New and On View: Gold of the Ancient Americas
El Dorado was a potent myth among the Old World conquistadors. A rumor was circulating about a mysterious kingdom of great wealth ruled by a king—the “golden one”—who possessed more of the precious metal than any European could ever imagine. Explorers and warriors of the Old World obsessively scoured the New in search of this mythical place and its golden hoard. Only after centuries with no success did they accept with reluctance that the kingdom and its golden leader did not exist.
As it happens, the rumor that launched these quixotic excursions during the Age of Discovery was founded in truth, albeit heavily romanticized.
The Muisca people of what is now Colombia observed a sacred ritual in which one of their rulers, the Zipa, would be stripped of his clothing and covered in gold dust. He would then raft into the middle of Lake Guatavita to throw gold and emerald into the water as offerings to their deity. This ruler, covered in gold dust, was likely "El Dorado."
Heavily reinforced by years of science-fiction TV and media, I approached the Museum’s new exhibit, “Gold of the Ancient Americas,” with the romanticized mythos of the conquistadors dominating my imagination. The exhibit’s brilliant design certainly added to the mystique: the room is painted a deep blue and the gold pieces are perched reverently atop lit pedestals.
Indeed, precious metals were abundant in the pre-Columbian Americas, but “Gold of the Ancient Americas” explores different meanings of “precious”—gold not as an object of wealth but as a cultural symbol imbued with profound religious and political meaning. For some pre-Columbian cultures, gold was a symbol of political authority, for others it may have been associated with good moral behavior and the cosmic forces that guided their world. Perhaps even more importantly, these pieces also speak powerfully to the incredible technical, artistic, and cul tural sophistication of the pre-Columbian civilizations that we often overlook in our post-Columbian world.
Here is a taste of this incredibly compelling exhibit that will remain on view until Sunday, June 21, when the pieces will be integrated into the museum’s permanent pre-Columbian collection:
A Figural Pendant, likely crafted between AD 1 and 800 in the Tolima region of modern day Colombia. This pendant is an abstract piece merging human and animal form, likely representing a cultural deity.
Figural Pendant, AD 1–800. Isthmian Region (Colombia), Tolima region. Gold, cast and hammered; 29.4 x 16.2 x 1 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Fund.
A chest ornament likely worn by chiefs. Chiefs and other political leaders seem to have armored themselves in gold ornaments to affirm their connection to light and cosmic energy, thus legitimizing their political power through divine right.
Pectoral (Chest Ornament), AD 1–800. Isthmian Region (Colombia), Calima region, Yotoco period. Gold, hammered; 22.7 x 28.5 x 2.9 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Fund.
This finial would adorn the top of a staff. It is thought that birds played an important role in Sinú spirituality. Observing how they could move across many different environments such as air, water, and land, the Sinú believed that birds acted as mediators among the cosmic forces.
Finial with Owl, AD 400–1000. Isthmian Region (Colombia), Sinú (Zenú) region. Gold, cast; 11.4 x 7.2 x 6 cm. Severance and Greta Millikin Fund.
Benjamin Francisco is a Cello Performance major at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and an intern in the Communications and Marketing Department at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
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