British Museum blog

The power of gold: communication, identity and transformation


Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

While admiring the stunning works of art in the exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, you might ask yourself who commissioned, owned and used such magnificent gold objects. In most cases, they were mainly in the hands of the powerful elites. However, depending on their final shape, they could have a very different function and meaning. In the exhibition we explore three of the main uses for these gold artefacts.

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro O00296

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O00296

Some were created as offerings to the gods, placed in rivers, lakes (such as Lake Guatavita), caves and other liminal places in the landscape, to mediate for the community. Votive offerings, which included ceramics, stones, and gold figures and scenes, were probably intended to petition the gods or to thank them for their intervention in favour of an individual, group or the wider community. These figurines, known as tunjos, give us a wonderful window into the life of those ancient people, portraying images that ranged from female figures with children to musicians, warriors and chiefs.

Gold objects were also widely used as body adornments. As such they marked the belonging of an individual to a group through a very specific style and type of ornament. They also indicated the status and rank of the wearer within the group. Gold objects acted as very public displays of power and identity with an incredible range of styles and shapes that included diadems, nose rings, ear spools and earrings, pectorals, necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Each group also mastered specific metalworking techniques that gave the final character and look to their pieces.

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC - AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro, O05928

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC – AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O05928

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro O26176

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O26176

But perhaps the most complex and intriguing use of gold was in rituals, ranging from musical instruments, paraphernalia used as part of the consumption of powerful plants, such as the chewing of coca leaves, to the rituals of transformation. In ancient Colombia people believed that by changing one’s physical appearance one would undergo a total transformation and take on the characteristics of the creature. But what did ancient Colombian people want to transform themselves into? Spiritual leaders wished to transform themselves into the powerful animals that surrounded them, such as jaguars, birds and even bats, to experience the world from a very different perspective. This transformation was aided by gold objects that helped in the long process that might have taken months or even years to achieve. Wonderful necklaces, impressive masks and body piercings, spectacular pectorals and other body adornments helped leaders take those magical journeys to gain knowledge of the world from a very different point of view and later recount back to the community all they has learned and experienced.

In ancient Colombia, gold was a powerful metal, which not only allowed people to communicate with the supernatural and display one’s identity as a member of a community, but it also allowed you to gain a new one.

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, , ,

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Reblogged this on Ace History News 2014 and commented:
    #AHN2014

    Like

  2. shirley kay says:

    we won the prize for tickets see the” beyond el dorado” we would like to thank Kate Carter of the British Museum we enjoyed our trip to London and the museum is marvellous never even managed to touch the sides of seeing the exhibits brilliant experience for all x

    Like

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

Join 11,851 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Born #onthisday in 1820: Sir John Tenniel, who illustrated the first edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Here's Alice and the Cheshire Cat
#books #history #illustration Every ‪#‎PayDay we're sharing a ‪#‎MoneyFact!
The first coin issued with the dollar denomination was not in the USA, but in West Africa by the British Sierra Leone company in 1791.
You can explore the history of money around the world in the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68): britishmuseum.org/money
#history #money #coins #coin #fact ‪#‎DefiningBeauty opens in one month! Look out for our highlight #FridayFigure each week. 
The exhibition brings these three sculptures together for the first time, creating new narratives.
These sculptures show the work of three of the greatest artists in ancient Greece: Phidias, Myron and Polyclitus. Myron’s discobolus (disc-thrower) is the perfect balance of opposites and Polyclitus' doryphoros (spear-bearer) is constructed on a precise set of ratios. In contrast, Ilissos is carved from life rather than arithmetically calculated. Discover more on tumblr: britishmuseum.tumblr.com
#exhibition #behindthescenes #installation #art #sculpture 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
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,851 other followers

%d bloggers like this: