The British Museum began an exhibition on Thursday titled “Beyond El Dorado,” featuring a new perspective on pre-Hispanic Colombia through works of gold and precious goods on loan from Bogota‘s Museo del Oro.
“The title is ‘Beyond El Dorado’ and that’s exactly what the exhibition does,” the curator of the exhibit, Elisenda Vila Llonch, told Colombia Reports.
“The exhibition goes beyond the myth behind El Dorado, the myth constructed by Westerners and Europeans when they reached the shores of what is now Colombia and were dazzled and fascinated by the amounts of gold that they saw,” said Vila Llonch.
“This exhibition will explore what is behind the myth: the richness and diversity of a pre-Hispanic Colombian people.”
The culmination of a project that has been years in the making, the British Museum finally opened it’s much anticipated exhibit featuring gold figurines and ornaments, silver pieces, copper work, featherwork, pottery, and textiles from Colombia dating back as far as 1600 BC and as early as 1700 AD.
“The British Museum has been talking with the Colombian Embassy here for years…Finally all the facts aligned so that we could work with Colombia.”
England’s famous museum with one of the most extensive collections in the world contacted Bogota’s famous Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) and arranged to borrow over 200 pieces to display alongside the British Museum’s own 100 pieces from that era for a five month long exhibition.
Vila Llonch explained that the museum seeks to answer the questions why, who, what, and how as the visitor travels throughout the sea of gold. Why is gold special? Who used or owned these items? What did they use them for? How were they found?
Why is gold important?
“Why was gold important to these people? Why gold?” Vila Llonch emphasized. The curator explained that gold didn’t have any monetary or economic value to those who produced it. On the contrary, “for these people, the value was symbolic.” These artifacts, many of which actually were made up of a mixture of gold, silver and copper, represented a whole existence and way of living for these pre-Hispanic Colombians.
“Gold is strongly associated with the sun for its brilliance, shine, color and representation of male power. Copper and silver are metals that decay, go through cycles, and are much associated with the moon because of the color. They are also associated with the night and the female side. So in a way every time one of these pieces was created, the result was a microcosm combining the sun the moon the day the night the male and the female forces of the universe,” Vila Llonch explained.
She added that the spirituality aspect should not overshadow the incredible skill that it took to make these pieces. “They were all very much made by expert hands that knew how to master all the levels of complexity with these pieces.”
Who owned these pieces?
On the question of who, most of the artifacts come from the Muisca, Quimbaya, Calima, Tairona, Tolima and Zenú chiefdoms. Furthermore the only people who would really have access to these precious treasures would be the elite leaders of the respective populations.
“The leaders were granted powers with these extra precious materials and these extra powers gave them connection with the supernatural,” said Vila Llonch.
What were they used for?
In addition to generally giving these leaders special powers, these objects were believed to be used for three primary things: making offerings, displaying identity and power, and transformation.
“As offerings to the Gods, these objects would be thrown into lakes or down rivers,” said the curator. In particular she mentioned Lake Guatavita which resides 35 miles northeast of Bogota and is famed for being where the legend of the city of El Dorado originated.
“They would also be used to display identity and power [and the museum does a good job of] showing the diversity in the styles and iconography and choice of metal techniques [unique to] each one of the archeological areas that we explore [in the exhibition]… [each chiefdom in] pre-Hispanic Colombia shows very distinct styles and choices.
Finally Vila Llonch explained the third idea of transformation, and how these objects were very tied to reincarnation in the afterlife. If one were a leader of a community and had a gold jaguar or bat or bird, then one would either take hallucinogenic drugs and embody these animals or pass on and embody these other creatures. “It’s a physical and spiritual journey and you would learn about the world from another perspective…and then come back to the community and communicate the message and the knowledge that you have learned,” she illustrated.
This demonstrates even more proof that this gold was much more meaningful to the pre-Hispanic Colombians than the El Dorado myth ever made it out to be.
How were they found?
Besides the pieces that were found at the bottoms of lakes or elsewhere in the landscapes as offerings, most of the artifacts were retrieved from tombs across Colombia.
When prompted about what one should not miss upon traveling to one of London’s most visited tourist attractions, Elisenda Vila Llonch did not hesitate in picking a favorite work of art.
“Of course they are all exceptional pieces, but one of my favorites is a small container called a ‘poporo’ that was used in the ritual of chewing coca leaves,” the curator began, “and it was used to make an alkaline reaction between the powder of a small crushed shell and coca leaves that would give people extra strength.”
This ‘poporo’ which belonged to the Quimbaya chiefdom is “highly crafted” and has a “naturalistic” ornate person sitting on top of it symbolizing power, stability, and knowledge. “The complexity to produce this piece is exceptional,” said Vila Llonch affectionately.
“What’s interesting though, is that the figure that you see seated, many think is the highest man, but it’s not. It’s a woman. A female. It is a piece that surprises on many levels,” the curator concluded.
“Beyond El Dorado” will be on display in the British Museum in London, England from October 17 until March 24, 2014. Two major sponsors are Julius Baer banking group and American Airlines.
- Interview with Elisenda Vila Llonch
- Londres disfruta finalmente del oro de El Dorado (El Espectador)
- Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia (British Museum)