Bogota’s Archeological Museum (MUSA) exhibits hidden indigenous treasures, including ceramics recovered from northern Colombia’s abandoned settlement Ciudad Perdida.
Local indigenous communities kept the 2,500-year-old site secret for decades, until 1972 when looters stumbled upon it while searching for Precolumbian artifacts. A sweltering, mosquito-infested kingdom, the looters originally named it “Green Hell,” before it was revealed to the public as “Ciudad Perdida” (Lost City) in 1975. To find it, the raiders had to trek deep into the Sierra Nevada jungle, near the Caribbean coast, but they were rewarded with a rich stash of artifacts, including gold figurines and ceramic urns.
Although now deemed safe for tourists, Ciudad Perdida has been a staging ground in Colombia’s 40-year-old civil conflict, with guerrilla insurgents and paramilitaries fighting for control of land which sits in a prominent coca growing and drug trafficking area.
In 2004, National Institute of Anthropology director Maria Uribe said, “With all these groups [around] Ciudad Perdida, we are very concerned for Ciudad Perdida and the surrounding areas.”
The anthropology institute has overseen the site’s protection for many years, and some of its treasures are now on show at the Archeological Museum in Bogota.
The collection is housed in the old colonial home of Jorge Miguel Lozano de Peralta, an 18th century marquis to the Spanish crown. To reflect the building’s history, a room separate from the rest of the museum contains Spanish religious art from his era. Everything else is dedicated to Colombia’s indigenous cultural heritage, with local ceramics and pottery taking center stage.
The first room contains a theme of the month. When Colombia Reports visited MUSA, a sculpture entitled “Thinking man,” dated 300BC-300AD, was put on show.
According to the museum’s head of education, Angelica Patricia Cordoba, the aim was to invite comparisons between the ceramic from the Tumaco region and Rodin’s 19th century masterpiece of the same name. The museum attempted to turn conventional artistic canons on their head — indigenous Colombians were doing what Rodin did, only two thousand years earlier.
The thoughtful comparison lays the foundations for the exploration of indigenous ceramics displayed in the rooms that follow. According to curators, the museum attempts to answer a number of questions, including where were these pottery-makers were from and what inspired them; how and where did they live; how can they be considered culture developers; how was art expressed in Precolumbian times and how was it affected by contact with the Spanish.
Ceramic was used for both its practicality and symbolic potential.
“Pottery fulfilled domestic and ritual purposes with such efficiency that ceramic objects found by archeology are irreplaceable documents for the reconstruction of Man’s everyday life at those times as much as the aesthetic, social, magical and religious values,” says the English and Spanish-language explanations accompanying the collection.
Villagers worshiped their leaders, and so they represented them in pottery, and sculptures, demonstrating the advances in scientific inquiry at the time. A ceramic man from the Quimbaya coffee region has ligaments and articulations in his legs, demonstrating a rich observation and study of the human body. The represented man was perhaps a shaman, since the sculpture contains holes in which birds’ feathers were placed. Birds’ flight was a metaphor for the psychological journeys shamans undertook under the influence of hallucinogenic plants.
Regional styles also become apparent. The Quimbaya man has the same ridges and flattened face as other sculptures by the same people. Works from Tairona, where Ciudad Perdida is located, are marked by their apparent association with objects brought over by the Spanish. The area was one of the first places to make contact with the conquistadors.
The museum is located in Bogota’s historical center the Candelaria and is open to the public everyday except Mondays. Entrance costs COP$3000 for adults.