All That Glitters: Indigenous Colombians’ Gold Masterpieces on Display

All That Glitters: Indigenous Colombians’ Gold Masterpieces on Display

By: 
Sara Shahriari
12/25/11

The Spanish arrived in South America in the early 1500s in search of land, slaves, souls and riches. They were not disappointed with what they found, especially when it came to gold. Indigenous peoples of South America had­ been mining and working with the precious metal for thousands of years, creating finely crafted treasure. The Spanish quickly stripped the Andean Inca Empire of thousands of pounds of gold and began to exploit the largest silver mine in the world in Bolivia.

So much gold and silver sailed over the sea to Europe it’s hard to believe any of it was left in South America. But as the Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia shows, much remained hidden away in secret tombs and sacred sites. The pieces on display at the museum are part of the largest collection of pre-Columbian South American gold work in the world, and tell the stories of more than a dozen indigenous societies through exhibits that focus on metalwork, culture and cosmology. It would take thousands of pages to tell the stories of all the objects in the collection, but looking at a few key pieces opens windows on the distant past.

Gold was important to many South American societies before Europeans arrived on the continent, but not as money. Instead its importance was religious and ceremonial, as a beautiful offering to the gods or a sign of status and power. In a move to preserve ancient goldworks that remained in Colombia instead of seeing them destroyed or sold to private collectors, the museum made its first major acquisition in 1939: a container from the Quimbaya people called the Poporo Quimbaya. The simple vessel’s smooth gold surface and organic shape are strikingly modern, even though it was crafted between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago.

Quimbaya goldsmiths often made softly rounded human figures or gourd-shaped containers that resemble a womb. The Poporo Quimbaya is just such a vessel, and was probably used during religious ceremonies. It held lime, the base substance that is still used in Andean South America to enhance the effects of chewing the coca leaf.

Unlike the Quimbaya, who lived in the mountains near the Pacific coast, the Zenu people lived on the hot, wet Caribbean coastal plains where their survival was tied to a canal system that controlled flooding and made agriculture possible. The web-like imagery of that canal system was reflected in many aspects of Zenu life, from fishing nets to textiles to delicate gold earrings. Though earrings the Zenu crafted appear woven, they were cast from a mould using a technique called the lost wax method.  Other common themes in Zenu goldwork are the fish, lizards and water birds that inhabited their marshy home. Zenu people still live near Colombia’s Caribbean coast today, where they are in danger from paramilitaries.

The Gold Museum’s most famous piece is a small sculpture from the Muisca people that may have inspired the story of El Dorado, a mythical city of unimaginable richness that the Spanish searched for and never found. The sculpture, called the Muisca Raft, shows a leader and his attendants sailing. Accounts from after the Spanish arrived in South America tell that when a new Muisca leader rose to power he was covered in gold and rode on a raft to the middle a sacred lake where he threw offerings of emeralds and gold into the water. The story of a people so rich they cast treasure into the water could be the seed of the legend of El Dorado that seduced the Spanish colonizers.

The Spanish conquest decimated the indigenous peoples of South America. The Gold Museum stands as a testament to their art, a glimpse into their lives before the Spanish arrived, and a reminder of the power gold has wielded in the lives of people around the world and through the centuries.

IF YOU GO: The Gold Museum in Bogota offers tours in Spanish and English, and it takes at least a half-day to explore. The museum website is available in English at: http://www.banrep.gov.co/museo/eng/home.htm

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