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

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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, , ,

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.

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

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

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