Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia (British Museum Exhibition)

One of the British Museum‘s current exhibitions is Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia which runs until March. We went to see it in the afternoon before the recent British Museum Members’ Open Evening (which I wrote about here and here). The jumping off point for the exhibition is the legend of El Dorado which lured Spanish adventurers into Colombia. The way the legend is most remembered now is as telling of a city paved with gold, but the original Spanish adventurers wrote of a man or king coated in gold. From this starting point the exhibition looked at what role gold played in the civilisations of pre-Hispanic Colombia, and more generally at the rituals of these societies.

There was a certain degree of overlap between the subject of the exhibition and a TV programme we watched earlier this year – the third episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America was about Colombia and the El Dorado myth (post). Not really a surprise as the presenter of that series was Jago Cooper, who is a curator at the British Museum, although not the curator for this exhibition (who is Elisenda Vila Llonch).

The exhibition contained objects from six different cultures from the Colombia region, but I’m afraid I didn’t end up remembering which object was which specific culture. Apart from at the very start the exhibition was focussing on a higher level – the equivalent of discussing early modern Europe as a whole rather than a country in particular. Near the beginning of the exhibition they had a timeline showing the periods that the six cultures had existed – as always I’m startled by how recent they are. In part because J’s interest in ancient Egypt has pushed my concept of “ancient” back a long way, and so anything in the last millenium is “practically modern”. I shouldn’t be surprised tho, these were all cultures in existence when the Spanish came to the Americas, so obviously they must have existed in the late 1500s.

Gold wasn’t valuable in Colombia in the same way that is valuable in our culture – it wasn’t currency instead it had spiritual and symbolic importance, which varied in its details between the cultures. After setting the scene by talking about how the various objects were made the exhibition moved on to talking about how they were used and what their significance was. One culture, the Muisca, had the most obviously different attitude to their gold objects – they weren’t even what we would consider “finished”, i.e. not polished. And then generally the objects were put in significant locations like in caves or lakes. Even as recently as the 20th Century there were Westerners scheming to do things like drain the most significant of the lakes so that all the gold could be retrieved, which is somewhat saddening (it didn’t happen tho).

The other cultures did use their gold objects in ways we’d recognise – as jewellery, as decorative containers etc. One room of the exhibition looked at the jewellery and showed how it was often a status indicator. This room also talked about other status indicators in these societies – like body paint, which can convey messages about who you are in your society and what society you’re from. Another status indicator is representation of people sitting on stools – this always indicates high status.

The jewellery is very elaborate & large, and it often has little moving parts which will move around when the person wearing it moves – and reflect the sun or firelight. This ties in when use of these ornaments in religious rituals, particularly involving lime & coca leaves. The next room of the exhibition talked about these rituals, and displayed some objects associated with them. Taken together lime & coca leaves are hallucinogenic, and the exhibition had several lime containers & dipping sticks – from more basic ones to elaborate and decorative ones. The rituals also involved music, and movement – the way the jewellery the participants were wearing shimmered & jingled would’ve added to the general ambience.

The motifs chosen to decorate the jewellery and other objects also had religious significance. The next room of the exhibition had several pieces that had representations of things from the natural world. Some of these were as straightforward as a necklace made of gold beads shaped to look like jaguar claws – effectively a more high status version of a necklace of jaguar claws. Others were more symbolic – like pectorals shaped like a half-bat half-man figure. Often the belief was that the shaman wearing an item representing a particular creature would take on the essential characteristics of that creature during his hallucinogenic trance – for instance fly across the landscape with the wings of the bird figure he was wearing.

It was an interesting exhibition – but I’m aware I was missing a lot of the nuances because I know so little about the region and the peoples who lived there. If we go to the museum again before the exhibition finishes I think I’ll go through again for a second look 🙂

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The third episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America was about El Dorado – and the cultures that might’ve been the truth behind this Spanish legend. The legend as we know it today is about a golden city, but the original Spanish writers talk about a man who scatters gold dust over himself “as if it were salt” and washes it off in a sacred lake – a man who regards the wearing of solid gold ornaments as “vulgar”.

The culture that probably gave rise to these legends are the Muisca who lived in southern Colombia until around 1600AD. They were a couple of loose confederations of villages covering quite a large area – no single leader for the whole group, but they shared a culture. There’s DNA evidence from burials that’ve been excavated which shows that the elite were not a hereditary caste – the burials with lots of grave goods aren’t more related to each other than they are to the burials without grave goods. The archaeologist telling us about this bit said they also didn’t use violence to determine who had power, but I’m not sure what he was basing that on.

They didn’t appear to regard gold as valuable in itself, nor did they wear gold ornaments. Gold is also not found on Muisca lands. But they did trade salt they mined from their land for gold from other peoples – and they ascribed spiritual significance to it and used it to make offerings to their gods. Cooper spoke to a man whose people carried on some of the ancient traditions and their stories tell that one of the rituals took place on a sacred lake, and this could well be the source of the El Dorado legend.

The form of their offerings (well, the ones that have survived) were little flat figures, each one uniquely decorated. They were made by the lost wax method of casting, where first you make a wax model of the thing you want to make, then you encase it in clay and fire that (so that the wax evapourates) and then pour in the molten metal. When it sets, you break it out of the mould. Cooper visited a man who makes replicas of these today, which was kinda neat – he used a blowtorch to melt the gold 🙂 The figurines are distinctive not just in decoration but because they don’t really seem finished – as they were never worn or displayed they haven’t been polished and there are still rough edges from breaking it out of the mould.

Cooper also talked about the Tairona culture who lived in north eastern Colombia on the Caribbean coast. They were a culture that had a common ancestral language & culture with the Muisca, that had originated in Mesoamerica. The Tairona also put spiritual significance on gold, but expressed this differently – their gold ornaments were very different in style (including reclining bat-men as fertility symbols) and they were finished & polished. Their significance was to do with their shininess, and other shiny things were also spiritually significant. There are descendents of the Tairona still living in Colombia today, and still living in traditional villages – there was a segment of the programme in one of their villages with Cooper talking to one of the few of the villagers who spoke Spanish.

The second episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City covered the rise & fall of Christian Rome from the beginnings of Christianity until the Popes left Rome for France in the 14th Century. At the beginnings of Christianity’s presence in Rome it was just another one of the many small cults that had sprung up in the empire (like the Mithras cult we listened to an In Our Time about the other day). The thing that set Christianity apart was that Christians refused to make the proper sacrifices to the state gods (like the Emperor) and so when scapegoats were needed it was easy to see them as unpatriotic. So they were persecuted and their deaths were often public spectacles – especially during the reign of Diocletian.

This changed when the Emperor Constantine won an impressive victory after ordering his soldiers to display the sign of the cross. After this he tolerated, and promoted, Christianity within the western Roman Empire – even converting himself on his death bed. One of the things Montefiore showed us in the programme was one of the relics that the Emperor’s mother brought from Jerusalem to Rome. I knew she’d brought what she thought to be the cross that Jesus was crucified on to Rome, but I hadn’t known she’d brought a staircase back with her! This is apparently the staircase that Jesus walked up on the way to his trial by Pontius Pilate, and even today pilgrims come to go up it on their knees so that they have touched the place that Jesus put his feet.

St Peter (one of the apostles) was one of the early Christian martyrs in Rome – the obelisk he was crucified in front of still stands outside the church that was built over his tomb (St Peter’s Basilica). The Roman bishops used this link with St Peter to strengthen their position in the church – saying that they were better than other bishops because they were the successors of an apostle. Montefiore showed us the tombs of the early bishops of Rome, which have their title “Papa” which as their status increased gradually became the title of the supreme head of the (latin) Church.

The programme covered the next thousand or so years pretty quickly, dwelling on just a few stories. The first of these was the fall of Rome – sacked by the barbarians, who were actually also Christians (albeit of a different type). And another was the period around the 10th Century which is sometimes called the Pornocracy (it really is! or at least wikipedia agrees with my recollection of the programme). This was a scandalous period with a family that makes the Borgia legend seem tame – one of the key figures was a woman who was the lover of at least one Pope, had at least one Pope murdered and made sure her son (by a Pope) was raised to be Pope himself. Other Popes of the time were related to her family as well – one was her grandson.