Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in Ancient Columbia

The pre-commodity life of a precious metal

This exhibition  is the outcome of a fruitful collaboration with the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Columbia. Curated by Elisenda Vila Llonch, it successfully achieves its aim of looking beyond the standard European myth of El Dorado as a dream of profit and material wealth, and conveying the values and beliefs of the different Amerindian societies that made up ancient Columbia through the gold and other materials they produced and left behind.

The majority of the objects on display come from the Museo del Oro’s collections of pre-Hispanic metalwork and conveys a glimpse of the exciting archaeological research carried out in recent years under its auspices.

Anthropomorphic bat pectoral, Tairona, gold alloy, AD900-1600. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

Early European explorers of Columbia returned home with enticing tales of gold that eventually prompted Spanish conquest and occupation in the early sixteenth century. In Ancient Columbia, however, gold had no commodity or economic value but instead had all-important cultural and spiritual functions.

Communities in the Muisca region made exquisite gold derived objects known as tunjos featuring male, female and animal figures that were offered by their spiritual leaders as gifts to the gods when the natural world seemed out of balance, for instance when crops perished due to rainfall failure.  

Moreover, their bright yellowish colour, durability and reflective properties gave gold objects special powers which were associated with the divine star of the sun. A person wearing a gold item would have a direct connection with the divine and partake of its creativity and fertility. Gold thus represented the sun’s regenerative powers and acted as a mediator between humans and the supernatural world.

Mask with nose ornament, Quimbaya, gold alloy, 500 BC – AD 1600. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Based on recent archaeological research, the exhibition focuses on six regions that have been studied and illuminates the rich and diverse cultural life of the different communities that inhabited them between 600 and 1600 AD, when they were overwhelmed by the Spanish conquistadores.

Displayed are some amazingly refined gold-based objects like the flasks and vessels crafted in the shape of human figures by artists and metalworkers from the Quimbaya region, and used as portable containers for coca leaves. Known as poporos, these objects were not made purely from gold, but out of a combination of gold and copper which created a stronger and easier to cast metal called tumbaga. Tumbaga objects were often made for use in ritual ceremonies involving spiritual leaders. The chewing of coca and other hallucinogenic substances enabled spiritual leaders to transform themselves into animal or bird spirits, see the world from a different perspective, and communicate with gods and ancestors.

But as the Exhibition demonstrates, fixation on gold objects alone fails to do justice to the rich range of other materials used and valued in the everyday life of these indigenous pre-Hispanic communities, including cotton textiles, stone and shell made objects and, particularly, ceramics. Notably striking ceramic exhibits are the human figures with body painting crafted in an enticing blend of colours, the remarkable jaguar-shaped vessel with spouts from the Calima region, and the funerary chair from the Tolina region.

Figurine rattle, late Quimbaya, ceramic, AD 700–1600. © The Trustees of the British Museum

These materials were sourced from the local environment and it is clear that pre-Hispanic indigenous communities saw themselves as closely intertwined with the natural world, sharing a common spirit with animals, plants, rivers and mountains. The people of the mountainous Tairona region saw themselves as guardians of the lands, forests and waters that surrounded them.

The Exhibition brilliantly evokes the natural world of the ancient Columbians by displaying remarkable examples of masks, musical instruments, ornaments and decorative wear featuring jaguars, monkeys, bats and frogs.

Beyond El Dorado challenges the poverty of our modern secular imagination.