British Museum's El Dorado exhibition shines light on ancient Andeans

Colombia's little-understood pre-Hispanic cultures are revealed in their full complexity with this display of gold artefacts

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Stories of El Dorado, the fabled land of gold somewhere in the Americas, have fuelled fantasies and destroyed lives. Over the centuries countless adventurers, Sir Walter Raleigh among them, have set forth in search of its untold riches.

Now a new exhibition at the British Museum seeks to unpick the curious legend of El Dorado and show the Andean peoples who inspired it in all their complexity – as cultures who valued gold as highly as the European adventurers who greedily deprived them of it, but not for its economic value.

Rather, for the pre-Hispanic peoples who inhabited what is now Colombia, gold was a material of mystical significance, crafted into beautiful adornments and ritual objects – a means, according to the British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, "of connecting with the spiritual realm". "Gold," said the exhibition's curator, Elisenda Vila Llonch, "was related for these peoples to the supernatural, to the sun. It could imbue those who wore it with some of the sun's power."

The exhibition brings together 300 objects from the Museo del Oro (gold museum) in Bogotá, most of them never seen in Britain before, with artefacts from the British Museum's collections.

The peoples of pre-Hispanic Colombia – including the Zenú and Quimbaya – are little understood, according to Vila Llonch. Unlike the Mayans, they did not use writing to record their deeds; unlike the Aztecs they were small communities, not brought together by a unifying imperial power.

The Spanish adventurers who encountered them wrote accounts of what they saw – including one of a ritual on Lake Guatavita, in which el dorado ("the gilded one"), a man covered in powdered gold, would float out into the centre of the lake on a raft heaped with gold ornaments and emeralds. He would cast the cargo into the water as an offering to the gods.

But the archaeological record – such as it is after centuries of looting, melting down and shipping ingots to Europe – shows, said Vila Llonch, that though European observers may have been blinded by the gleam of precious metal, other valued materials were used in the Andean people's rituals, too. "Ceramics, featherwork, shells and textiles were also very important to them," she said.

Yet it is the sheer artistry of the gold that is the draw in this exhibition – exquisite vessels or elaborate headdresses intricately hammered from thin sheets of metal; jewellery so fine it resembles filigree, though cast using the lost-wax technique.

A section of the exhibition shows how gold objects were "used to transform yourself so that you could communicate with spirit powers through the animal world", said Vila Llonch.

Music was central. On show is a golden flute and ceramic objects that resemble vessels, but are, said Vila Llonch, rattles. She described pulling them out of their boxes from storage in the British Museum and releasing their eerie sounds.

Drugs were pivotal, too. Gold pins, each with a beautifully fashioned figure at its head, were dipped into golden vessels containing lime, and licked. Combined with a chewed coca leaf, the taster experienced sensations of strength and power, she said.

Golden body ornaments helped to give the wearer the appearance of an animal – a jaguar, a bird or a snake. "They would use gold to transform themselves into powerful animals, borrow their powers, and see the world from a different perspective," she said. For example, a gold visor, a nose bar, and a beak-shaped lip ornament uncannily and beautifully summon up the likeness of a bat.

El Dorado was, for Edgar Allen Poe, a byword for utter unobtainability: it was "Over the Mountains/ Of the Moon,/ Down the Valley of the Shadow". With the new exhibition, Vila Llonch hopes the real people who inspired the myth might start to emerge into the sunlight.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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