Be­yond El Do­rado: Power and Gold in An­cient Colom­bia

The Church of England - - FEATURE -

Be­yond El Do­rado: Power and Gold in An­cient Colom­bia [Bri­tish Mu­seum un­til March 23], show­cas­ing 300 exquisitely crafted gold arte­facts span­ning the mil­len­nium from 1600 BC, fas­ci­nat­ingly re­veals both the re­li­gious world­view and so­cial sig­nif­i­cance be­hind these richly imag­i­na­tive cre­ations. The dis­plays fo­cus on re­gional cul­tures ab­sorbed into the Inca Em­pire two cen­turies be­fore the 16th­cen­tury Span­ish con­quest, the arte­facts sur­viv­ing the lat­ter’s pil­lage and gold lust be­cause they were pre­served in burial sites.

Plen­ti­ful but not used for cur­rency, gold in an­cient Colom­bia both adorned the wearer and pro­claimed their so­cial sta­tus, and more fun­da­men­tally ex­pressed spir­i­tual and psy­chic con­cepts through rit­u­als in­volv­ing spe­cially crafted gold or­na­men­ta­tion.

An­cient Colom­bian men and women adorned them­selves elab­o­rately for pub­lic oc­ca­sions, with ear­rings, nose pen­dants, breast dec­o­ra­tions and other items set on body paint. Tairona gold al­loy nose pieces in cir­cles and whirls, del­i­cate Zenu fili­gree ear­rings, and ge­o­met­ri­cally pat­terned Quin­maya hel­mets, re­veal re­mark­able di­ver­sity of styles. Gold was com­ple­mented by coloured stones and jaguars’ claws fash­ioned into strik­ing neck­laces. Fu­ner­als of tribal chiefs saw corpse and mourn­ers alike em­bel­lished with life­like golden masks eerily akin to an­cient Greek theatre props.

In an­cient Colom­bia’s an­i­mistic re­li­gious sys­tem, shaman­type fig­ures claimed to me­di­ate be­tween hu­man­ity, na­ture and the cos­mos, and time and eter­nity, ‘fly­ing’ be­tween these worlds in the spirit. For them and the wor­ship­pers, wear­ing spe­cially crafted gold or­na­ments was cen­tral to in­tri­cate rit­u­als, whose psy­chic ef­fects were fo­cused by mu­sic, dance and use of hal­lu­cino­genic plants.

Com­mu­nion with

an­i­mals, even meta­mor­pho­sis into them, was be­lieved pos­si­ble by wear­ing gold or­na­ments imag­ing jaguars, mon­keys, bats, birds and other crea­tures. The Tolima fish-bird­man pec­toral, Zenu ‘lob­ster man’ pen­dants, and strik­ing Cal­i­maMala­gana jaguar lime flask with nose or­na­ment, are among many ob­jects re­call­ing an­cient Colom­bian re­li­gious rit­u­als, with hu­man fig­urines hav­ing hands up­lifted as if in prayer.

This ex­hi­bi­tion splen­didly pre­sents an­cient Colom­bia’s as­ton­ish­ing artis­tic achieve­ment in gold and gold al­loy, and its close re­la­tion­ship to pre-Chris­tian re­li­gious prac­tice. It all prompted the Euro­peans’ leg­end of ‘El Do­rado’ (‘the golden one’) - per­haps a lost golden city, or the ac­tual corona­tion at Lake Gu­atavita of a king cov­ered in gold. Be­yond El Do­rado is at Bri­tish

Mu­seum un­til 23 March. Ad­mis­sion: £10; Con­ces­sions.

Brian Cooper

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