Ancient Colombian cultures put another perspective on the metal’s precious qualities
by Greg Klein
Gold’s allure, where it exists at all, can manifest itself in different ways. British Columbia natives, for example, remained indifferent to the metal until the arrival of prospectors. Those gold-hungry newcomers, on the other hand, were driven almost entirely by rapacity. But the pre-Conquest indigenous peoples of today’s Colombia saw nothing of value in the metal itself until, converted by metallurgy and craftsmanship, it became an object not only of beauty but of symbolic importance or transformational power.
That’s demonstrated by Allure of Gold, an exhibit within the exhibit called Gold Rush! El Dorado in British Columbia at Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum. Holding 137 pieces of pre-Hispanic artefacts dating to 500 BC, the display makes its first North American appearance from Bogota’s Museo del Oro. Even now the pieces symbolize the Colombian peoples’ identity, pride and shared past, Museo director Maria Alicia Uribe Villegas told ResourceClips.com.
“These were objects that were produced mainly for display and to build power—political and religious power—by transmitting the properties of the materials,” she explained. People believed the objects asserted status, hosted spirits, or enhanced fertility and the overall quality of life.
According to belief, many objects wielded power to transform the person wearing it into another being. “They could for example acquire the identity of the jaguar, of birds, of bats,” Uribe said. “By wearing the ornament they believed they transformed their body, and by transforming their body they changed their perspective and their identity. So the power of many rulers came from that transformation. They believed that by transforming into a bird, you could fly to other worlds, to other dimensions, to the spiritual dimension, meet the spirits and the gods and ask for things, ask for hunting prey or for rain or things that your group needed.”
Some objects also presented a view of cosmology, she pointed out. “In most of these societies there isn’t this difference between nature and culture. Animals and people were nature and culture at the same time. Animals are also humans, different kinds of humans than people, so the relations between animals and humans were understood as social relations…. When you hunt you have to seduce the prey and you have to give the spiritual owner of the animal a gift in exchange.” Uribe said gold then functioned in “a transactional world,” but in a symbolic sense, not as currency.
Why was gold chosen for such representations? “It’s interesting because it’s a cultural choice,” she replied, noting that B.C. aboriginals knew about gold but didn’t use it. “It’s a wonderful material,” she added. “It’s beautiful for its colour and the shine you can give it, it doesn’t corrode, it lasts forever, and also you can give it the shape you want by hammering it or casting it.”
Although natives north of Mexico didn’t practise metallurgy, those of Colombia produced gold-copper and gold-silver alloys. When silver was used it was normally in the country’s south, which had cultural connections with today’s Peru and Ecuador. Colombians used platinum too. They couldn’t melt it because of the metal’s exceptional resistance to heat but South Americans were “the only people in the ancient world that used platinum.”
Almost all that effort was motivated by symbolism and spirituality, not practicality. But Colombians did make some metal tools for fashioning other metal objects, for example to hammer gold, Uribe noted. They also fashioned metal into needles and fishing hooks. But “those were the only practical tools they made.” Otherwise precious metals were used “for these objects of meaning.”
It’s a wonder that any of it survived the efficiently bloodthirsty business of confiscating the artwork and turning it into bullion. As Matthew Hart wrote about Francisco Pizarro’s 16th century conquest of Peru, “The artistic output of a thousand years vanished into the furnaces. It must be one of the most potent images in history—the transformation of a culture into cash.”
Most of what survived were funerary offerings hidden in tombs. “But the Spanish learned how to identify these tombs and many of them were looted,” Uribe said. Incredibly, ancient artefacts were still being melted as late as the 19th and even 20th century.
Where’s that gold now? You might be wearing some of it. The global gold supply comes from diverse and sometimes ancient sources, one of the museum displays points out. The bling in your ring could come from a Colombian chief or an Egyptian pharaoh.
But some of Colombia’s treasures were preserved by local collectors and European museums. The Museo del Oro’s collection started in 1939, after Colombia’s minister of education prevailed on the country’s national bank, then holding a monopoly on gold ownership, “to keep these objects out of the market, being taken abroad and melted,” Uribe said.
Now all such artefacts belong to the country’s entire population, she explained. A private collector must register with the office of archeological heritage and may ask for tenancy on a privately held collection. But Colombia retains ownership. “You cannot buy it, sell it or even inherit it.”
So while the commodity’s spot price keeps gold bugs guessing, these objects remain priceless.
Allure of Gold appears with Gold Rush! El Dorado in British Columbia at Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum until October 31.