Modern Colombia boasts a treasure trove of ancient sites, including the mountain city of Ciudad Perdida (see CWA 53), the megalithic sculptures at San Agustín, and the burial chambers of Tierradentro. The country’s star attraction, though, is Bogotá’s Museo del Oro – often cited as one of South America’s greatest museums, and home to more than 55,000 pieces of gold and artefacts from Colombia’s major pre-Hispanic cultures.
Set across four exhibition galleries, the Museo del Oro explores the enduring relationship of ancient Colombia’s inhabitants with gold and metallurgy. Visitors are taken on a glittering journey through the mining, manufacture, and finishing process of the metal (using lost-wax casting), and into the mythology and sacred symbolism of each gold piece.
The remarkable variety of crafted gold is best exhibited in the museum’s unique collection of golden poporos – containers that held powdered lime to mix with chewed coca leaves, with metal pins to extract the mixture. Fashioned from layers of sheet gold, these poporos take the form of animals, plants, and, in one highly skilled piece, a seated female figure.
The inhabitants of ancient Colombia started working with gold and copper around 500 BC, and for 2,000 years craftsmen mastered complex metalworking techniques. Intricate gold objects in the museum include diadems, bird-shaped breastplates, and funerary masks – used by the ruling elite to reinforce power, prestige, and religion. Displays of simple yet symbolic ornaments used by ordinary people also remind the visitor of the universal appeal of gold: it guarded against evil, appeased the gods, and enriched the afterlife.
In 1499, the first Spanish conquistadors set foot on present-day Colombian soil and were astonished by the region’s wealth. The 16th-century historian López de Gómara later observed, ‘they pick up gold wherever they want… in that river and in others, and sometimes they even fish out nuggets of pure gold, the size of eggs’. Seductive rumours of fabulous treasures soon gave birth to the tale of a mighty chieftain covered in gold, known as El Dorado or ‘the Golden One’.
The legend of El Dorado originated from the Muisca people and their sacred Lake Guatavita, 56km north-east of modern Bogotá. As the Spanish advanced on the Muisca territory in 1537, they heard stories of a dazzling ritual where the chieftain was covered in gold dust, and threw piles of emeralds and gold into the lake – a symbolic offering to the gods.
The museum explores our enduring fascination with El Dorado, and showcases a sublime exhibition highlight – a pure gold votive object (or tunjo) known as the Muisca Raft. Discovered in 1969, this masterpiece depicts a raft with a gilded chieftain at the centre, adorned with elaborate headdresses. Surrounding masked figures carry banners, while a group of men paddle the raft to the centre of a sacred lake, to ritually sacrifice a bounty of treasures to the dark waters below.
As the conquistadors’ thirst for gold reached fever pitch, the Spaniards plundered the Muisca’s riches, and continued on their obsessive quest to discover more El Dorados. The Museo del Oro’s outstanding collection attests to the ancient Colombian practice of burying gold with the deceased, and of making ritual offerings to lakes and caves. These buried gold pieces survived centuries of looting by foreign invaders, and now honour us with a unique glimpse into this magnificent world of ancient artistry.
Tom St John Gray is a documentary film-maker and freelance journalist with a special interest in heritage.
Text & images: Tom St John Gray