Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia – Review

This British Museum exhibition certainly lived up to its name, with a stunning collection of golden artefacts – plus some equally nice if less shiny ceramics and textiles – created by the various different peoples who lived in what is now Colombia before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century C.E. As expected from the title, the focus was mainly on the use of these golden objects as part of these societies’ rituals and ceremonies. So there were items of jewellery to be worn during rituals, figurines of people or animals which may have had special spiritual meanings, and objects like ‘dipping pins’ for use in ceremonies (to be dipped into the coca-and-lime mixture used as a stimulant). There was also some explanation of the different techniques used in creating these objects, and in the different styles of gold-working found amongst the various different societies (such as the Muisca, Quimbaya, Calima and Tairona). In my opinion this was the most interesting part of the exhibition – the craftsmanship involved in making these golden objects was astounding, and both of these sections highlighted that very well.

Sadly the rest of the exhibition was not nearly so informative. The focus on ritual is understandable, but meant that there was little exploration of any other aspects of these obviously very complex societies – often the label of ‘ritual’ seemed to be assumed to be sufficient explanation for an object’s purpose, when without any further exploration of what this meant it was in fact pretty meaningless (what, exactly, does a label on a depiction of a warrior informing the reader that ‘war was practised as a form of ritual’ actually mean? I won’t start on the neighbouring label for a figurine of a woman, claiming that its existence ‘shows that women played a very important part in this society’…) The overall narrative of the exhibition felt rather like a retelling of the Greek ‘Golden Age’ myth (to put it charitably) or, to be less charitable, a colonial ‘noble savages’ story – a glimpse at a vanished time/place in which people lived in harmony with nature (albeit via hallucinogenic substances, if necessary) and valued gold purely because it was golden and shiny and sun-like and therefore of great spiritual significance rather than for any more mundane reason. I’m sure much of what it said about gold’s spiritual significance is true, but I’m also sure that things were more complicated than that; gold must presumably have had a place in whatever form of exchange networks existed in order for people to acquire it, and therefore a more ‘worldly’ value, as well as a spiritual one. Nor is a complex set of symbolism associated with gold remotely incompatible with its also having an extremely important economic value (see, e.g., pretty much every ancient and modern European society, for a start).

This kind of simplification was also visible in the combination of artefacts from so many different societies and time-periods. This is probably mainly the fault of the existing evidence: dating ancient Colombian finds is clearly extremely difficult (a date range of 600 years or so was about the most precise I saw in the whole exhibition), and there presumably isn’t always enough evidence to compare the many different societies which existed at once, let alone do any kind of diachronic study. Still, the odd reminder that these different peoples probably had quite different beliefs/rituals/etc in some respects, and that things probably didn’t stay exactly the same for over a thousand years, wouldn’t have gone amiss. Likewise there was little critical engagement with the documentary evidence – quotations from Spaniards who witnessed indigenous rituals were frequently cited, but I didn’t get any kind of sense of how these compared to the archaeological evidence – do objects like these confirm or contradict them, and to what extent are they interpreted through the lens of these ethnographic accounts anyway?

‘Beyond El Dorado’ entirely fulfilled the brief for the day, which was ‘let’s go to the British Museum and see some nice shiny gold objects’, and I therefore highly recommend it for that purpose – but I wouldn’t expect to leave feeling like you know all that much more about ancient Colombian societies than you did before. But if you do go and see it, or if you’ve already seen it, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments!

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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