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 🙂