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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