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.

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

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

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 11,523 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Charlemagne died #onthisday in 814. Very few of his surviving coins carry the imperial title – this gold solidus from the port of Dorestad describes him as king of the Franks and the Lombards
#history #coins #Charlemagne 'We are all fools in love' – Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was first published #onthisday in 1813.  Here's a wood-engraved illustration by Helen Binyon from 1938
#illustration #JaneAusten #books #history English artist Samuel Palmer was born #onthisday in 1805. He made this painting late in his career, when his critical reputation was higher than it had ever been. It is a representation of late evening: quiet and meditative, even idyllic. The sun has already set, leaving a purplish glow in the sky; the moon and the evening star can be seen in the clear sky above. There is a sense of the chill of early autumn in the colours. Dark-coloured birds, probably rooks, are circling in the sky above the castle on the river, while a single white bird flies across the river.
London, about 1878.
#history #art #watercolour #painting Born #onthisday in 1832: Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This illustration from the final chapter shows Alice upsetting the twelve creatures of the jury 
#history #illustration #AliceinWonderland #books Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born #onthisday in 1756. Here he is, aged 8, not long before the Mozart family arrived in London in 1764
#mozart #music #history Inscriptions on this mummy’s case tell us that Padiamenet worked as the Chief Doorkeeper of the temple of Ra (or Egyptian ‘bouncer’!) and also as the Chief Barber of the temple of Ra and Amun #MummyMonday 
Using the latest technology, our #8mummies exhibition unlocks hidden secrets to build up a picture of the lives of eight people in the Nile Valley over a remarkable 4,000 years – from prehistoric Egypt to Christian Sudan.
#mummy #mummies #history
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,523 other followers

%d bloggers like this: