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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US artist John Sloan was born #onthisday in 1871. 
John Sloan, painter, printmaker and teacher, first took up etching as a self-taught adolescent.  Moving to New York in 1904, he became part of a group of eight artists, better known as “The Ashcan School”, who focused on creating images of urban realism. Between 1891 and 1940 Sloan produced some 300 etchings. He was also one of the first chroniclers of the American scene and wrote about printmaking and the etching technique.
This etching comes from the series of 10 prints entitled 'New York City Life', recording the lives of the ordinary inhabitants in less affluent areas of Manhattan. The prints had a mixed reception at the time and a number were rejected from an exhibition of the American Watercolor Society as ‘vulgar’ and ‘indecent’. #August is named after the Roman emperor Augustus. Before 8 BC the Romans called it Sextilis! 
This head once formed part of a statue of the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC – AD 14). In 31 BC he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium and took possession of Egypt, which became a Roman province. The writer Strabo tells us that statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them in 25 BC.
Although Roman counter-attackers reclaimed many of the statues, they did not reach Meroë, where this head was buried beneath the steps of a native temple dedicated to Victory. It seems likely that the head, having been cut from its statue, was placed there deliberately so as to be permanently below the feet of its Meroitic captors.
The head of Augustus appears larger than life, with perfect proportions based upon Classical Greek notions of ideal human form. His calm distant gaze, emphasised with inset eyes of glass and stone, give him an air of quiet, assured strength. Coins and statues were the main media for propagating the image of the Roman emperor. This statue, like many others throughout the Empire, was made as a continuous reminder of the all-embracing power of Rome and its emperor. English sculptor Henry Moore was born #onthisday in 1898.
Drawing played a major role in Henry Moore's work throughout his career. He used it to generate and develop ideas for sculpture, and to create independent works in their own right.
During the 1930s the range and variety of his drawing expanded considerably, starting with the 'Transformation Drawings' in which he explored the metamorphosis of natural, organic shapes into human forms. At the end of the decade he began to focus on the relationship between internal and external forms, his first sculpture of this nature being 'Helmet' (Tate Collections) of 1939.
This drawing titled ‘Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal’ was based on a pencil study entitled ‘Ideas for Lead Sculpture’. It reflects his awareness of surrealism and psychoanalytical theory as well his abiding interest in ethnographic material and non-European sculpture; the particular reference in this context is to a malangan figure (malangan is a funeral ritual cycle) from New Ireland province in Papua New Guinea, which had attracted his interest in the British Museum. 
Henry Moore, Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal. England, 1939. Here's another fabulous view of the Great Court captured by @whatinasees at our instagramer event #regram #repost
Check out all of the photos at #emptyBM Vincent van Gogh died #onthisday in 1890. Here's a print of his only known etching. It depicts his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet, seated in the garden of his house.
#vanGogh #etching Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday in 1866. Here are some of her flopsy bunnies! 🐰
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