Power and Transformations: Beyond El Dorado at the British Museum

By Sarah Jackson | 28 October 2013

Exhibition review: Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, British Museum, London, until March 23 2014

Anthropomorphic bat pectoral jewellery.
Anthropomorphic bat pectoral, Tairona, gold alloy, AD900-1600.© Museo del Oro, Banco de la Republica, Colombia
“Gold is the most exquisite thing...Truly, for gold [a man] can gain entrance for his soul into paradise.”

So said Christopher Columbus in 1503, when Spanish explorers first “discovered” the New World and became entranced by a desire for wealth and legends of golden cities. It seems difficult to believe that Columbus’ lust for gold could in any way justify the brutal accounts accusing him of tyranny and genocide.

The power that gold holds over humans - both materially and spiritually - is ably explored in the British Museum’s latest exhibition.

El Dorado (literally meaning “the golden one”) refers to the name given to the Muisca tribal chief who as part of an initiation ritual, would be covered in gold dust and then dive into the Guatavita Lake, while other precious objects were also thrown into the lake as an offering.

This act reveals the inherent difference between native and Spanish attitudes to gold. To the indigenous people of what is now Colombia, gold was highly symbolic and a tool to be used to communicate with the spiritual world. To the Spanish, it was currency.

Perhaps it was this difference of belief that allowed the quick transformation from the ritual of El Dorado into the legend of a lost kingdom made of gold. It must have shocked Spanish explorers to see such precious objects apparently being thrown away.

Seated female poporo (flask) made of gold alloy.
Seated female poporo, Quimbaya, gold alloy, AD600-1100.© The Trustees of the British Museum
The question of why gold was charged with such power hardly needs to be explained. Even the gold foil that covers the first wall you see when entering the exhibition space is entrancing. The galleries themselves are low lit, with black walls and cases that cause the objects to seemingly hover in the darkness. It is entrancing.

The colour and shimmer of gold suggests both warmth and wealth; across the world, in almost every society, gold is associated with high status. Individuals may have different tastes, but as a species we certainly appear to have a similar predilection for gold.

All of the gold objects in the exhibition have a connection to rituals used to communicate with the spirit world. Gold votive figures called tunjos were fashioned into the shape of male, female and animal figures; some even depicted whole scenes. Although intricately made and beautiful, tunjos were left unpolished and casting mistakes were not fixed; these were not mere objects of beauty to be admired but were important tools in rituals.

Tribal chiefs enjoyed spiritual as well as worldly power; taking advice from spiritual leaders, they communicated with the spirit world on behalf of the whole community. Achieving contact with the spirit world meant transforming the leader into something extraordinary.

Body piercings, scarification and body paint may have been used to create a second skin; on top of this dazzling chest plates, diadems, huge earrings and nose rings with dangling pieces that even now in their cases dance and wink in the light.

It’s easy to see how, wearing this, and accompanied by the whole community dancing and playing music, anybody wearing such ornaments could fall into a trance. And that’s before we even talk about the hallucinogenic drugs involved…

The exhibition itself puts you in a sort of trance. Surrounded with so much gold, illuminated against the soft blackness and whispered conversations of visitors, its easy to find yourself gazing dreamily at a particular piece for quite some time.

Gold alloy bird pectoral jewellery.
Bird pectoral, Popayan, gold alloy, AD100-1600.© The Trustees of the British Museum
Added to this was a droning sound of what at first I thought might be some kind of broken air conditioning unit. As I moved through the galleries, however, it became clear that the noise is intentional.

In a room dedicated to sacred animals, a soundtrack of crickets, bird calls and other “jungle” noises plays. Projections of jaguars and other animals light up the wall. It feels a little jarring as none of the other rooms have any gimmicks like this, but the use of sound certainly increased the feeling that this space represented a departure to the normal world outside. Indeed, stepping outside the exhibition and back into the cool grey of the Great Court felt jarring; the world seemed a little duller.

It also felt a bit sadder. The text panel for a stunning chest ornament depicting a bird-man notes that the images and symbols that an indigenous craftsman adorned it with “reflect a vision of their world but often their meaning remains a mystery to us”.

Gold was but one of many valuable materials to native peoples, but it is the only one to survive in any kind of quantity. Many other ceramics, feathered headdress, colourful patterned cotton cloth and more were called “idols of the devil” and destroyed by Spanish explorers. Funny how gold objects seem to have been considered less blasphemous.

The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the brutality of colonialism but nor does it really confront it. What it does reveal is that whether we value it as a currency or a spiritual tool, gold has the power to transform – for better or for worse.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Fridays). Admission £10 (concessions available). Book online. Follow the museum on Twitter @britishmuseum.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

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

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

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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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