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Beyond El Dorado

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When the Spaniards arrived in the New World they had one obsession: gold. Grand Admiral Columbus wrote in 1503: ‘Gold is the most exquisite of all things…Whoever possesses gold can acquire all that he desires in this world. Truly, for gold he can gain entrance for his soul into paradise’.

A few years earlier, in 1499, Spanish explorers had made their first landings in Colombia. There too, it was the precious metal they searched for. And it was here that the myth of El Dorado began to develop. To some, it was a city made of gold, far more splendid and rich than anything yet found in Mexico or the Caribbean. Others thought it was a man, the ‘Golden One’, the chief of a tribe who was ceremonially anointed with gold dust.

Photo: British MuseumThis legend continued throughout the centuries. In 1636 a Spanish chronicler located the legend at Lake Guatavita, north of the Colombian capital Bogotá, and described how the legend had begun: ‘During the ceremony which took place at the lagoon, they made a raft of rushes and decorated it with the most attractive things they had…They stripped the heir [the prince of the local indigenous group] to his skin, and anointed him with a sticky earth on which they placed gold dust so that he was completely covered. They placed him on the raft and at his feet they put a heap of gold and emeralds for him to offer to his god.’

The Spaniards and other Europeans made many efforts to drain the lake in search of these riches, without much success. But Colombia as a whole did yield treasures of gold and precious stones. Often, the golden artifacts were seen as ‘the work of the devil’ and melted down, before being shipped back to Spain. A new exhibition at London’s British Museum* seeks to go Beyond El Dorado and this lust for gold, to explore the societies that produced these exquisite works and reveal who made them and why.

The exhibits come from six different groups in Colombia, from the Calima-Malagana in the south-west near the border with Ecuador, to the Tairona and their famous Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) on the northern Caribbean coast. The first agricultural communities are thought to have come into existence around 1600BC, but as curator Elisenda Vila Llonch points out, ‘archaeology in Colombia is only just starting compared to the interest there has been for centuries in ancient Greece and Rome. It is only in the past 100-150 years that the civilisations of Colombia have been studied at all systematically’.

Unlike Mexico under the Aztecs, or Peru during the period of Inca domination, it seems as though the peoples of ancient Colombia remained as separate cacicazgos or chiefdoms, without becoming part of a unified empire. Early Colombians mined gold from seams of rock in the Andes or by panning in rivers, and traded the metal to craft production centres. Skilled craftsmen hammered the gold into ceremonial objects, or cast it and other metals using the lost wax technique.

Most of the 200 objects in the exhibition are gold, although some ceramic pieces show the different styles that evolved in the widely scattered societies. Few textiles have survived, and the lack of any writing has also made it hard for archaeologists to accurately date the growth and decline of the various groups. As the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, says: ‘Ancient Colombia has long represented a great fascination to the outside world and yet there is very little understood about these unique and varied cultures.’

For her part, Ms. Vila Llonch sees the starting point of the exhibition in that fact that ‘gold did not have an economic value for the early Colombians. It was above all symbolic, representing the power of the sun contrasted with the moon that was represented by artifacts in copper or silver’. Many of the pieces in the exhibition were offerings, thrown into lakes or rivers to win favour with the deities, to ensure fertile crops or ward off disease.

Other pieces, such as breastplates or body jewellery, were worn to show the bearer’s cultural identity and rank. In pre-European Colombia, the  cosmos was perceived as a living whole, in which humans shared a common spirit with other beings – animals, plants, rivers, mountains, and the inhabitants of the spirit world. All early Colombians regarded life and death not as entirely separate, but as part of a continuum, and some of the pieces were plainly meant to accompany the noble dead on their journey to the afterlife.

Photo: British MuseumHigh-ranking nobles and priests also wore animal skins and feathers, or decorated themselves in order to take on their characteristics, for instance making themselves swift, fierce, or cunning, or enabling them to hunt in the night. In some instances, men were transformed into bats that can see in the dark by means of extremely elaborate body ornaments. One of the most endearing exhibits shows a golden humming bird, revered because of its ability to hang motionless in mid-air.

Often, these ornaments enabled the priests to see the world around them in a different way, and to pass on what they had glimpsed to the rest of the community. This was particularly important before any collective action such as going into battle. Possibly the most spectacular among these objects are the gold helmets from the central Quimbaya culture, which glow in the dark exhibition rooms as vibrantly now as when they were produced hundreds of years ago.

The exhibition ends with a reminder that today in Colombia there are still some 90 indigenous groups (and possibly more than one million people) living in different regions of the country. Many of them continue with the practices and beliefs of the earlier communities, and as such provide a vital link to the past that is far more valuable than gold.

 *Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia; 17 October 2013- 23 March 2014, British Museum, London.