El Dorado, I always believed to be a mythical city by a lake that was stack full of sacrificial gold. I’m not alone: Sir Walter Raleigh thought the same and devoted his last expedition to finding the City and draining its lake of treasure. But it turns out that El Dorado means “the Golden One” and refers to a King covered in gold dust, as with all myths there turns out to be a germ of truth buried deep within.
Before the Spanish arrived in 1499 the region which now comprises modern Columbia had a complex network of societies where the people did indeed revere gold for its beauty. Gold was used to indicate rank in death and as well as life but significantly it is not believed to have been used as currency. The Musica people did have a ceremony in which the new leader was covered in gold dust and then floated out into the middle of Lake Guatavita (near modern Bogotá) to make offerings. This exhibition looks at the incredible artefacts from six of these socieites.
Metal working began in the area over 4,000 years ago but it is thought that in around 500BC the art of gold working was mastered. The breakthrough was the discovery of making alloys from gold and copper that made the metal easier to work whilst also making the end product harder and more durable. The gold could be hammered into sheets so thin that the objects quiver in their cases as you walk by. Faces and bodies would be adorned with pieces like this nose adornment that must have covered almost the entire face.
Gold was not the only thing used to adorn bodies during ceremonials. There are some incredible feather headbands on display – so contemporary you feel that you could go out and buy them in Accessorise. Body painting was also used and to save on repetitive pattern painting they had special rollers to apply the paint.
All sorts of animals were depicted in gold by the craftsmen. Creatures that lived in the water were viewed as being able to live between the earth and the underworld and were venerated. Similarly birds and bats were thought to move between heaven and earth. This incredible bat would have been worn on the chest and show that ancient metal workers were just as adept at casting metal as beating it.
Other explorers followed Raleigh to try and drain the lake right up until the 1960’s but it is now a national park and protected from further disturbance.
Beyond El Dorado is well worth a visit, just make time you leave enough time for coffee in the wonderful Great Court of the museum.
BEYOND EL DORADO: Power and gold in ancient Columbia.
British Museum until 23 March 2014.