The British Museum’s exhibition on Colombian gold conjures up a conquistador’s dream. Its precious treasures gleam in mysterious twilit galleries.
The rapacious Spanish conquerors were not totally wrong. There was a lot of gold in that part of the world.
There may even have been a ceremony at Lake Guatavita, in the mountains near Bogota, in which each new ruler, naked except for a coating of powered gold, was rowed out into the middle of the waters, where to the sound of flutes and singing, a fortune in golden objects was thrown overboard as an offering.
This is the source of the legend of El Dorado (the “gilded one”) which, as one 17th-century chronicler noted, “cost so many lives.” It also caused a lot of impoverishment to those who later tried to drain the lake and get at the loot. A little was discovered, never enough to cover costs.
Most of what was looted by the Conquistadors has vanished. A 16th-century law divided the possessions of native peoples into two categories. Items made of precious metals and stones were melted and turned into money. Objects made of less valuable materials were dubbed “idols of the devil” and destroyed.
The show demonstrates that this policy wasn’t successful. Quite a bit survived to be discovered by archaeologists, including many glittering golden objects. Most were made from an alloy known as “tumbago” rather than the pure metal.
Magnificent items are on display made from precious metals: human figures, necklaces, helmets and spear-throwers. There are pectorals and adornments in the shapes of jaguars, crocodiles, bats and birds.
The bright color of the metal, together with the fact that it didn’t rust, led craftsmen to connect it with the power of the sun and the energy of the world. This is why it was so suitable for offerings and grave goods.
A section is devoted to ornamented dippers used to add an extra buzz while one was chewing coca leaves. People licked powdered lime off this accessory, thus, according to the catalog, “enhancing the stimulating effect” of the coca.
The ancient Colombians were keen on consciousness-altering experiences derived from coca and other plants. A priest told a Spanish visitor, how under the influence of one of these, he had flown a long distance through the air like a bird.
These lost cultures had attractive beliefs in shape shifting -- and terrible ideas, such as human sacrifice. Children were tied to posts while arrows were shot at them.
You leave the exhibition feeling that this lost world remains mysterious. The conquistadors did their work of destruction all too well.
“Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia” is at the British Museum through March 23, 2014. Sponsored by Julius Baer Group Ltd., additional support by American Airlines.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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