Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia
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.
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.