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Marvelous Goldsmithing of Indigenous People in Colombia


Goldsmithing indigenous Colombia
Indigenous gold mask exhibited in the gold museum of Bogota. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

Colombia’s history intertwines with the richness of its goldsmithing, an ancestral inheritance blending indigenous dexterity with influences from the colonial eras. This tradition, evolving for over two millennia, stands out for unique techniques such as hammering, lost-wax casting, and filigree, earning Colombian pieces global recognition for their quality and beauty.

The goldsmithing of indigenous tribes

The Quimbaya ethnicity distinguished itself in Colombian goldsmithing, producing adornments, tools, female figures, and totumas among other pieces that showcased the prestige of indigenous leaders and honored fertility and life. Similarly, the Muiscas excelled as innate goldsmiths, evidenced by the Muisca Raft, possibly a representation of the El Dorado legend according to several researchers.

Goldsmithing indigenous Colombia
This raft of gold is associated with the legend of El Dorado since it represents the act of inauguration of power of the Muisca chiefs bathed in gold dust that was held in the Guatavita lagoon. The piece was found in 1969 in Pasca, Cundinamarca. Credit: Reg Natarajan/CC BY 2.0

The myth of El Dorado, shaped by a wealth of gold and indigenous goldsmithing skill, astonished colonizers, spinning tales of golden cities. In Colombia, this myth found resonance in the magnificent works of the Muiscas and their ceremony at Laguna del Cacique Guatavita, eloquently detailed by Juan de Castellanos describing the jewel-filled barge and majestic goldwork.

Beyond a single El Dorado, various cities with abundant gold were believed to thrive near rivers and mines, presenting the vision of a world bathed in gold, cities radiating the color of the sun.

Goldsmithing indigenous Colombia
By covering himself with gold, the Cacique appropriates the seminal and procreative forces of the sun. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

In Colombia, as documented by Clemencia Plazas and Ana Maria Falchetti in particular, this myth circulated due to the incredible goldsmithing talent of the Muiscas and their ceremonial ritual at Laguna del Cacique Guatavita. Enthralled, Spanish priest and explorer Juan de Castellanos described the beautiful barge and the majestic goldwork of the Muiscas:

“He spoke of a certain King, without attire, in rafts crossing a pool to make an offering as he saw fit, anointed all well with turpentine, and on top a quantity of ground gold. Like a radiant sun there to make offerings of gold jewelry and fine emeralds with other pieces of their ornaments. The soldiers were happy and content. Then they dubbed him El Dorado.” (Juan de Castellanos, cited by Plazas and Falchetti).

Indigenous talents, Taironas, Sinues, and Tumacos

The Taironas, Sinues, and Tumacos left their mark in the art of gold. The Taironas crafted sculptures from gold and tumbaga, an alloy of copper and gold, showcasing their exceptional manual skill. The Sinues, known for the “gold of tombs”, created jewelry and objects placed in tombs as a tribute to their dead.

Gold sculpture in the form of a man-bat, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Tairona Period. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

The astonishing work of the Sinues is evident in their tombs, with spectacular pieces reflecting appreciation and respect for their ancestors. These treasures adorning their farewells highlight how they valued their community members, and the care they took to honour them.

Colombia, a goldsmithing heritage of the world

The Gold Museum, located in downtown Bogota, houses nearly 50,000 pieces crafted by the diverse indigenous tribes that have inhabited what is now known as Colombia since time immemorial; it is a treasure trove zealously guarding the history of pre-Columbian peoples.

Golden skull exhibited in the Bogota gold museum. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

Unlike traditional museums that narrate history through a linear chronological structure and regionally classified exhibits, the Gold Museum offers a more original script, being divided into four rooms with different thematic axes, without losing clarity in the exposition.

Given the magnitude of Colombia’s goldsmithing heritage, the Bank of the Republic decided to organize and exhibit several pre-Columbian pieces that are part of this legacy. This led to the birth of the Gold Museum in 1939, currently hosting the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic goldsmithing.

Goldsmithing indigenous Colombia
Indigenous gold mask exhibited in the gold museum of Bogota. Credit: Luis Ospino/Colombia One

Apart from the Gold Museum in Bogota, there are other dedicated museums across Colombia, each showcasing the remarkable legacies of indigenous peoples: from the Sinu art in Cartagena to the Calima goldsmithing in Cali, the Quimbaya legacy in Armenia, the Gold Museum of Nariño reflecting the Tumaco heritage in Pasto, the Tairona museum in Santa Marta, and the Ethnographic Museum in Leticia.

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