El Dorado – Columbia’s ancient treasures in London

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

Bat ‘pectoral’ – AD900-1600. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

All that glitters is definitely gold at the British Museum’s new exhibition called Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Columbia.

Expect a gold rush of wonderful exhibits which shine brilliantly as you walk through this Aladdin’s cave of shimmering objects.

It’s hard to believe that many of the exhibits are between 1,000- 2,000 years old.

The legend of El Dorado is the focus of the exhibition – it was a tale that dazzled Europeans, especially the Spanish who came, saw and conquered Columbia.

They were intrigued by the many different stories which they heard about the legendary El Dorado. They imagined a lost city of gold and untold riches.

I was intrigued by one of those stories about a man covered in powdered gold who had plunged into the middle of Lake Guatavita, an early Columbian ‘King Midas’.

The Spaniards’ conviction that El Dorado was real was fuelled when they saw local people throwing gold offerings into the sacred waters of the same lake.

Helmet, Quimbaya, gold alloy, 500BC-AD600. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Golden helmet – 500BC-AD600. © The Trustees of the British Museum

El Dorado’s gold was something that the Spanish thought would bring them wealth and riches beyond their wildest dreams.

For the pre-Hispanic Columbians, gold was not valued for its monetary worth but for its symbolic meaning. For them it was important for many different types of social and spiritual transformations.

Like the ancient Egyptians, it was one way that the rich could assert their rank and status in life and death.

Some of my favourite pieces in the exhibition were the funerary objects that were buried with rich Columbians or used in ceremonies.

This ancient gold funerary mask reminds me of a sun god with its radiant hair, dangling discs for eyes and round face.

Funerary mask, Calima-Malagana, gold alloy, 100BC-AD400. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

Funerary mask – 100BC-AD400. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

Sadly I’ve never travelled to Columbia on holiday (too many drug barons) but should I get the chance, I’ll be heading straight for the Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) in Bogota.

Some of the exhibition pieces for the London show are also taken from the British Museum’s own impressive collection of Colombian artefacts.

Golden years

Poporo top with human faces, Quimbaya, AD600-1100. © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Poporo’ top with human faces – AD600-1100. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The dramatic works of art in the El Dorado exhibition inspire awe and amazement.

The ‘poporo’ (pictured above) is a puzzling object which is very beautiful but what was it used for?  I discovered that it was the top of a container for lime powder for the chewing of coca leaves during religious ceremonies.

I have to admit to not knowing very much about Columbia’s ancient history so this exhibition presented a fascinating insight into its vibrant cultures spanning from 1600 BC to AD 1600.

Necklace with claw shaped beads, Zenú, gold alloy, 200BC-AD1000. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

Necklace with claw shaped beads – 200BC-AD1000. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

But it’s much more than a history lesson – there’s a wealth of fascinating history relating to the spiritual lives of these ancient peoples.

Most fascinating is their relationships with animal spirits.

There are some gorgeous examples of objects inspired by animals including a golden crocodile, bird figures and necklaces with feline claws.

This animal iconography is taken to another level in the sublime  representations of men being transformed into bats through the use of body adornments.

They were like early versions of ‘Batman’ – complete with their ancient costumes and accessories.

I’m not convinced that we’d feel comfortable wearing some of the Columbians’ more extreme body jewellery today.

But these pieces have a huge visual impact and, in their day, they were considered to be important both spiritually and socially.

My favourites were a large gold bat ‘pectoral’ or chest piece (pictured above) and a nose ornament which was all of eight inches wide

I’m not sure how much the nose ornament weighs but it can’t have been especially light or comfortable to wear!

However, I did read that the early Columbians were keen on ceremonial events and hallucinogenic substances which no doubt eased the load.

The hallucinogens turned the Columbian’s ritual leaders into ‘animals’ like jaguars, lizards and bat men, with elaborate gold pieces being worn at special occasions and events.

I was fascinated by what drugs they took and would have liked extra information about their ancient drug taking!

Articulated nose ornament, Yotoco, gold alloy, 200BC-AD1200. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Nose ornament – 200BC-AD1200. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum


Bedazzled by gold

Whilst you’re being bedazzled by these exquisite golden pieces, there’s also a chance to explore the sophisticated gold working techniques used to create the objects.

Now normally this is where I’d skip the educational displays but to my surprise I found myself getting fascinated by something called the ‘lost wax process’.

I was also intrigued to find that most of the spectacular pieces were made of gold alloy or tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper.

By now, it was all getting a bit technical but the displays did reveal how the Columbian crafts people created these gorgeous  exhibits.

Seated female poporo, Quimbaya, gold alloy, AD600-1100. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Seated female  – AD600-1100. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

This whole show gave me the impression that I had wandered into the burial chamber of King Midas.

The many artfully-crafted figures include this seated female figure poporo with its exquisite shape and shimmering gold (see above).

There are numerous stunning necklaces – many of the designs are timeless and wouldn’t look amiss in my jewellery collection today (dream on).

Necklace of red stone and claw shaped beads, Tairona, gold alloy, AD900-1600. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

Necklace of red stone and claw shaped beads – AD900-1600. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.

By the end of the show I felt that I’d only touched the surface of the early Columbian culture.

I’ve always been better informed about the Aztecs (Mexico) and Incas (Peru) and although I’d learned something about early Colombia, I still wanted to know more.

The timescale of the exhibition is very broad which results in a lot of diverse pieces but perhaps means that the journey through the show is a little meandering.

Some later pieces show the dying embers of this golden age which was halted dramatically by the invasion of Spain in the 16th Century.

The Spanish invaders attempted to destroy the Columbians’ indigenous culture, as most European colonialists always seem to do.

But the Colombians did have the final laugh. The Spanish never did find the elusive, fabled city of El Dorado and its golden cache.

It remained an unobtainable dream, a legend, a myth, a figment of their greedy imaginations.

But the legacy of ‘El Dorado’ still shines on through the amazing artefacts from this ancient culture.

Go and be dazzled by these stunning golden art works – but you may need a weighty history book to learn the full story of Columbia’s golden age.

Tammy’s top tips

British Museum exterior

The British Museum

Beyond El Dorado is at the British Museum in London until 23 March 2014. There is an admission charge of £10 for this special exhibition but entry to the rest of the museum is free. The British Museum is open daily from 10:00-17:30 and with late opening on Friday nights.

The museum is located on Great Russell Street – the nearest Tube stations are Russell Square and Holborn.

Watch the video about the El Dorado exhibition below:

Whilst at the British Museum why not explore the rest of the permanent collection which includes two million fantastic items. You could get lost for hours – even days – in this museum.

Or simply do one of my favourite things – stroll around the Great Hall, dip into the side rooms and enjoy the ‘artefacts shop’ full of gorgeous goodies!

British Museum Great Court

The British Museum’s Great Court


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