A golden opportunity: British Museum offers chance to explore Colombia’s ancient past

Feb 14, 2014 Comments Off on A golden opportunity: British Museum offers chance to explore Colombia’s ancient past by

By Ellen Donnison

Anthropomorphic bat pectoral, Tairona, gold alloy, AD900–1600 © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

Anthropomorphic bat pectoral, Tairona, gold alloy, AD900–1600
© Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

The El Dorado legend evokes images of a glittering city made of gold, but few are aware of how this myth began. Luckily, a new exhibition at the British Museum offers the chance to understand its origins. Beyond El Dorado, which will run until 23 March 2014, offers an insight into the creation of the El Dorado myth and the intriguing world of pre-conquest Colombia.

The origin of the El Dorado story is revealed upon first entering the exhibition. The myth stemmed from accounts by Spanish conquistadors; records speak of a ceremony conducted by the indigenous Muisca people at Lake Guatavita, 35 miles from Bogotá. The Muisca lived in what is now known as Colombia’s Eastern Range (part of the Colombian Andes) between 600 and 1600 AD.

Jaguar-shaped poporo (lime container), Colombia, Calima-Malagana (Yotoco), 200 BC–AD 1300. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

Jaguar-shaped poporo (lime container), Colombia, Calima-Malagana (Yotoco), 200 BC–AD 1300. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

The Spanish chronicler Fernández de Oviedo wrote the earliest account of this tradition in the first half of the 16th century. According to Oviedo, the ritual required that the Muisca’s chief be covered in gold dust (El Dorado literally means ‘the golden one’). Once anointed, he would board a raft taken to the centre of the lake. Upon reaching it the chief would cast offerings such as gold and emeralds into the water in an attempt to appease the gods.

Several attempts were made to drain the lake from the 16th up until the 20th century. Although gold was discovered, the hauls did not amount to the fabulous wealth described by the early Spanish settlers. In addition to gold, votive offerings such as beads and ceramic figurines were found when a British company tried to drain the lake in 1909. These curious objects can be seen in the first exhibition space.

While the accuracy of Oviedo’s account is debatable, what is certain is that such stories attracted more Spaniards, eager to lay claim to this treasure. As the numbers of Spanish travelling to Colombia increased, so did rumours perpetuating the idea of a golden city.

But even if the city of El Dorado is a myth, it is true that gold was highly valued in indigenous Colombian culture. Gold was believed to have transformative properties and benefitted the wearer when worn. It was treasured for its spiritual value and was not regarded monetarily.

Mask with nose ornament, Quimbaya, gold alloy, 500 BC–AD 1600. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Mask with nose ornament, Quimbaya, gold alloy, 500 BC–AD 1600. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The exhibition offers an extensive range of golden objects, their brilliance complemented by their display against rich, wine-red fabrics. The rooms are artfully lit, the brightest illumination coming from the cabinets, highlighting the gold’s fierce gleam. This provides a sense of how the gold might have glittered in firelight.

One room presents jewellery and other adornments, from spectacular earrings and large breastplates to wrist cuffs and nose ornaments. These displays offer a glimpse into understand how impressive these people would have looked. The effect was enhanced by the use of ceramic rollers textured with patterns that were dipped in natural dye and rolled over the body, creating a tattoo-like effect.

Examples of these rollers are also part of the exhibition. It is believed that the rollers’ designs were intended to imitate animal markings. The rounded print of one may be a nod to jaguar spots, while another suggests the scales of a lizard. The combination of body paint and beautiful gold adornments would have transformed the wearer into something otherworldly.

One ongoing theme is the use of animal motifs, which can be seen in the many animal figurines and animal patterns adorning jewellery and various tools. One room is entirely devoted to animal objects, such as figurines of monkeys, lobsters, bats, birds and jaguars. Animals were very important to these indigenous people, as they were thought to perceive the world in unique ways. If humans dressed in animal disguises and performed certain rituals, for instance, they would see through the eyes of that creature.

Tunjos, small and delicate figurines used as votive offerings, are also displayed. Some of these figures depict individuals wearing tiny jaguar masks, referring to the magical concept of adopting a creature’s gaze if disguised as that creature. This connection to other beings helped the viewer cross over into different spiritual realms, a practice it was thought helped maintain the balance of the universe.* This ‘cross-over’ was aided by stimulants derived from plants.

Beyond El Dorado presents a range of spectacular gold objects but also includes other artefacts such as ceramics, textiles, bead and feather work. The crafts of six pre-Columbian cultures are displayed, including the Muisca, Zenú and Tolima people. The broad range of objects is accompanied by engaging explanations as to how they were made and, most importantly, what they signified. The exhibition ends with a collection of objects associated with death: stone guardians, urns and gold pieces once buried with important individuals. It is clear that gold was significant not only in life but also in death. These cultures still hold many secrets, but Beyond El Dorado offers a first glimpse into the fascinating insights of this pre-Columbian world.

 

*Nicholas Saunders, “Catching the light”: Technologies of Power and Enchantment in Pre-Columbian Goldworking, in Quilter and Hoopes, 2003, p.26. Cited by Elisenda Vila Llonch in Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia, 2013, The British Museum Press.

 

For more details about El Dorado visit http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/beyond_el_dorado.aspx

 

 

VL English

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