British Museum blog

El Dorado: a title and a myth

View of Lake Guatavita
Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Curators usually think very carefully about the title of an exhibition. In a few words we have to convey a key message to catch people’s attention and to draw in the crowds. Our current exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, was no exception. At the British Museum we felt we had to include the words ‘El Dorado’ in the title. This Spanish term, which means the ‘golden one’ or ‘the gilded one’, is familiar to many, but very few know what or who El Dorado was. Perhaps this is part of its mystical aura; the inevitable attraction of the unknown?

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

Throughout the centuries, El Dorado was described by some as a man fully dressed in gold regalia. Other people believed he was a ruler or even a city covered in this precious metal. Some believed it was a golden kingdom. In fact, El Dorado was none of these. It was a myth that grew over the centuries that seems to have originated from the gold-thirsty Europeans in their exploration of the New Continent, soon to be called America. From 1499 the Spanish explorers and conquistadores reached the Caribbean coasts known today as Colombia and were especially dazzled by the quantity of gold being used by indigenous people. The King of Spain even named these lands ‘Castilla del Oro’ (Castile of Gold). But this Dorado was always elusive, always further south, or further north, or more towards the east; never being reached by the many expeditions and men that invested their live in this futile search.

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Some chroniclers placed El Dorado in the Colombian landscape, and few even ventured to link it to Lake Guatavita. This wonderful lagoon, nested in the green Andean highlands about 35 miles north of modern day Bogota, became the focus of attention for explorers and treasure hunters for many centuries. Accounts by Juan Rodriguez Freyle (1636) picture a vivid image of one of the rituals that took place in this lake. When a Muisca ruler came to power, and after much ceremony and fasting, he was taken to the lagoon where he was stripped of all his clothing. His body was covered in gold powder and placed at the center of a raft with attendants adorned with colorful feathers and gold ornaments. As the raft sailed towards the center of the lake, the crowds sang and danced and aromatic resins were burned. When the boat reached the center, a banner was raised, everyone fell silent and offerings of gold and emeralds were thrown to the waters of the lake. But there was much more than just gold offered; the truth behind the myth was far more fascinating. Excavations in the early 20th century have shown that wonderful ceramics, stone necklaces and other materials were also deposited in the lake.

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

This lavish ceremony was probably only one of many that took place in Guatavita. And this lagoon was only one of the sacred locations throughout the Andean landscape where Muisca rituals took place (including rivers, caves, rocks). There is much more than just a myth to be explored; there are rich cultures, unique objects and exceptional belief systems, which all go beyond the power granted to gold in modern times.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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11 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Monica says:

    Congratulations on your great exhibition! I visited it two weekends ago and was fascinated by the beauty of the pieces shown. I am on my way now to visit Colombia for the first time, so this article comes just in time.

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  2. Monika K. says:

    Congratulations for deciding on an excellent title for this fascinating exhibition topic! It immediately caught my attention and the blog post is extremely intriguing. Will try to come over from New York to see it.

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  3. Alex Rodriguez says:

    Fascinating exhibition!! I very much enjoyed it and I highly recommend it.

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  4. Mònica says:

    So interesting! I wish I could come to see the exhibition. Congratulations!

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  5. melenapla says:

    Enhorabona Elisenda! I wish I could go to the exhibition…

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  6. Moi says:

    Wonderful exhibition. We really enjoyed it and had the possibility of learning much more about El Dorado and what it really was. Great job! Congratulations to the curator.

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  7. Great post! I have never heard before about Lake Guatavita and lavish ceremonies. I’m coming tomorrow to see the exhibition and after reading your explanation I’m even more interested!

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  8. Albert says:

    Intriguing title…on my way to Colombia, but will come when i’m back (I know, the logical order would probably have been the other way around!)

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  9. Cristina says:

    We had such a wonderful time at the exhibition. Beautiful objects, amazing craftsmanship, great themes. Explaining the context was great for the kids – now they know about the dark side of their Spanish heritage! For all of us it was learning about the sophistication, elegance and splendor of another culture in Central and South America; Mexico, Colombia, what will you bring us next?

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  10. Bill Yates says:

    Actually the Muisca Raft suggests the Golden One to be anything but a myth. The raft depicts the very ceremony the author depicts in their story. Just because proof has not been found to prove El Dorado is not reason to call it a myth; especially when evidence strongly suggests the legend is real.

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It's Toulouse-Lautrec's 150th birthday! Here's his poster for a Parisian cabaret 
#history #art #artist #Paris Although this gilded cartonnage mask of a mummy conveys vitality and alertness, the features are more bland and idealised than those of other masks. The eyes, ears, nose, mouth and chin are highly stylised and not fully integrated into the face. The collar, the wig and the necklace with an ankh (‘life’) pendant, are attributes showing that the deceased has entered the afterlife and been assimilated with the gods. A winged scarab beetle on the top and images of gods on the back also emphasise the funerary character of the mask.

The use of gold was connected to the belief that the sun god Re, with whom the mummy hoped to be united, had flesh of pure gold. The back of the wig is decorated in many colours, with a row of deities, a ba and falcon with outstretched wings and seven short columns of near-unintelligible hieroglyphs.

See this cartonnage mask in our exhibition #8mummies – now extended until 19 April 2015.
#MummyMonday #mummies Another #MummyMonday space: it's Room 63 – together with Room 62 known as the Roxie Walker Galleries of Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. Possibly the most famous galleries in the Museum, they are the next spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Death and the afterlife held particular significance and meaning for the ancient Egyptians. Complex funeral preparations and rites were thought to be needed to ensure the transition of the individual from earthly existence to immortality.
Mummification, magic and ritual are investigated through the objects on display in Rooms 62–63. These include coffins, mummies, funerary masks, portraits and other items designed to be buried with the deceased. Modern research methods such as x-rays and CT scans are used to examine the mummification process. As it's #MummyMonday here's Room 62 – together with Room 63 known as the Roxie Walker Galleries of Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. Possibly the most famous galleries in the Museum, they are the next spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Death and the afterlife held particular significance and meaning for the ancient Egyptians. Complex funeral preparations and rites were thought to be needed to ensure the transition of the individual from earthly existence to immortality.
Mummification, magic and ritual are investigated through the objects on display in Rooms 62–63. These include coffins, mummies, funerary masks, portraits and other items designed to be buried with the deceased. Modern research methods such as x-rays and CT scans are used to examine the mummification process. It's time for our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space. This is Room 61, the Michael Cohen Gallery of Egyptian life and death (the tomb-chapel of Nebamun). The British Museum acquired 11 wall-paintings from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun in the 1820s. Dating from about 1350 BC, they are some of the most famous works of art from ancient Egypt.
Following a 10-year period of conservation and research, the paintings were put on display together for the first time in 2009. They give the impression of the walls of colour that would have been experienced by the ancient visitors to the tomb-chapel.
Objects dating from the same time period and a 3D animation of the tomb-chapel help to set the tomb-chapel in context and show how the finished tomb would have looked. (There is no Room 60 in the British Museum.) To start the week, here's the next three gallery spaces in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. Rooms 57–59 are the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Galleries of the Ancient Levant. This pic is of Room 59. The Ancient Levant corresponds to the modern states of Syria (western part), Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Rooms 57–59 present the material culture of the region from the Neolithic farmers of the 8th millennium BC to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, within the context of major historical events.
Objects on display illustrate the continuity of the Canaanite culture of the southern Levant throughout this period. They highlight the indigenous origins of both the Israelites and the Phoenicians.
The display compares this culture with that of the peoples of central inland Syria, the Amorites and the Aramaeans.
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