events as well as a beautiful catalogue by Elisenda Vila Llonch. The publication features over 100 items accompanied by the most fascinating text and superb colour reproductions. Tickets and further information is available from The British Museum.

Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia
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Comments

Nov 11, 2013 2:08am
Yindee
This reminds me of our visit to the Gold Museum in Lima, Peru. Kind of creepy to see the other artifacts, with fragments of textiles and especially - lnog black hair. thanks for keeping an eye on the galleries for us, Fran.
Nov 15, 2013 10:26am
Fran5050
Thanks for reading, Yindee.
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Bibliography

  1. Elisenda Vila Llonch Beyond El Dorado power and gold in ancient Colombia, page 182/3. London: The British Museum Press, 2013.
  2. The British Museum "The British Museum Collection Muisca Textiles." The British Museum. 18/10/2013 <Web >

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