Gold: a glimpse into the past

As a European, when I think of gold, I think first and foremost about its monetary value; I think of the greed it creates in men, and of the wars and of the exploitation that this particularly entrancing and shiny metal has brought upon the world. Yesterday at the Museo del Oro here in Bogotá I had the privilege of learning about a new side of this metal. Through the museum’s vast collection of gold and other metalwork, I was able to better understand the lives and culture of the Andean people who created them.

I first learnt about the sheer diversity of styles that is reflective of the multitude of local cultures and the thousands of years that this metal was worked. As such, in one region, two opposing leaders intentionally developed distinct styles. While one tended to depict anthropomorphic creatures, the other tended towards geometric and clearly defined shapes. Such differences extended throughout the regions and the ages in the pre-Colombian Americas.

One way to achieve this difference in style was the common use of alloys. As opposed to Europeans who valued gold in its purest form, Andean cultures would for instance combine gold and copper to create what they called “tumbaga”, with its own unique properties. With this alloy they would at times cover some part of a piece while doing a color changing treatment on the rest in order to create a more complex and visually stimulating final product with contrasting colors. In a similar fashion they would combine gold, copper, and silver in different proportions to achieve a large color, smell, and texture range.

The most interesting part of this collection is perhaps the symbolic and religious significance they attributed to gold and metals. They for instance believed that reflections allowed communications with other worlds. Due to this importance, metalworkers, who extracted metal and made these symbolic objects, were often religious and political leaders within their communities.

From this collection we now know that one of the central tenets of their belief system was the existence of a three tiered cosmology that centered on opposites. In the upper-world you have aerial creatures and the sun that were in part associated with light, while the under-world was associated with hidden creatures such as snakes and darkness. The middle world was in between and was subject to both these forces. Through various rituals and actions the men, who lived in the middle world, would try to ensure the balance of these forces to avoid chaos.

I could go on about what I have learnt from visiting this museum, but I do not want to spoil the fun for potential visitors. After spending several hours exploring the museum I can only recommend it to anybody who wants to learn about the diverse culture and interesting beliefs of Andean people. This exploration can then be expanded through visits to other museums within Bogota and a multitude of heritage sites throughout the country.


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