British Museum blog

More than just gold

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Gold glitters in our exhibition, Beyond El Dorado, power and gold in ancient Colombia. To our modern eye those pieces convey ideas of richness, wealth and a fascinating world that disappeared a long time ago. Exquisitely crafted, they are testimonies of the complexity and sophistication achieved by those pre-Hispanic people. Objects that seem at first glance made of gold are much more complex and are in fact made of metal alloys. In most instances they combine, in different degrees, gold, some natural occurring silver, and copper, a combination known as tumbaga. These metals were symbolically charged in pre-Hispanic times, being associated with the sun and the moon respectively. Their combination produced a microcosm, a balance between opposites in the rendering of each object.

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

The creation of alloys also allowed for differences in colour, ranging from reddish to golden tones. Each object had its own particular colour, shine and finish thanks to the mastery and skills of the artists that produced them. Some even show contrasting colours in the same object, producing beautiful patterns and details.

Small ingots of tumbaga, in the shape of round buttons, were crafted in unique objects either by hammering or casting them (or by a combination of both techniques). Ancient Colombian artists mastered both techniques to an unprecedented degree, creating exceptional works of art.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC – AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Hammering metal was a delicate process. Metal becomes easily brittle when hammered and they have to be repeatedly cooled and dipped in water before the final form is achieved. The thin sheets of gold were then cut, decorated (for example by repoussé) or joined by clipping or folding several sheets together. Exceptional three dimensional pieces were created, as for example the wonderful jaguar seen in the exhibition (above). Claws, tail and jaws are articulated and even the nose ring is made of a rare alloy of platinum and gold.

However, it was the casting of metals that was developed most in ancient Colombia. Using the lost wax technique, artist modelled the final piece they wanted to achieve in beeswax (from stingless bees). Once the wax figure was finished it was covered in fine clay and charcoal, leaving pouring channels. The whole mould was fired and the melted wax poured out. Its place would be taken by molten metal, which cooled slowly as it solidified inside the mould. The mould was then broken and the final metal piece polished and finished.

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC - AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC – AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Ancient Colombian artist even created hollow objects following this technique, for example flasks and containers. Great skill was needed to produce them. The figure was modelled in clay and charcoal, and a thin layer of wax was applied to cover the final result. Over this another layer of clay would be added, and wooden pegs were inserted to fix the inner mould to the outer one to keep them in place when the wax melted. Controlling the flow of the metal to every single detail of the piece, its slow solidification, and then freeing the figure without damaging it was challenge that could only be achieved by the most experienced hands. Exquisite works of art, seen in this exhibition, were the result of incredible knowledge, care and time invested in their making.

Videos showing goldmaking techniques created for the exhibition

  1. Depletion gilding (dorado por oxidación)
  2. From wax to metal (de la cera al metal)
  3. By hammer and fire (a martillo y fuego)

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.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, , ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Sugam Mehta says:

    Congratrulations! What an amazing exhibition! We are planning to fly over the atlantic to see it!

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on Cat Among the Pigeons Press and commented:
    I saw this exhibition and it was brilliant!

    Like

  3. Beverly Anderson says:

    Once again, a bravura entry from this blog. At last I really understand how these techniques work; elegantly filmed too. Let us hope the BM survives, despite the prevailing political disdain for public institutions.
    Thank you all, from a 72 year old student, learning with your help, though far away in Brooklyn.

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 11,807 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

You can now explore #AfricanRockArt from #Chad with new images available online at www.britishmuseum.org/africanrockart 
Chad has thousands of rock art engravings and paintings, some up to 7,000 years old! 
Throughout the caves, canyons and shelters of the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, thousands of images have been painted and engraved, comprising one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara. A series of engravings at Niola Doa of groups of life-sized human figures have become especially renowned for their singularity and quality.
#art #rockart #Africa #Chad #engraving #painting This week we’re highlighting the #AfricanRockArt project, cataloguing 30,000 years of rock art.
Did you know that some rock art in #Niger is thought to be several thousand years old? Find out more about the rock art in Niger with new images online at www.britishmuseum.org/africanrockart
These spectacular life-size engravings of giraffe can be found at Dabous in Niger. Thought to date from between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, the engravings cannot be seen from ground level and are only visible by climbing onto the boulder.
#RockArt #Africa #giraffe #art #history Here’s an exquisite chalk drawing by Renoir, born #onthisday in 1841.

Renoir began his career as a painter of porcelain in Limoges, aged thirteen, before studying with Sisley and Monet at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His early work flitted between sober academic painting and freer, more colourful en plein air ('open-air') work. He was, with Monet, at the forefront of the movement that became known as Impressionism. The two artists painted side-by-side on occasion, most famously for their paintings of the popular bathing-spot La Grenouillère (1869), then just outside Paris on the banks of the Seine.

His later works concentrate on the female nude and he tended to emphasize simple forms and solidity, as well as relishing pink and orange flesh, as this study illustrates. Several versions of this pose survive, all probably intended as finished pieces rather than sketches for grander work.

Crippled by rheumatism in his last years, Renoir continued to paint with brushes jammed between his fingers. 'If painting were not a pleasure to me I should certainly not do it'.
#art #artist #Renoir #impressionism #history #drawing Charles Le Brun, who painted many of the ceilings at #Versailles, was born #onthisday in 1619. Here's one of his studies for a section of ceiling in the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles.
#art #drawing #history George Frederick Handel was born #onthisday in 1685. Here’s a portrait of the Baroque composer by British artist Richard Phelps
#history #music #composer Watching the #Oscars2015? You too can be inspired by Greek art in #DefiningBeauty @TheAcademy
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,807 other followers

%d bloggers like this: